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.

Iowa DNR fails to obey some state regulations


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A recent audit found Iowa DNR has failed to follow a state law related to the establishment of wetlands near close agricultural drainage wells. (Iowa DNR)
Jenna Ladd | September 8, 2017

A state audit released on Tuesday revealed that the Iowa Department of Natural Resources has failed to follow state law related to identifying and safeguarding wetlands, monitoring public works projects on the local level and establishing a clean air advisory panel.

In its defense, Iowa DNR claims that state law pertaining to these issues are often duplicative or less stringent than federal requirements, according to a report from the Des Moines Register. Federal requirements for wetland protection specifically exceed regulation put forth by the state, Iowa DNR director Chuck Gipp told the Register. He said, “We recognize and understand the value of wetlands.” The Iowa law “is asking us to do something that would be even less stringent than the federal code.”

In response, Iowa Environmental Council’s water program coordinator Susan Heathcote noted that federal oversight related to water quality is questionable at present, considering that President Trump is expected to repeal and revise an Obama era water quality regulation soon.

More specifically, the audit found that the Iowa DNR has not established a program aimed at assisting in the development of wetlands around closed agricultural drainage areas, which would aid in the filtration of nutrient rich water flowing into municipal taps. The news that the state is failing to abide by existing water quality-related regulations comes after another legislative session during which state legislators failed to provide funding for more robust water quality measures Iowa voters approved more than seven years ago.

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

People of faith in Iowa move to renewable energy


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Pope Francis at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2015 where the Global Goals of Sustainable Development were officially accepted. (Department for International Development/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| September 6, 2017

In his environmental encyclical titled Laudato Si or “Our Common Home,” Pope Francis, called for the citizens of the world to reduce carbon emissions and become better stewards of the Earth. Now, about two years later, people of faith in Iowa are answering the call.

St. John the Apostle Catholic Church of Norwalk, Iowa has become the first church in the Diocese of Des Moines to transition to a solar energy system. The church boasts 206 energy panels, which were funded through a for-profit company. The company sells energy back to the church at a lower rates than before.

During the encyclical public address, Pope Francis said, “Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last 200 years.” Last May when President Trump visited Vatican City, the Pope gave him a copy of the 192 page document on climate change.

It’s not just Catholics moving to mitigate some of the effects of global warming. The Des Moines Register reports that a Soto Zen Buddist temple in Dorchester, Iowa now gets half of its energy from solar. Mennonites in Kalona have established a solar energy system, too.

Rev. Susan Hendershot Guy is executive director of Iowa Interfaith Power & Light, a group working to mobilize people of faith to combat climate change. She said to the Des Moines Register, “It’s exciting to me because I feel like they’re sort of walking the walk. I think it is getting out to all types of denominations, congregations, faith traditions really across the conservative-liberal spectrum.” She continued, “It’s a really practical way to live out that message of how we care for the world.”

Wildfires bring smoke to Iowa


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Smoke from a wildfire this May billows over a local road. (flickr/Michael Lusk)
Jenna Ladd| September 5, 2017

A yellowish haze blanketed most of eastern Iowa this Labor Day weekend thanks to wildfires in the western U.S. and Canada.

Wildfires throughout Montana, Manitoba and Saskatchewan are credited with much of this weekend’s smoke. Just this Sunday, evacuations were ordered for Glacier National Park in Montana and 140 campers were rescued from a smoldering forest on Sunday in Oregon.

As the climate changes, wet areas become wetter and dry areas become drier, allowing for longer wildfire seasons in many parts of the western U.S. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, compared to the 1980’s, wildfires now last nearly five times as long, occur almost four times as often and burn more than six times the land area on average.

National Weather Service meteorologist Dave Cousins said that this weekend’s haze cut visibility at Davenport Municipal Airport by two and a half miles.

A report out of Dubuque revealed that the Air Quality Index (AQI) in the area is moderate to unhealthy for individuals sensitive to poor area quality.

On The Radio – August water summary update released


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South central Iowa remained in drought while other parts of the state soaked up rainfall in late August. (Iowa Department of Natural Resources)
Jenna Ladd| September 4, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses how August rain relieved some parts of Iowa from drought conditions. 

Transcript: Rainfall during the last part of August helped to reverse drought conditions in many parts of Iowa, according to the latest Iowa Department of Natural Resources Water Summary Update.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

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 in partnership with local, state and federal agencies.

The latest update revealed that while August started off very dry, high rain totals increased groundwater levels and streamflow in many parts of the state. In contrast, south central Iowa is still experiencing severe to extreme drought conditions. Extreme drought conditions persisted in Clarke county and Wapello county through August.

For more information and to read the complete summary, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

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

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.