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.
This episode offers listeners the chance to learn more about Dr. Carmichael’s long and esteemed career in climate science prior to his delivery of the 34th Annual Presidential Lecture this weekend. His lecture, titled “What Goes Around, Comes Around: The Global Reach of Air Pollution,” will take place this Sunday, February 19th at 3:30 pm in the fourth-floor assembly hall of the Levitt Center for University Advancement.
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Iowa State University’s Neal Iverson and a team of researchers are working on research that will predict how much glaciers will contribute to the rise of sea levels.
The research will focus on the extent to which glacier-flow to oceans is likely speed up over the next century as the climate warms.
Iverson, an Iowa State University professor of geological and atmospheric sciences who has studied glaciers in Iceland and Norway, and the rest of the research team will look to lab experiments and field work to build more realistic computer models of glacier flow.
Iverson said about the project:
“Glaciologists are trying to predict how fast glaciers will flow to the oceans. To do that, we need new lab and field data to include complexity in models that is usually neglected. These are complicated systems. Modeling them is hard. But we need to include how water in ice affects its flow resistance, and we need sliding laws that are based on the real topography of glacier beds and that include rock friction. Adding these things really matters.”
Two new grants will help Iverson and his team fund their research, both of which grants are from the National Science Foundation. The research will also receive funding from the United Kingdom’s Natural Environment Research Council to support the work of applied mathematicians at the University of Oxford in England.
Iverson is the lead investigator on both grant proposals. The other researchers are Lucas Zoet, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a former postdoctoral research associate at Iowa State; Ian Hewitt, an associate professor and university lecturer at Oxford’s Mathematical Institute; and Richard Katz, a professor of geodynamics at Oxford.
The first project will look at temperate ice, or ice at its melting point, and how this soft, watery ice resists deformation. That’s important because the resistance to deformation of temperate ice at the edges of ice streams – areas of rapid ice flow within the Antarctic ice sheet that can be hundreds of miles long and tens of miles wide – holds back the flowing ice.
The second project will support development of better “sliding laws” to help predict the sliding speeds of glaciers and ice sheets. Sliding laws are the mathematical relationships between the glacier sliding speed and the factors that control it, such as the stresses below the glacier, the water pressure there, the topography of the glacier bed and the concentration of debris in glacier ice.
The new projects will add complexity to Iverson’s lab experiments. Debris, for example, will be added to the ice ring to study friction between it and the rock bed during sliding. In other experiments, temperate ice will be sheared between rotating plates to study how its resistance to flow depends on its water content.
University of Iowa facilities management received notice on February 1 that its drinking water system contains levels of Total Trihalomethanes (TTHM) that exceed the federal drinking water standard.
In an email sent out to University faculty, staff and students on February 9, it was reported that the drinking water tested on average between 0.081 and 0.110 mg/L over the last year. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum contaminant level (MCL) for TTHM is 0.08 mg/L.
The notice read, “You do not need to use an alternative (e.g., bottled) water supply. Disease prevention specialists with University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics say special precautions are not necessary.”
University officials cautioned, “However, some people who drink water-containing trihalomethanes in excess of the MCL over many years may experience problems with their liver, kidneys, or central nervous system, and may have an increased risk of getting cancer.”
A study by the California Department of Health suggests that even short-term exposure to high TTHM levels in drinking water can have serious consequences for pregnant women. Scientists monitored 5,144 women during their first trimester of pregnancy. Participants who drank five or more glasses of cold home tap water containing 0.075 mg/L or more of TTHM had a miscarriage rate of 15.9 percent. Women that drank less than five glasses per day or who had home tap water with less than 0.075 mg/L TTHM had a miscarriage rate of 9.5 percent.
A reverse osmosis filtration system for the University of Iowa drinking water supply is currently in its design phase. Facilities management expects to have the new system up and running within the next 18 months. Officials say it will help address Iowa’s nitrate problem and filter out naturally occurring organic matter, resulting in fewer TTHM.
The study points out that ethanol production in the state relies heavily on groundwater from the Jordan aquifer, which also provides roughly 300,000 residents with drinking water. From 2003 to 2013, annual use of groundwater from the aquifer for ethanol production increased by 7.4 billion liters per year.
Keith Schilling is a research scientist at the Iowa Geological Survey at the University of Iowa and the study’s leading author. He said,
“The implications for biofuel refineries and any water use of the aquifer is the realization that the groundwater is very old. It is not going to be recharged in any human timeframes so we should make sure that water from the aquifer is being managed appropriately.”
Beyond the lagging groundwater regeneration rate, the study also notes that increased groundwater pumping can result in detrimental water quality changes such as radium contamination. The authors conclude with a call for new ethanol refineries to steer clear of the Jordan Aquifer and utilize more sustainable groundwater sources instead.
The more than 1,700 citizen are seeking $722 million dollars in damages. The plaintiffs argue that the EPA “failed to follow several specific agency mandates and directives” and neglected to determine whether local and state officials were immediately taking steps to address the issue.
The 30-page lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court in Michigan on Monday. It reads, “This case involves a major failure on all levels of government to protect the health and safety of the public…Local, state and federal agencies and employees, working individually and at times in concert with each other, mismanaged this environmental catastrophe.”
According to the EPA’s own website, lead contamination of drinking water can cause behavior and learning problems, lower IQ and hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems and anemia among children. Lead from drinking water can also pass through the placenta resulting in reduced growth of the fetus and premature birth.
The city of Flint, population of 100,000, switched its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River in 2014, causing lead to leach from the city’s old pipes. A year later, children from Flint were found to have high levels of lead in their blood samples. Researchers from Virginia Tech University concluded that 40 percent of the homes in the predominantly African American city had drinking water that exceeded federal safety limits in September of 2015.
On January 24, 2017, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality announced that the city’s drinking water tested below the federal limit. Ninety percent of the samples taken contained lead levels of 12 parts per billion or less, well below the federal limit of 15 parts per billion. Still, public health officials recommend that residents continue to use filtered water for cooking and drinking as the city continues to replace its pipes.
This class-action lawsuit follows Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette’s felony charges against four government officials involved in the public health crisis. In all, 13 current and former government officials have been held accountable for the contamination of Flint’s water.
Mountain regions of the world are under direct threat from human-induced climate change which could radically alter their fragile habitats, warn an international team of researchers.
The international study, which spanned seven major mountain regions of the world, revealed that decreasing elevation – descending a mountainside to warmer levels –consistently increased the availability of nitrogen from the soil for plant growth, meaning that future climate warming could disrupt the way that fragile mountain ecosystems function.
The researchers also found that the balance of nitrogen to phosphorus availability in plant leaves was very similar across the seven regions at high elevations, but diverged greatly across regions at lower elevations. This means that as temperatures become warmer with climate change, the crucial balance between these nutrients that sustain plant growth could be radically altered in higher mountain areas.
They also found that increasing temperature and its consequences for plant nutrition were linked to other changes in the soil, including amounts of organic matter and the make-up of the soil microbial community.
These changes were partly independent of any effect of the alpine tree line, meaning that effects of warming on ecosystem properties will occur irrespective of whatever shifts occur in the migration of trees up-slope due to higher temperatures.
Rather than use short-term experiments, the research team used gradients of elevation in each mountain region spanning both above and below the alpine tree line.
Carmichael became faculty at the University of Iowa in 1978 after earning a BS in chemical engineering at Iowa State University and a PhD from the University of Kentucky. Nearly four decades later, the Karl Kammermeyer Professor of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering remains devoted to studying the global impact of pollution on air quality.
In an interview with IowaNow, Carmichael recounts how he initially became interested in air quality issues. He said, “At the time I was doing my graduate studies, acid rain was emerging as a big problem. That was really the first air pollution problem that demonstrated to people that we could have an impact beyond our local environment.”
Carmichael has won several awards including the Regents Faculty Recognition Award in 1998, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers Lawrence K. Cecil Award in 2012, NASA Group Achievement Awards in 2005 and 2009. Over time, Carmichael’s research became increasingly international. In the most recent fifteen years, his research team has has conducted air quality forecasting field experiments in Chile, California, the Arctic, and Beijing.
Much of his research considers how air pollution travels intercontinentally. He said, “We have done a lot of work on this topic over time, and this long-range transport of pollution is now being taken into consideration in the management of U.S. air quality and in international discussions. Wherever the emissions are occurring, they have an impact not only locally but globally as well.”
Carmichael became co-director of CGRER in 1991, and currently serves alongside Dr. Jerry Schnoor, University of Iowa professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
“What Goes Around, Comes Around: The Global Reach of Air Pollution”