Winter tornados move through Midwest


West of Tuscaloosa, Alabama
(Frank/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | March 2, 2017

More than 20 tornados ripped through parts of Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Tennessee on Tuesday.

The severe thunderstorms and tornadoes killed at least three people and left thousands of residents in the Midwest and Southeastern U.S. without electricity. While tornados during winter months are rare, they seem to be happening with increasing frequency.

Typically wintertime tornados form when a forceful jet stream moves across the Southern U.S. and meets colder, retreating air fronts. According to The Weather Channel, usually these tornados crop up in the Deep South, however, in February 2016 severe tornados touched down in Pennsylvania and Virginia, ultimately killing seven people.

On average, February is second-least tornadic month of the year, but recently averages for that month are increasing. February 2008 had 146 total tornados, making it the most tornadic February since the 1950s, and February 2016 came close behind with 138 total twisters.

While an abundance of scientific evidence links climate change with the increasing frequency of extreme weather events like heat waves and coastal flooding, the relationship between climate change and tornado frequency remains unclear.

Due to particularly strong jet-stream level energy characteristic of the winter months, winter tornados can occur at any time of the day or night, unlike more predictable spring and summer tornados that almost always form during the late afternoon and evening. The Weather Channel also points out that it is common for winter twisters to be wrapped in rain, making them more difficult to spot.

Experts remind Midwestern and Southeastern U.S. residents that severe weather in the winter months can be deadly and to create or review their severe weather plans.

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(The Weather Channel)

Statewide monarch butterfly conservation strategy released


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The Cerro Pelón Reserve near Macheros is the second most populous monarch butterfly roosting site in Mexico during the winter months. (Dylan Hillyer/personal collection)
Jenna Ladd | February 28, 2017

The Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium released its statewide strategy for the conservation and advancement of the monarch butterfly on Monday.

The Iowa Monarch Conservation Strategy aims to recover monarch butterfly populations in Iowa and North America. Developed by the consortium-a group of more than thirty organizations including agricultural and conservation groups, agribusiness and utility companies, county associations, universities and state and federal agencies-the strategy provides necessary resources and information to advance the well-being of monarch butterflies in Iowa and across the continent.

A recent report found that the population of monarch butterflies that spend the winter months in Mexico decreased by 27 percent in 2016, primarily due to extreme weather events and the pervasive loss of the milkweed plant. Milkweed is the only plant in which female monarchs will lay their eggs as well as the primary food source for monarch caterpillars. According to the consortium, about 40 percent of monarchs that overwinter in Mexico come from Iowa and its neighboring states. In the last two decades, the total monarch population has declined by 80 percent.

Monarch butterflies provide vital ecosystem services including pollination and natural pest management. They also serve as a food source to larger animals such birds and bats.

Iowa Department of Natural Resources Director Chuck Gipp said, “We didn’t get to this point overnight, and we aren’t going to improve the population overnight. But we have a really strong group across many different areas of expertise working together to improve the outlook for the monarch in Iowa and beyond.”

The strategy provides scientifically-based conservation practices that include using monarch friendly weed management, utilizing the farm bill to plant breeding habitat, and closely following instruction labels when applying pesticides that may be toxic to the butterfly.

In June 2019, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will determine whether or not to list the monarch butterfly as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

Wendy Wintersteen is dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State University. She said, “This strategy is critical to rally Iowa agriculture, landowners and citizens to continue to make progress in restoring monarch habitat.”

New UI study looks at age of groundwater in the Jordan Aquifer


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The Jordan Aquifer touches seven states and covers most of Iowa. Experts say the aquifer needs to recharge in many places where the water is being drawn from the aquifer faster than it can be recharged. (USGS)
Jake Slobe | February 26, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses a new study focused on finding the age of groundwater in the Jordan Aquifer.

Transcript: A University of Iowa study has found that groundwater in Iowa’s Jordan Aquifer is much older than previously thought.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Researchers from the Iowa Geological Survey at the University of Iowa have partnered with the UI Geology Department, Grinnell College, and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources in a study that uses isotopic age dating to estimate the age of groundwater in the Jordan Aquifer.

The study found that groundwater in central and northern Iowa is somewhere between 69,000 and 178,000 years old. To assess the age of groundwater in the aquifer, the study sampled eight municipal wells located across the state.

The study also examined the use of aquifer water for ethanol production. From 2004 to 2013, annual use of groundwater from the aquifer for ethanol production increased approximately 7.4 billion liters per year. The study recommended that ethanol production should be based on the accessibility of sustainable groundwater resources, rather than locations where deep groundwater reserves are needed for production.

Although not a focus of this study, similar studies have found that increased pumping from the aquifer has potential to induce detrimental water quality changes, including an increase in radium and salinity levels.

To learn more about the aquifer study, visit iowaenvironmentalfocus.org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

Rising temperatures deplete Colorado River


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The Colorado River provides drinking water for 40 million people. (Katie Rompala/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | February 24, 2017

The volume of the Colorado River has decreased by 19 percent since 2000, and recent research shows that climate change is partly to blame.

Two researchers from Colorado State University and University of Arizona compared temperature, precipitation and water volume in the Colorado River basin from 2000-2014 to historical records dating back to 1896. Since 2000, precipitation in region has decreased by 4.6 percent while temperatures have risen 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit above historical averages. Utilizing existing climate models, the scientists found that the river’s flow should have only decreased by roughly 11.6 percent since the drought began in the area in 2000. Instead, the river’s flow decreased by 19.3 percent due to the effects of global warming, they said.

Published last week in the journal Water Resources, the study read,

“Fifteen years into the 21st century, the emerging reality is that climate change is already depleting the Colorado River water supplies at the upper end of the range suggested by previously published projections. Record-setting temperatures are an important and under-appreciated component of the flow reductions now being observed.”

The Colorado River provides drinking water for 40 million people and irrigates 6,300 square miles of agricultural land. Moving forward, the study’s authors said precipitation in the river’s basin would have to increase by 14 percent by the end of the century in order to mitigate the rising temperature’s effects.

Brad Udall of Colorado State University is one of the study’s co-authors. He said, “We can’t say with any certainty that precipitation is going to increase and come to our rescue.”

Warming ponds could speed up climate change


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Small ponds used by researchers at the University of Exeter and Queen Mary University. (University of Exeter)
Jenna Ladd | February 23, 2017

A recent study shows that when freshwater ponds warm, they release more methane and are able to store less carbon dioxide.

Researchers at the University of Exeter and Queen Mary University of London warmed a collection of man-made ponds by four to five degrees Celsius over the course of seven years. The first of its kind, the study found that the amount of methane released by the ponds increased by double while the amount of carbon dioxide the ponds could store decreased by half.

Professor Gabriel Yvon-Durocher was the study’s lead investigator. He said, “Given the substantial contribution small ponds make to the emission of greenhouse gases, it is vital to understand how they might respond to global warming.”

While ponds and lakes only account for about 0.008 percent of the total volume of water on Earth, they are major contributors of carbon dioxide and methane. Greenhouse gases from freshwater sources are mostly the byproduct of organic matter breaking down in low-oxygen environments.

Yvon-Durocher continued, “Our findings show that warming can fundamentally alter the carbon balance of small ponds over a number of years, reducing their capacity to absorb and increasing emissions of methane. This could ultimately accelerate climate change.”

The scientist noted that these findings are different than those normally observed on land, where the effect of rising temperatures lessen over time. In contrast, when ponds warm and release methane, a gas that is known to be 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, they actually exacerbate warming.

Ponds of less than one meter, such as those used in the study, are responsible for the release of 40 percent of all inland methane emissions.

 

The professor noted, “This accelerating effect in ponds, which could have serious impacts on climate change, is not currently accounted for in Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change models.”

The complete study can be found in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Extreme Rain from Thunderstorms is Rising Due to Climate Change


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Precipitation change in the U.S. from 1991 to 2012. (NASA)
Jake Slobe | Febraury 20, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses a recent study linking climate change and an increase in heavy rain events.

Transcript: An increase in extreme rain events could change the ways cities handle storm water management and flooding.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Rain is increasingly falling in the form of short, localized bursts associated with thunderstorms found a new study released in Science Advances late last month.

The study directly links this increase in heavy rain storms to the warming and moistening of the atmosphere caused by rising greenhouse levels.

The results fit with rainfall trends already observed in the U.S., as well as model predictions that massive rains associated with thunderstorms could become both more common and more intense in the U.S. as the world continues to heat up.

Extreme downpours have already been increasing in the U.S., most notably in the Northeast, where they have increased by 71 percent since mid-century, according to the 2014 National Climate Assessment.

Upon previous research which has also predicted an increase in extreme rain events due to climate change.

To learn more about this study, visit iowaenvironmentalfocus.org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

EnvIowa Podcast: Dr. Gregory Carmichael


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Dr. Gregory Carmichael has worked closely with scientists in East Asia since 1983 to address pressing air quality problems in that region. (Tim Schoon/University of Iowa)
Jenna Ladd | February 17, 2017

In Episode 5 of EnvIowa we speak with Dr. Gregory Carmichael, Karl Kammermeyer Professor of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering and Co-Director of the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, about his extensive research on global air pollution.

Dr. Carmichael shares his experiences collaborating with scientists in China, explains why air quality issues in East Asia should matter to Iowans and offers some perspective about what climate science research may look under the new federal administration.