University Sustainability Charter Committee welcomes new members


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In order to reach the goal of 40% renewable energy by 2020 at the University of Iowa, the Office of Sustainability spearheaded many biomass projects. The university has planted 2,500 acres of mescanthus across the state in order to produce about 22,500 tons of renewable biopower feedstock. (USDA/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | September 21, 2016

The University of Iowa’s Office of Sustainability has welcomed new team members with a diverse set of skills and backgrounds to continue working toward the 2020 Sustainability Vision.

The 2020 goals were established by President Sally Mason in 2010 as a means to recognize successful sustainability initiatives and to “expand sustainability efforts in several key areas of operations, research, education, and outreach.” Some of the targets include achieving net-negative energy growth, decreasing waste production, reducing the campus’ carbon impact due to transportation, and to support and expand interdisciplinary sustainability-related research.

The Sustainability Charter Committee, overseen by the Office of Sustainability, is comprised of faculty, staff and students that assist in the implementation of sustainable practices within existing campus systems. Tony Senio, sports turf manager for the University of Iowa recently joined the committee, becoming the first person to represent the Athletics Department in the group. Senio has managed all of the Athletic Department’s plants and turf since 2008. He said, “Sustainability can be a weird thing for people. It almost comes off as a negative word, but it’s about perspective. I feel like it’s more about doing the right thing; it’s about simplicity.”

Amanda Bittorf, marketing specialist for University Housing & Dining, also joined the group, becoming the first housing and dining representative to serve on the committee. Bittorf has worked at the University of Iowa for two years and said that she has led several sustainability initiatives. “With housing about 95 percent of the first-year class, I really do think we play an instrumental role in introducing students to sustainable practices and creating habits,” she said.

To round out this year’s new members, the Office of Sustainability also welcomes a new recycling coordinator, Beth MacKenzie. MacKenzie first began working in the recycling industry in 2006 for the City of St. Louis, where she said that she dramatically increased the waste diversion rate for the city. While MacKenzie’s background is primarily in municipal government and non-profit organizations, she said that she’s excited to join the University’s team. “It just has a more vibrant culture that I think will be a fun opportunity to work in. Just being around young people; young people have really great ideas and a fresh perspective on things,” she said.

National Drive Electric Week events planned for three Iowa locations


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The engine compartment of an all-electric Toyota Rav 4. (Jeff Youngstrom/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | September 13, 2016

National Drive Electric Week is hosting its fifth annual celebration and outreach effort this week at locations across the United States.

The week-long celebration is presented by Plug In America, the Sierra Club, and the Electric Auto Association. National Drive Electric Week is hosting 232 events during the week of September 10th through the 18th. At each event, electric vehicles provided by local owners and car dealerships will be available for public observation, test-drives, and rides.

The popularity of electric vehicles in Iowa is on the rise. According to the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, approximately 1,000 electric vehicles are already in use in the state, and that number has the potential to reach 100,000 by 2040. David Darrow of Grimes, Iowa will display his Tesla Model S P85D at the Drive Electric DSM Car Show. He said, “For daily driving, it’s just unbeatable. It just makes other cars feel kind of clumsy and rough. When you take out the delay of sucking air and fuel, and you take out the delay of a shifting transmission, it’s amazing the difference driving an electric car.”

Electric vehicles help to reduce U.S. reliance on foreign oil and produce zero tailpipe emissions, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. While electric vehicles can have a much larger price tag initially, the cost can be offset by fuel cost savings, a federal tax credit, and state incentive programs. Also, as production volume goes up, prices are likely to go down.

National Drive Electric Week will host three events in Iowa this week:

Drive Electric DSM Car Show
When: Wednesday, Sept. 14 from 11:30 a.m-1:30 p.m.
Where: Western Gateway area of downtown Des Moines,
between Locust St. and Grand Ave.

Drive Electric Week Event West Des Moines
When: Thursday, Sept. 15 from 4:00 p.m.-8:00 p.m.
Where: Valley Junction Farmer’s Market
304 5th Street, West Des Moines, Iowa 50265

Drive Electric Week Event Cedar Rapids
When: Saturday, Sept. 17 from 8:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m.
Where: NewBo City Market
1100 3rd Street SE
Cedar Rapids, IA 52401

Iowa sees record number of blue-green algae advisories


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Microcystin toxins float on top of water and often look like spilled paint or pea soup. (Oregon State University/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | September 9, 2016

Iowa State Park beaches saw a record number of advisories this summer due to unsafe levels of microcystin, a toxin produced by some types of blue-green algae.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) monitors the water at state beaches each season from Memorial Day through Labor Day. DNR issued six beach advisories this week for a total of 37 microcystin warnings this year, surpassing last year’s record of 34,  just as DNR officials predicted earlier in the season.

Microcystin is considered toxic to humans when levels are at or above 20 micrograms per liter (ug/L), according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Swimming in water that has harmful levels of microcystin in it can cause breathing problems, upset stomach, skin reactions, and liver damage. If the water is inhaled, it has been known to cause cause runny eyes and nose, cough, sore throat, chest pain, asthma-like symptoms, or allergic reactions. Contaminated bodies of water can be especially harmful to pets and children, who are more likely to ingest water.

In total Iowa DNR has issued 185 microcystin beach advisories since 2006, and two-thirds (117) have been in the most recent four years. The blue-green blooms that produce microcystin feed on nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen that seep into waterways from pollution sources like agricultural fertilizers, livestock waste, septic systems, and urban runoff. Blue-green algae toxins do not only pose a threat to beachgoers. Last month, Des Moines Water Works detected microcystin in treated municipal drinking water.

While DNR monitors 39 State Park beaches across Iowa for these toxins, many public and private beaches are not monitored. As the total number of beach closures rises each year, Ann Robinson, agricultural specialist at the Iowa Environmental Council said, “This is a wake-up call that more needs to be done to reduce the nutrient pollution coming from the farms, city lawns and urban and industrial wastewater plants that are feeding the algae. If we don’t take action on the scale needed, unprecedented numbers of beach warnings will become our new normal.”

More information about identifying harmful blue-green algae blooms and a chart that outlines dangerous levels of microcystin in Iowa’ lakes dating back to 2006 can be found at the Iowa Environmental Council’s website.

Rising temperatures pose a complex threat to lizards populations


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Scientists surgically implanted temperature sensors on spiny lizards in order to measure the effect of shade on body temperature. (Renee Grayson/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | September 6, 2016

Countless animal species are negatively affected by climate change, but a recent study suggests that lizards have it particularly rough.

Following a major international survey published in the journal Science, it was predicted that if current trends continue, 20 percent of all lizard species could go extinct by 2080. An international team of biologists led by Barry Sinervo at the University of California, Santa Cruz researched the effects of rising temperatures on lizard populations around the world. Using their findings, the group developed a predictive model of extinction risk. Sinervo said, “We did a lot of work on the ground to validate the model and show that the extinctions are the result of climate change.” He added, “None of these are due to habitat loss. These sites are not disturbed in any way, and most of them are in national parks or other protected areas.”

Lizards are especially sensitive to warming climates because they regulate their body temperature using the environment around them. Michael Sears, a biologist at Clemson University, said that previous extinction models made the assumption that lizards are able to find shade immediately in their respective environments, which could mean models are inaccurate. Sears and his colleagues researched how the availability of shade affects lizards’ ability to achieve an optimal body temperature.

The researchers implanted small temperature sensors into dozens of spiny lizards and tested how the animals reacted to constructed areas of shade within New Mexico desert enclosures. They found that the lizards fared better in environments when several small areas of shade were available, in comparison with enclosures that had just a few large areas of shade. Sears explained, “It’s sort of like, if you were out jogging, and there was only one tree and it was a long way to the next one, and it was a hot day — that’s a bad environment. But if there were a bunch of trees along the way providing little bits of shade, you’d feel a lot better.”

The study concluded that extinction predictions for lizards are not uniform across all populations. In general, lizards that live in cooler environments may actually benefit from climate change, while those that live in hotter areas are likely to suffer. As for all those in between, Sears said we can’t be sure, “All bets are kind of off now. Because what our study suggests is that how bushes are placed in an environment might really impact the lizards just as much as the temperature itself.”

Millions of honeybees slain after Zika eradication effort went awry


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Authorities are still tallying the dead pollinators in Dorchester County, South Carolina after Sunday’s aerial pesticide spraying. (Jason Riedy, flickr)
Jenna Ladd | September 2, 2016

Millions of honeybees were exterminated in South Carolina this week after an attempt to kill mosquitoes possibly carrying the Zika virus went wrong.

Dorchester County officials aerially sprayed a pesticide called naled early Sunday morning, resulting in the death of millions of honeybees and other pollinators. Due to concern regarding four travel-related cases of Zika reported in the county, the chemical was sprayed over 15 square miles in order to eradicate mosquitoes that may further spread the virus. Naled has been used in the United States for over 50 years but has a contested reputation nationwide. The pesticide was banned in the European Union in 2012 after it was deemed to have a “potential and unacceptable risk” to human health and the environment. Conversely, naled has been approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) since 1959 and is sprayed over 16 million acres of U.S. land each year.

The scene painted by beekeeper Juanita Stanely was bleak. “On Saturday, it was total energy, millions of bees foraging, pollinating, making honey for winter,” she said in an interview with CNN on Monday, “Today, it stinks of death. Maggots and other insects are feeding on the honey and the baby bees who are still in the hives. It’s heartbreaking.”

Stanley, co-owner of Flowertown Bee Farm and Supply, said that she lost 46 hives and nearly 3 million bees on Sunday with no warning. She explained, “…when they sprayed by trucks; they told me in advance, and we talked about it so I could protect my bees. But nobody called me about the aerial spraying; nobody told me at all.” The pesticide application was the first aerial spray in the area in over 14 years. Dorchester County Administrator Jason Ward said that attempts were made to notify the public about the aerial spraying through an alert on its website posted two days before spraying. He added that county officials also reached out to beekeepers that were on the local mosquito control registry, but that one country employee failed to follow notification procedure.”He made a mistake in terms of going down his list, and failed to call,” Ward said.

Had she been warned, Stanley said that she would have told officials to do their spraying at night.” ‘Do it at night when bees are done foraging,’ I would have told them,” she said, tears filling her eyes, “But they sprayed at 8 a.m. Sunday, and all of my bees were out, doing their work by then.” Though county officials have publicly apologized, they maintain that the pesticide was used as directed. “We followed that recommendation,” said Ward, “which is also the policy laid out by the state, using a pesticide the state has approved for use.”

Dr. Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a bee researcher at the University of Maryland, said that there are ways to eradicate infected mosquitoes without killing invaluable pollinators. He said the issue reaches beyond honey bees, “If you’re killing honeybees, you’re killing a lot of other non-honeybee pollinators, too, and those populations could take a long time to recover.”

State approval of new wind farm echos rising support for wind energy nationwide


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Evening skies over the Century Windfarm in Blairsburg, Iowa. (Brain.Abeling/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | September 1, 2016

A $3.6 billion dollar wind energy project was approved by the Iowa Utilities Board late last week.

The initiative is a part of MidAmerican Energy’s goal to eventually provide 100% renewable energy for its customers in Iowa. Expected to be completed by late 2019, the Wind XI project will add 1,000 wind turbines to Iowa’s grid. Ashton Hockman, a spokesperson for MidAmerican, said in an email earlier this week that while the exact locations are still being finalized, the farm will be located on multiple sites around the state. She added, “Wind XI will add up to 2,000 megawatts of wind generation in Iowa and is the largest wind project MidAmerican Energy has ever undertaken.”

MidAmerican Energy plans to earn back all $3.6 billion dollars through federal production tax credits over the course of ten years. As such, the company did not seek financial support from the state and will not need to raise rates for customers, according the MidAmerican representatives.

Iowa has long been a top producer of wind energy nationwide. It became the first state in the country to produce more than 30% of its total energy using wind earlier this year, and is second only to Texas in total megawatts produced, a state nearly five times its size.The project, first announced by MidAmerican CEO Bill Fehrman last April, will be the largest wind operation in the country according to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA).

New findings from AWEA show that support for wind energy production is on the rise, even across party lines. Polling results show that public support for wind energy seems to rise as the industry grows. In Texas, the top wind producing state in the country, over 85% of voters support wind energy. Nationwide 70% of registered voters have a favorable impression of wind energy, including 60% of Republicans and Independent voters. As the election draws nearer, AWEA CEO Tom Kiernan said,

“Candidates running for office on both sides of the aisle in this important election year should take note: The more wind farms we build, the stronger support from U.S. voters grows. As wind power has more than tripled over the last eight years, so have its economic and environmental benefits. Wind technician is the fastest growing job in the U.S., and the billions of dollars of investment in local economies have revitalized many rural communities.”

Collaborative campaign to offer better understanding of high ozone levels along Lake Michigan shoreline


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Areas that exceed EPA’s ozone compliance level are clustered along Lake Michigan’s shoreline. (Space and Science Engineering Center/University of Wisconsin-Madison)
Jenna Ladd | August 31, 2016

Scientists from the University of Iowa will take part in the Lake Michigan Ozone Study 2017 this summer in order to better understand consistently high ozone levels along the Lake Michigan shoreline. 

Since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lowered the ozone standard to 70 parts per billion, communities on all sides of the Lake Michigan shoreline have consistently seen ozone levels that are out of compliance with EPA regulation. Before states can work to lower ozone levels into compliance with federal law, they need to test how accurately current ozone models are measuring conditions in the area. The Lake Michigan Ozone Study will work to provide more detailed data that could be used to develop and test new ozone models. The collaborative field campaign consists of scientists from several universities such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Iowa, and many more as well as professionals from the agencies like the Lake Michigan Air Directors Consortium (LADCO).

Dr. Charles Stainer, an associate professor of chemical and biochemical engineering at the University of Iowa, explains, “You can make new models, but there’s no data to test them against. I mean there is data, but it’s too limited.” Currently, there are two buoys in the lake that measure ozone levels and about fifteen surface stations near the shoreline that do the same. Stainer says this doesn’t cut it, “What you really need is a full map of ozone and a few vertical profiles where you can fully constrain the wind, the water vapor, the ozone, the nitrogen oxides, and then a few other [chemical] species that would be tell-tale signs that the models are too far in one direction or too far in the other.”

Between May 15th 2017 and June 15th 2017, the campaign will have access to an aircraft from NASA that will be equipped to provide the kind of detailed data they need. The aircraft will likely be based in Madison, Wisconsin. Forecast models for weather, ozone, and other chemical factors will be used daily to determine the aircraft’s flight plan. Stainer said that he expects many of the flights will be between Madison, Wisconsin; Cheboygan, Wisconsin; and Chicago, Illinois in some combination.

Brad Pierce, a NOAA Advanced Satellite Products Branch scientist stationed at the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies (CIMSS) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the campaign also hopes to better understand the complex lake breeze system that affects ozone production.“There are these sites along the lake… that are in violation, and they’re not really areas that have a whole lot of industry,” he explained, “The sense is that a lot of this has to do with lake breeze circulations. We want to go out and measure the lake breeze circulation and the transport of ozone precursors – the emissions that end up producing ozone – in the springtime when this lake breeze is most dominant.”

The campaign is still looking for additional funding that would expand ground measurement sites with high-tech, real-time monitors from various atmospheric chemistry groups from around the country.

In short, Stanier said, “The existing data you can test whether the models predict ozone too high or too low, but this advanced data set would enable you to say why.”