Fresh compost for Iowa Capitol lawn


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Compost will be spread on the west lawn of the state capitol this week. (flickr/Kevin Thomas Boyd)
Jenna Ladd| September 13, 2017

The Iowa State Capitol Terrace lawn is getting covered with layers of fresh compost this week in an effort to improve soil quality and reduce storm water runoff.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is leading the project in partnership with the Iowa Department of Administrative Services, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with technical assistance from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship urban conservation program. Work crews will blow dark colored compost on the lawn west of the Capitol building. While the mixture of organic material and manure will be visible at first, it will mix in with top soil within a few weeks, according to a statement by the DNR.

“Soil quality restoration is something that people can do in their own backyards as well to improve the water quality in their neighborhood creek or other local water body. It also makes their yard look great, too,” said Steve Konrady of the DNR’s Watershed Improvement Program. He added, “Some communities in Iowa offer assistance to homeowners for this practice, and this Capitol Terrace project is a great opportunity to demonstrate the practice to Iowans, and to work to improve state lands and waters, and cleaner water downstream.”

Des Moines residents that live and work in the area need not worry about any foul odor. “Truly processed compost should be odorless — almost like a potting substance,” Konrady said to The Register.

On The Radio – Storms like Harvey more likely due to changing climate


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Texas National Guard members rescue residents in a heavily flooded area of Houston. (Texas Military Department/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| September 11, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses how climate change is making storms like Harvey more likely.

Transcript: Over 51 inches of rain fell in the Houston area last month during Hurricane Harvey, setting a record for the continental U.S., and scientists say a changing climate added to the deluge.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The Clausius-Clapeyron equation, a law of thermodynamics, says that the warmer a body of air is, the more moisture it can hold. Sea surface temperatures near where Harvey picked up its strength were about 1 degree Celsius higher than average, making the air above it warmer too. In this case, the atmosphere surrounding Hurricane Harvey was able to hold roughly three to five percent more moisture than usual.

In addition, sea levels have risen by about six inches in the last few decades due to global warming. Even minimal sea level rise can lead to a large increase in damages to structures on land during a flood.

While climate change did not cause Hurricane Harvey directly, scientists say it will likely make category four storms like it more frequent in the future.

For more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

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

Lessons for Iowans in the wake of Harvey


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A map from the National Hurricane Center illustrates predicted landfall for Hurricane Irma, a category 5 storm, over the weekend. (National Hurricane Center)
Jenna Ladd| September 7, 2017

As some of the floodwater finally recedes from the Houston area following Hurricane Harvey,  Hurricane Irma, a category five storm, threatens to devastate the Florida Keys this weekend.

Climate change increased the amount of rainfall that fell on Houston during the recent storm, according to a statement from Clare Nullis Kapp, media officer for the World Meteorological Organization. Karen Tigges, a Des Moines resident and operations analyst at Wells Fargo, said in a recent Des Moines Register Letter to the Editor that Harvey has something to teach the people of Iowa. The letter reads:

“Houston: A tragic example of a city caught at the mercy of worsening storms and increased rainfall. Flooding is nothing new to Houston, but it appears that this time they are really paying the price for unwise growth.

Unfortunately, flooding is not unfamiliar to the city of Des Moines either. We are growing in the metro as well. We must take the warnings of storm events seriously. It’s said that the lack of zoning ordinances in Houston led to the loss of wetlands and grasslands that could have absorbed at least some of the onslaught of water. How does that compare with planning for growth here in the metro area? Is the growth of our urban areas leading to higher risks of flooding due to more impermeable surfaces in the form of more paved roads and rooftops?

As the city prepares for a future that will likely include more intense rainfall events, thanks to a warmer, more humid climate, we citizens need to take an active role in seeing that effective planning and policies are put in place to make Des Moines ready to face this unpleasant reality.

We can do that by weighing in on the city’s new planning and zoning code. We also need to do that by electing and supporting leaders that will be proactive in setting the course of the metro area on a path of resilience and preparedness for what storms of the future may bring.”

— Karen Tigges, Des Moines

Houston flood expected to drain slowly


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Give its flat landscape and dearth of flood control infrastructure, the city of Houston will rely primarily on slow-moving bayous to drain the area. (Adam Baker/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| September 1, 2017

While the downpour in Houston has finally subsided, the Texas city has few options for draining the 15 trillion gallons of water that fell in the region.

The city of Houston has no levees or pumps or flood walls it can call on to drain water more quickly back into surrounding bayous. As a low-lying coastal plain, it also has a rather flat landscape. Arturo Leon, a professor of water resources engineering at the University of Houston said, “This means the capacity for drainage is very slow. If there were a slope, then it would drain faster,” in a report by Scientific American.

In the last thirty years, the city has grown a great deal, all without any zoning laws that regulate development, even in flood prone areas. For example, since 2010 about 7,000 residential buildings have been built on land the federal government considers a 100 year floodplain, according to a review by the Washington Post. Stormwater drainage systems have not kept pace with the area’s development.

Sam Brody, director of the Center for Texas Beaches and Shores at Texas A&M University, said, “Houston is the Wild West of development, so any mention of regulation creates a hostile reaction from people who see that as an infringement on property rights and a deterrent to economic growth. The stormwater system has never been designed for anything much stronger than a heavy afternoon thunderstorm.”

As a result, the city relies heavily on surround bayous to reabsorb rainwater. Bayous are slow moving, and especially so on Houston’s flat landscape.

A list of options for donating to victims and displaced residents in the area can be found here.

Climate change to make storms like Harvey more frequent, intense


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A Texas National Guard member rescues a Houston resident during Hurricane Harvey. (The National Guard/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| August 30, 2017

More than fourteen million olympic-sized swimming pools could be filled with the amount of rain that has fallen in Houston as a result of Hurricane Harvey, and scientists say that climate change added to the deluge.

To begin, sea surface temperatures near where Harvey picked up its strength were about 1 degree Celsius higher than average. The Clausius-Clapeyron equation, a law of thermodynamics, says that the warmer a body of air is, the more moisture it can hold. In this case, the atmosphere surrounding Hurricane Harvey was able to hold roughly three to five percent more moisture than usual.

“The water in the Gulf of Mexico is the heat reservoir to support these hurricanes,” said Ben Kirtman, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Miami, in a report from NPR. Kirtman added, “For a small change in temperature, you get a huge amount of evaporation.”

In the last three decades, sea levels have risen worldwide by about six inches thanks to a warming climate and, in part, to human activities like offshore oil drilling. Higher sea levels make inland floods more devastating.

Climate Central scientist Ben Strauss said, “Every storm surge today reaches higher because it starts from a higher level, because sea level is higher. A small amount of sea-level rise can lead to an unexpectedly large increase in damages to most kinds of structures.”

Scientists are careful to point out that climate change did not directly cause Harvey, but is likely to produce storms like it more often. A recent report from the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine revealed that category 4 hurricanes like Harvey will occur more frequently in the future due to a warming climate.

So far, fourteen casualties have been identified as the storm continues to devastate the area.

August rainfall benefits some parts of Iowa


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August rainfall saved much of Iowa from severe drought conditions, but parts of south central are still experiencing extreme dryness. (Iowa DNR)
Jenna Ladd| August 25, 2017

Rainfall in the last part of August helped to lift many parts of Iowa out of drought conditions, but some parts of the state are still experiencing extreme drought, according to the latest Water Summary Update.

The Water Summary Update is a succinct monthly report of Iowa’s water resources and those events that affect them prepared by the technical staff at Iowa DNR, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, IIHR—Hydroscience and Engineering, and the U.S. Geological Survey, in partnership with Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management Department.

The latest summary revealed that while August started off very dry, high rain totals increased groundwater levels and streamflow in many parts of the state. The total area of the state classified as experiencing drought or dryness decreased from over 70 percent at the beginning of the month to 55 percent this week. In contrast, south central Iowa is still experiencing D2 and D3 drought conditions. Clarke county and Wapello county are seeing the most extreme dryness.

Researchers point out that August temperatures this year have been about three to four degrees cooler than normal, on average. Lower temperatures slow down evaporation rates and provide a protective factor for crops in drought-stricken areas.

To follow Iowa DNR’s regular water summary update, visit their website here.

State of the Climate Report reveals more than just temperature


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A global map depicting the difference from 2016 when compared to temperatures from 1981-2010. (NOAA, State of the Climate)
Jenna Ladd| August 24, 2017

2016’s position as the hottest year on record has been widely reported, but many other important, albeit terrifying, climate change milestones were achieved last year according to the State of the Climate Report published in the American Meteorological Society Bulletin.

The report, which is spearheaded by top editors from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Centers for Environmental Information, has been described as a comprehensive annual physical for the planet. This year’s check up brought some bad news.

To begin, levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached a record high. The increase from 2015 to 2016 of 3.5 ± 0.1 parts per million was the largest jump in one year on modern record.

Drought was also widespread in 2016. During every month of the year, at least twelve percent of the global area was experiencing drought conditions. More than half of the land south of equator experienced drought conditions during some part of 2016.

2016 was the sixth year in a row when global sea levels were higher than the year before. In fact, global sea levels were 3.5 inches higher last year than they were in 1993. This sea level rise is attributed to alpine glacial melt; 2016 marked the 37th year in a row during which alpine glaciers retreated worldwide.

So far, 2017 is on track to bring more of the same, despite the absence of El Niño event.