Natural disasters cost $175 billion in 2016, highest since 2012


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St. Antoine hospital in Jérémie, Haiti was among the structures damaged when Hurricane Matthew ravaged the country earlier this year. (CDC Global/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | January 6, 2017

Shortly after the New Year, German insurance giant Munich Re announced that natural disaster damages were higher in 2016 than they have been since 2012.

Insurance losses totaled $175 billion over the last twelve months, which is two-thirds more than in 2015. The company counted 750 natural disasters internationally, which includes “earthquakes, storms, floods, droughts and heatwaves.” The 6.9 magnitude Earthquake that shook southern Japan was the world’s most costly natural disaster this year, claiming $31 billion in damages.

North America was plagued with the most natural disasters it has seen since the 1980’s, it experienced a total of “160 loss events in 2016.” Spring heat waves in Canada led to wildfires in Alberta, costing the region $4 billion, while August floods in the southern United States racked up $10 billion in losses.

Flood events made up 34 percent of this year’s total losses. Comparatively, these events accounted for 21 percent of total losses over the last ten years. Flash floods in Germany and France cost the region almost $6 billion this year. Peter Hoppe, head of Munich Re’s Geo Risks Research Unit, said these increases are related to “unchecked climate change.”

Hoppe said, “Of course, individual events themselves can never be attributed directly to climate change. But there are now many indications that certain events — such as persistent weather systems or storms bringing torrential rains – are more likely to occur in certain regions as a result of climate change.”

Indeed, a recently published report from the World Meteorological Organization outlines the relationship between human-induced climate change and the increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters. Among other examples, the authors point out that the 2013 Australian heat wave was made five times more likely because of human-induced warming.

The report said, “Extreme events are always a result of natural variability and human-induced climate change, which cannot be entirely disentangled.”

Warming U.S. could see a large increase in extreme rains


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Precipitation change in the U.S. from 1991 to 2012. (NASA)
Jake Slobe | January 4, 2017

According to a new study by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), the number of summertime storms that produce extreme downpours could increase by more than 400 percent across parts of the United States  including sections of the Gulf Coast, Atlantic Coast, and the Southwest by the end of the century.

The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, also found that the intensity of individual extreme rainfall events could increase by as much as 70 percent in some areas. That would mean that a storm that drops 2 inches of rainfall today would be likely to drop nearly 3.5 inches in the future.

“I think this is one of the most severe consequences of climate change, at least in the US,” said Andreas Prein, study co-author.

An increase in extreme precipitation is one of the expected impacts of climate change because scientists know that as the atmosphere warms, it can hold more water, and a wetter atmosphere can produce heavier rain. In fact, an increase in precipitation intensity has already been measured across all regions of the U.S. However, climate models are generally not able to simulate these downpours because of their coarse resolution, which has made it difficult for researchers to assess future changes in storm frequency and intensity.

Prein and his co-authors used the new dataset to investigate changes in downpours over North America in detail. The researchers looked at how storms that occurred between 2000 and 2013 might change if they occurred instead in a climate that was 9 degrees Fahrenheit warmer (the temperature increase expected by the end of the century if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise unabated).

The study also found that the intensity of extreme rainfall events in the summer could increase across nearly the entire country, with some regions, including the Northeast and parts of the Southwest, seeing particularly large increases, in some cases of more than 70 percent.

A surprising result of the study is that extreme downpours will also increase in areas that are getting drier on average, especially in the Midwest. This is because moderate rainfall events that are the major source of moisture in this region during the summertime are expected to decrease significantly while extreme events increase in frequency and intensity. This shift from moderate to intense rainfall increases the potential for flash floods and mudslides, and can have negative impacts on agriculture.

The study also investigated how the environmental conditions that produce the most severe downpours might change in the future. In today’s climate, the storms with the highest hourly rainfall intensities form when the daily average temperature is somewhere between 68 to 77 degrees and with high atmospheric moisture. When the temperature gets too hot, rainstorms become weaker or don’t occur at all because the increase in atmospheric moisture cannot keep pace with the increase in temperature. The new study found that storms may continue to intensify up to temperatures of 86 degrees  because of a more humid atmosphere. The result would be much more intense storms.

“Understanding how climate change may affect the environments that produce the most intense storms is essential because of the significant impacts that these kinds of storms have on society,” Prein said.

Conservation Reserve Program amended to support new farmers


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Buffer zones curb soil erosion and help to filter nutrients before they enter waterways. (USDA National Agroforestry Center/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | December 30, 2016

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has modified a national conservation program in order to support beginning farmers.

Since 1985, the Conservation Reserve Program has paid farmers a yearly rent for removing environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production. Most contracts last 10-15 years. Previously, if farmers broke the contract early, they were required to return all the rental payments with interest. With the policy change, farmers may now end their contracts early without penalty if they sell or lease the land to a beginning farmer.

Agriculture Deputy Under Secretary Lanon Baccam announced the policy change, which will take effect January 9th, at the Joe Dunn farm near Carlisle in central Iowa. Dunn’s son-in-law, Aaron White, is a beginning farmer on a small acreage near Carlisle.

White said, “I think the biggest obstacle beginning farmers face is land access. This program would help alleviate some of those problems.” Lanon Baccam agreed, he said giving the next generation of farmers a chance at success makes perfect sense.

Signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1985, the Conservation Reserve Program is the largest private-land conservation effort in the country. It is unclear how the program’s stated goal of improving water quality, reducing soil erosion and protecting habitat for endangered species will be effected by putting environmentally sensitive land back into production for beginning famers.

More information about the Conservation Reserve Program in Iowa can be found here.

Arctic region sees unprecedented warming in 2016


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NASA scientists surveying Arctic melt ponds during the summer months of 2011. (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | December 14, 2016

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) presented its annual Arctic Report Card on Tuesday, and there’s no cause for celebration.

Scientists say that the Arctic experienced its warmest year ever recorded, and temperatures in the region are rising at “astonishing” rates. Jeremy Mathis is director of NOAA’s Arctic research program, he said, “Rarely have we seen the Arctic show a clearer, stronger or more pronounced signal of persistent warming and its cascading effects on the environment than this year.”

Scientists explained that warming which used to only have an effect in the summer months is now affecting the Arctic year-round. Mathis added, “The Arctic as a whole is warming at least twice as fast as the rest of the planet.”

The report said that the warming of the Arctic can be explained by long-term increases in carbon dioxide emissions and air temperatures as well as natural seasonal and regional variability. These effects are compounded by the feedback loops in the Arctic climate system. Before human-induced climate change, the Arctic region remained cool because large areas of ice and snow reflected much of the sun’s rays back into space. Now that large areas of the ice and snow are melting away, the sun’s rays absorb into the dark land masses and ocean water, causing temperatures to rise more quickly.

Mathis said, “What happens in the Arctic, doesn’t stay in the Arctic.”

He explained that warm temperatures in the Arctic could be influencing jet stream patterns in the Northern hemisphere, potentially causing extreme weather in the United States.

Rafe Pomerance, a member of the Polar Research Board of the National Academy of Sciences, was not involved with the report card. He said,“The 2016 Arctic Report Card further documents the unraveling of the Arctic and the crumbling of the pillars of the global climate system that the Arctic maintains.”

On The Radio – IIHR models storm system for St. Louis


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During heavy rains, a mixture of sewage and rainwater overflows into the channel, carrying debris like this along with it. (Flickr)
Jake Slobe | December 12, 2016

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses the St. Louis sewer system model built by University of Iowa researchers and engineers.

Transcript: The University of Iowa IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering recently revealed its completed model of a sewer system that will soon be built in St. Louis.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The purpose of the model is to study and evaluate the hydraulics of a system that’s being designed and built for the city of St. Louis to intercept excess storm water. The current system in St. Louis, despite its large size, still allows flooding to occur during storms.

The new system is designed differently, it reduces the air in sewer systems by swirling the water around a vertical tube before dropping it into another chamber. Then, after the storm has passed, that water is pumped out, treated, and discharged.

When finished, the system should be able to handle about 4.4 billion gallons of rainwater per day. The large size is intended to accommodate for large areas of concrete in St. Louis which results in excessive runoff and more water flooding into the city’s storm sewer system.

For more information about the project, visit iowaenvironmentalfocus.org.

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

Wildlife conservation has health benefits, experts say


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Health professionals spoke out in favor of wildlife conservation on Thursday. (USFWSmidwest/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | December 9, 2016

Six health organizations spoke out in favor of the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund on Thursday.

The measure would raise the state sales tax three-eighths of one cent in order to finance water quality measures, outdoor recreation areas and wildlife conservation. Representatives from the health organizations said that the trust fund could reduce Iowans’ risk of chronic health problems like diabetes and heart disease. Richard Deming is a Des Moines doctor who founded Above+Beyond Cancer. He said, “Our organization has seen first-hand the health benefits of vibrant outdoor recreation and the importance of a safe, healthy environment for the body’s overall well-being.”

Iowans voted sixty-three percent in favor of establishing the fund in 2010, but lawmakers have failed to provide funding for the initiative. The health organizations have joined a broader coalition of 75 individuals, businesses, outdoor enthusiasts as well as conservation and farm groups called Iowa’s Water & Land Legacy. The coalition is a subgroup of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation. Joe McGovern is president of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation. In a statement, McGovern pointed out that the Iowa Republican majority is caucusing this week. He said, “We want I-WILL to be part of the solution to water quality and outdoor recreation.”

Following the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit, Iowa’s Water & Land Legacy has argued that alternative funding proposals focus too much on water quality improvement. The three-eighths of one cent sales tax would generate $180 million each year. Proponents say about 60 percent could go to water quality, and the remaining funds could be used for wildlife habitat, parks, trails and other conservation efforts.

On The Radio – Sea ice at poles is disappearing at an alarming rate


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Jake Slobe | December 5, 2016

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses the melting of arctic sea ice.

Transcript: Arctic sea ice is disappearing at an alarming rate due to abnormally high temperatures in the region.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, late last month arctic sea ice coverage was nearly one million square kilometers less than the previous record low in 2012. Experts note that arctic sea ice should be spreading during this time of year, instead it is static or declining.

The melting of arctic ice has a significant effect on the Arctic climate system. As the climate warms and ice melts into the dark ocean, more sunlight is absorbed into the water during the summer months. In contrast, light-colored ice helps to deflect the sun’s rays away from earth. The heat that is contained in the ocean can also prevent ice from forming in the future.

Researchers point out that sea ice cover in Antarctica is also at a record low, most likely due to weather patterns in the Pacific. Gerald Meehl, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said that additional melting of sea ice in the Antarctic can be expected for the next five to ten years.

For more information about sea ice coverage in the poles and to this report in whole, visit iowaenvironmentafocus.org.

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