UI professor researches geology behind ocean formation


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Sunrise on the South China Sea, where UI professor David Peate is spending his summer researching continental rifts. (flickr/Ivan Herman)
Jenna Ladd | May 19, 2017

The spring semester has come to a close and most UI professors have retreated to their campus labs to catch up on research. Dr. David Peate, on the other hand, is spending his summer days floating on the South China Sea.

This is no pleasure cruise, however. The professor of Earth and Environmental sciences is working 12-hour days to advance scientific understanding of how continents separate and oceans are formed. Peate embarked on the 9-week expedition funded by the International Ocean Discovery Program with 125 other scientists and crew members from around the world, he explained in an interview with Iowa Now.

In the interview, Peate explained that when continents drift apart, the uppermost layer of the Earth’s crust is stretched so much that parts of a deeper layer called the mantle can ooze up into the crust. Sometimes the mantle is so hot that it rises up as lava and forms continental boundaries like those seen in eastern Greenland and northern Europe, he explained. Other times, the mantle rises at cooler temperatures and no lava is formed. The expedition’s primary mission is to understand the difference between these two types of continental rifts.

The continental rift in the South China sea is “different than other well-studied rifted margins. For one, it is not covered by thick piles of lava flows, unlike most other examples of continental rifting, which spawned lava flows,” he said.

The researchers’ ship is equipped with a three mile long steel tube that drills into the ocean floor to collect cores. “That is equivalent to the distance between the Old Capitol and Iowa City West High School,” Peate explained to Iowa Now. Once pulled up, cores are separated into five-foot lengths and prepared for geologists to study. Peate is mostly interested in volcanic rock. Some of the cores will return to Iowa with him. He said, “I will collaborate with other international scientists from the expedition to make detailed chemical investigations of all the volcanic rocks that we find.” Peate continued, “Combining results from the different drilled sites will allow us to build a picture of how the volcanic activity changed through time as the rifting event happened.”

Peate’s other areas of research include the formation and transport of magma in Iceland and the driving forces behind large magma eruptions. His compete interview with Iowa Now can be found here.

2017 locavore index released, Iowa slips in ranking


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(Strolling of the Heifers)
Jenna Ladd | May 18, 2017

For the sixth year in a row, Iowa’s position on the state locavore ranking has continued to slide downward.

Strolling of the Heifers, a farm and food advocacy organization out of Vermont, ranks the 50 states (plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia) by their dedication to local food each year. This year the group used seven metrics to rank states: farmers markets per capita, community-supported agriculture per capita, farm-to-school food programs, food hub programs, direct farmer-to-consumer sales, USDA local food grants per capita, and hospitals sourcing local foods.

The state of Iowa was ranked 18th in 2017, a far cry from its second place ranking in 2012. Iowa has slid down the list each year, ranking 10th in 2014, 13th in 2015, and 14th last year. According to this year’s report, Iowa ranked in the top ten for farmers markets per capita and community-supported agriculture per capita. However, the state ranks 50th for local food-to-school programs. Iowa performs in the middle of the pack when it comes to direct farm-to-consumer sales and USDA local food grants per capita.

The 2017 index features a new metric: hospitals sourcing local foods relative to the state’s population. Hospitals and local food organizers in Vermont have led the way, but the report notes that healthcare centers across the country have been pushing for 10 to 20 percent locally-sourced food in recent years.

Steven R. Gordon is President and CEO of Brattleboro Memorial Hospital in Brattleboro, Vermont. He said,

“Brattleboro Memorial Hospital is proud to be a leader in supporting local farms and producers of fresh and healthy food. Sourcing local produce not only supports our local economy but also helps our patients heal faster. Often times, when a person is ill or on various medications, their appetite diminishes and their tastes are altered. Providing our patients with in-season and locally-produced food allows us to provide meals with high flavor and nutrition.”

The state of Iowa ranked just inside the top 20 for local foods served in hospitals. The Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems explains their journey to a more sustainable food system for hospitals and the benefits they’ve reaped thus far in the video posted below.

Scientists find that less tilling means more earthworms


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Anecic earthworms live deep in the soil and emerge at night, providing a helpful mixing of soil in agricultural fields. (The Earthworm Society of Britain)
Jenna Ladd | May 16, 2017

Wriggly earthworms are the unsung heroes of agricultural fields around the world. Their tiny bodies make it easier for water and air to enter the soil, transform organic matter into nutrients that is available to plants and can improve crop productivity by more than 50 percent.

A study recently published in the journal Global Change Biology sought to better understand which agricultural conditions are optimal for worms. Dr. Olaf Schmidt and Dr. Maria Briones analyzed 215 studies from over 40 countries that explored the relationship between tilling practices and worm population health.

The meta-analysis showed that disturbing the soil less (i.e. no-till farming, conservation agriculture) resulted in significantly more abundant earthworm populations. For example, no-till farmland saw a 137 percent increase in worm populations and a nearly 200 percent increase in soil biomass. Those areas of land in reduced-till for more than ten years saw the most earthworms return to the soil. In contrast, those field that were heavily plowed lost half of their original worm population.

Researchers observed the affect of tilling on 13 species of worms and found that the largest species were most heavily impacted. These creatures, called anecic earthworms, live deep down in the soil. At night-time they wriggle up a single channel, grab food, such as plant matter or manure, and then slide back down the same permanent burrow.

The researchers write that restoring earthworm populations through practing reduced-till or no-till farming “will ensure the provision of ecosystem functions such as soil structure maintenance and nutrient cycling by “nature’s plow.””

Senate votes to preserve Obama-era methane gas regulation


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This methane gas collector near Tuscan, Arizona pipes methane from a landfill to Tuscan Electric Power where it is used to generate electricity. (Gene Spesard/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | May 12, 2017

The U.S. senate voted on Wednesday to uphold an Obama-era rule that limits the release of methane from oil and gas production on federal land.

The Republican-majority senate voted 51-49 to block the resolution. Three GOP senators, Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona voted with their democratic colleagues against the motion. Senate Republicans proposed  repealing the rule under the Congressional Review Act (CRA). So far in 2017, 14 regulations have been repealed under the CRA including a stream buffer rule aimed at keeping coal mining debris from entering waterways and another rule that gave the public some say about what happens to federal land.

President Obama updated the decades-old-rule that governs the venting and flaring of methane gas and regulates natural gas leaks. Upon the rule’s establishment, the Obama administration projected it could keep 41 billion cubic feet (BCF) of natural gas per year from going to waste. Methane, which is often released during the production of natural gas, is short-lived but 100 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Republican senator John McCain agreed with those hoping to keep the rule in place. He said, “Improving the control of methane emissions is an important public health and air quality issue, which is why some states are moving forward with their own regulations requiring greater investment in recapture technology.”

Opponents of the rule say that it discourages U.S. energy production and hurts state and county revenue streams. However, the Western Value Project estimates that the U.S treasury would have lost out on $800 million in royalties from oil and gas production over then next decade if the rule had been revoked.

Georgia wildfire inches closer to rural communities


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The Incident Information System regularly posts the latest developments in the West Mims Wildfire and other wildfires across the country. (InciWeb)
Jenna Ladd | May 9, 2017

The West Mims Wildfire near the Georgia-Florida state line has been burning for weeks and shows few signs of slowing down.

The wildfire was ignited on April 6th when a lightening strike touched down inside the swampy Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Since then, the fire has torched more than 133,000 acres and counting. Until this weekend, the wildfire did not pose a threat to humans in the area. After the fire crossed manmade fire breaks this weekend, an evacuation notice was sent out to residents of two small rural communities in Charlton county, St. George and Moniac.

By Monday, the fire had already burned about 37 square miles in Charlton county and 210 square miles total. Susan Heisey is supervisory ranger for the Okefenokee refuge. She said, “The accumulated moisture in the vegetation is at record-breaking lows right now. These fuels, they’re getting one little piece of ash and the fire’s just picking up and moving.”

A high pressure system in the southeast United States contributed to temperatures nearing 90 degrees Fahrenheit in the area on Monday, with humidity at just 20 percent. As temperatures remain high for the next few days and dry winds continue to blow across the West Mims fire, spokespeople for fire-fighting effort expect the fire to continue burning wherever fuel is available to it.

So far, there are 624 personnel working to keep the fire under control. A detailed incident report outlines predictions of the fire’s status over the next 72 hours. The report reads, “The drying trend will continue causing more fuels to become available to burn in the swamp. Fire activity will increase in areas that have not seen much heat over past few day. Re-burn potential remains very high.”

Climate change has lengthened the wildfire season in the U.S. by 78 days since the 1970’s. Rising temperatures and more frequent, intense droughts have contributed to more intense wildfires across the country.

New Trump executive orders will take aim at protected public lands, offshore drilling bans


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National park sites without active wells, but where drilling could take place in the future. (National Parks Conservation Association)
Jake Slobe | April 26, 2017

After moving last month against Barack Obama’s efforts to limit fossil fuel exploration and combat climate change, President Trump will complete his effort to overturn environmental policy this week by signing two executive orders to expand offshore drilling and roll back conservation of public lands.

Today, Trump will sign an executive order directing his interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, to review national monuments designated by previous presidents under the Antiquities Act of 1906, aiming to roll back the borders of protected lands and open them to drilling, mining, and logging.

President Trump is then expected to follow up on Friday with another executive order that will aim to open up protected waters in the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans to offshore drilling. If signed, the order would eliminate the Obama administration’s plan that would have put those waters off limits to drilling through 2022. Friday’s order is also expected to call for the lifting of a permanent ban on drilling in an area including many of those same waters — a measure Obama issued in December 2016 in a last-ditch effort to protect his environmental legacy.

These moves, according to the Trump administration, will begin to fulfill a central campaign promise to unleash a wave of new oil and gas drilling and create thousands of jobs in energy.

The reality is much more complicated say experts in the law, policy, and economics of energy. Legal experts say it will still be a heavy lift for the Trump administration to change the current laws. The orders are unlikely to lead to job creation in the near future or significant new energy development.

Iowa general assembly adjourns, still no water quality funding


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Iowa legislators have failed to approve long-term funding for water quality projects that were approved by voters in 2010. (Michael Leland/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | April 25, 2017

The Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoors Trust Fund remains empty after legislators adjourned the 86th General Assembly on Saturday without passing policy to fund water quality improvement in the state.

Long-term funding for water quality was not included in next year’s $7.2 billion state budget, even though the vast majority of Iowa voters supported establishing the fund more than seven years ago. The House and Senate each devised their own plans for funding, but neither plan garnered support from both houses.

Legislators in the Senate proposed an amendment that would have increased Iowa’s sales tax by three-eighths of one cent. The plan would have generated around $180 million dollars per year for the Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoors Trust Fund, 60 percent of which would have gone to water quality improvement projects. The proposal was championed by Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy, a coalition of environmentalists, political leaders and Iowa businesses dedicated to promoting water and land conservation measures. Although the sales tax increase had support on both sides of the aisle, it lost in the Senate vote 34 to 16.

The Iowa House of Representatives proposed a plan that would have redirected money from a sales tax Iowans already pay on tap water to water quality improvement projects. The 6 percent tax currently funds infrastructure projects for community school districts and other municipal projects. The plan was approved by the House, even though some Democrats criticized the it for cutting funds from other state programs.

Kirk Leeds is CEO of the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA). In an interview with CBC, he said, “This year’s legislative session was a missed opportunity to act boldly on improving Iowa’s water.” Leeds continued, “ISA will seek continued partnerships with farmers and cities to make real progress on conservation to the benefit of all Iowans.”