Iowa State researcher looks at corn’s adaptive powers


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The corn plant can grow in high elevations near mountain ranges or at sea level, researchers at the Iowa State University are taking a closer look at what makes this crop so versatile. (jev55/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | September 20, 2016

An Iowa State University researcher is taking a closer look at how corn has adapted over many centuries to prosper in several different environments and elevations throughout the Americas.

Matthew Hufford, an assistant professor of ecology and evolution and organismal biology at the University, is co-principal investigator of a collaborative study with scientists from University of California at Davis, University of Missouri, and the National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversity in Irapuato, Mexico. The research project recently received a five year, $4 million grant from the National Science Foundation. About $800,000 of those funds will be used to support Hufford’s laboratory at Iowa State University.

Hufford said that gaining a better understanding about how corn adapted to grow beyond its origin in Mexico could help plant breeders to produce crops that perform better. He said, “With this project, we hope to identify good candidates for genes that played key roles in helping maize adapt,” he added, “You could use that new knowledge to design corn to deal with the environmental challenges of today, like climate change and other stresses.”

Corn started growing in the hot lowlands of southwestern Mexico about 10,000 years ago. Hufford explained that in a relatively short amount of time the plant has changed to grow in much higher elevations with different climates across the Americas. After he compared highland corn to lowland corn, Hufford found that highland corn is darker in color and equipped with macrohairs that insulate plant when temperatures drop. Striking differences such as these help explain how the plant is able to grow anywhere from near sea level up to 13,000 feet in elevation.

Moving forward, the researchers plan to cross highland corn with lowland corn in order to study the genetics of parent and offspring varieties.

Iowa Environmental Council 2016 Annual Conference


Jenna Ladd | September 15, 2016

The Iowa Environmental Council will host its 2016 Annual Conference titled ECOnomics: Dollars, Sense & Sustainability next month in Ankeny. This year’s conference will focus on policies, programs, and practices that benefit the economy, communities and the environment.

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Keynote Speaker Jon D. Erikson

The keynote address, “We the Planet: Building an Ecological Economy in the Age of Humans,” will be given by Jon D. Erikson. Erikson is a Fellow of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics and a Professor at the Rubenstein School of Environmental and Natural Resources at the University of Vermont. The daylong event will also feature Speaker of Honor Rob Bilott. Bilott will discuss the regulatory, legal and scientific challenges of ‘unregulated’ drinking water contaminants during his address. The conference also features a panel of business owners that practice environmental stewardship.

ECOnomics: Dollars, Sense & Sustainability will take place at the DMACC Ankeny Campus on October 6th, 2016. The event has been approved for 3.25 hours of Continuing Legal Education (CLE) credit, and discounted rates are available for students. For more details or to register, visit the event website.

Keynote speaker Jon D. Erikson offers a crash course in ecological economics during his work with the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics in 2011.

 

 

Rising temperatures pose a complex threat to lizards populations


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Scientists surgically implanted temperature sensors on spiny lizards in order to measure the effect of shade on body temperature. (Renee Grayson/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | September 6, 2016

Countless animal species are negatively affected by climate change, but a recent study suggests that lizards have it particularly rough.

Following a major international survey published in the journal Science, it was predicted that if current trends continue, 20 percent of all lizard species could go extinct by 2080. An international team of biologists led by Barry Sinervo at the University of California, Santa Cruz researched the effects of rising temperatures on lizard populations around the world. Using their findings, the group developed a predictive model of extinction risk. Sinervo said, “We did a lot of work on the ground to validate the model and show that the extinctions are the result of climate change.” He added, “None of these are due to habitat loss. These sites are not disturbed in any way, and most of them are in national parks or other protected areas.”

Lizards are especially sensitive to warming climates because they regulate their body temperature using the environment around them. Michael Sears, a biologist at Clemson University, said that previous extinction models made the assumption that lizards are able to find shade immediately in their respective environments, which could mean models are inaccurate. Sears and his colleagues researched how the availability of shade affects lizards’ ability to achieve an optimal body temperature.

The researchers implanted small temperature sensors into dozens of spiny lizards and tested how the animals reacted to constructed areas of shade within New Mexico desert enclosures. They found that the lizards fared better in environments when several small areas of shade were available, in comparison with enclosures that had just a few large areas of shade. Sears explained, “It’s sort of like, if you were out jogging, and there was only one tree and it was a long way to the next one, and it was a hot day — that’s a bad environment. But if there were a bunch of trees along the way providing little bits of shade, you’d feel a lot better.”

The study concluded that extinction predictions for lizards are not uniform across all populations. In general, lizards that live in cooler environments may actually benefit from climate change, while those that live in hotter areas are likely to suffer. As for all those in between, Sears said we can’t be sure, “All bets are kind of off now. Because what our study suggests is that how bushes are placed in an environment might really impact the lizards just as much as the temperature itself.”

On The Radio – New Cedar Rapids sustainability coordinator provides multifaceted momentum


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Eric Holthaus (second from right) leading a waste audit with students in 2013 at the University of Iowa, where he served as Recycling Coordinator from 2012 to 2015. (Lev Cantoral/University of Iowa)
Jenna Ladd | August 8, 2016

This week’s On The Radio segment takes a closer look at Cedar Rapid’s first-ever sustainability coordinator and University of Iowa graduate, Eric Holthaus. 

Transcript: New Cedar Rapids sustainability coordinator provides multifaceted momentum

Cedar Rapids has hired its first-ever sustainability coordinator.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Eric Holthaus, a University of Iowa graduate, was hired on to provide focus and strategy to existing city-wide sustainability initiatives and to spearhead new efforts. Since beginning his work with the city in November, he helped implement a 90 kilowatt solar panel array on the roof of the Northwest Cedar Rapids Transit Garage and establish a policy that prohibits city vehicles from idling for longer than one minute.

Upon his hire, Holthaus created a 21-point sustainability assessment of the city. In addition to other findings, he notes that Cedar Rapids has clean drinking water, but difficulty with “food deserts,” or areas of town where populations have restricted access to food.

At the end of June, Holthaus and his team released a document titled, “State of Affairs: Cedar Rapids’ Pursuit of Sustainability.” The document lays a foundational definition for sustainability and why it matters to people in Cedar Rapids.

To Holthaus, sustainability reaches beyond environmental issues,

HOLTHAUS: “And so sustainability to me is be able to have a high quality of life, and it also means to me to connect the social and economic aspects. A lot of people don’t meet their daily needs, you know, if there’s an opportunity for us to eat better, to have cleaner water, to have more access to those resources, how can prioritize people that have the least and build stronger communities when we do that intentionally?”

Cedar Rapids is only the third city in the Hawkeye state to create a sustainability coordinator position, following Iowa City and Dubuque.

To learn more about Eric’s position, or to read more about Cedar Rapids’ sustainability goals, visit Iowa-Environmental-Focus dot org.

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

 

 

Bakken oil pipeline gets the final go-ahead in Iowa


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Bakken pipeline construction site (wittepx/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | July 27, 2016

The Bakken oil pipeline received a final go-ahead from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Tuesday for construction in Iowa. Dakota Access, a subsidiary of Texas company, Energy Transfer Partners, had already received full permission from all other states along the pipeline’s path including Illinois, North Dakota, and South Dakota. The company received notice yesterday from Corps of Engineers in Rock Island, Illinois that all construction in Iowa complies with federal environmental laws and is authorized.

The Army Corps of Engineers verification letter permits the construction of parts of the pipeline that cross bodies of water, including major rivers. While the Iowa Utilities Board previously granted development in parts of the state, this is the final regulatory hurdle for the Bakken pipeline. Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, a community organization that opposes the pipeline, is concerned about its crossing of 64 Iowa waterways.

Dick Lamb, a landowner in Boone county along the pipeline’s route, echoes their concern, “It isn’t a question of if, but when it will leak, and when it does it will irreparably destroy valuable Iowa farmland and the waterways we depend on.” An going lawsuit filed by 10 affected landowners challenges Dakota Access’ use of eminent domain to gain access to private Iowa land.

Many labor unions in Iowa look forward to the development of the Bakken pipeline. President of the Iowa State Building and Construction Trades Council, Bill Gehard, said, “Thousands of American workers from labor unions throughout the Midwest are already benefiting from this project, and these final permits will secure their jobs for the entirety of construction.”

The water crossing permits mandate follow-up inspections for compliance to regulation and monitored wetland mitigation. The finished pipeline will run from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois, crossing 18 Iowa counties along the way. It will move 570,000 barrels of oil daily into Midwest, East coast, and Gulf Coast markets.

First growing season for downtown Iowa City rooftop garden


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Seedlings begin in a smaller, raised hydroponic bed. (Jenna Ladd/CGRER)
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PVC pipes deliver nutrient-rich water that will flow through root systems in lieu of soil. (Jenna Ladd/CGRER)
Jenna Ladd | July 6, 2016

An Iowa City business owner has begun growing hydroponic vegetables on his downtown rooftop.

Mark Ginsberg, owner of a jewelry design studio and store called M.C. Ginsberg, has around 35 square-feet of hydroponic plants growing atop his business. Hydroponic gardens are systems in which plants can grow without soil, receiving the bulk of their nutrients from natural fertilizers in water like worm or fish waste. This nutrient rich water flows under plants and through root systems to sustain plant growth. Chad Treloar, Ginsberg’s construction lead for the project, built the garden with inexpensive, easy to acquire materials like PVC pipe, wood, and food-grade tubs.

In an interview with the Gazette, Ginsberg said that it would be possible to turn all urban Iowa City rooftops into food growing operations like his. He will harvest cucumbers, peas, and tomatoes first; he plans to give his bounty away to local restaurants and bars. In the coming years, MC Ginsberg’s garden will aim to sell its produce, depending on vegetable quality and yield dependability. Local restaurants seem eager to support the project, Oasis Falafel has already asked for all of the MC Ginsberg cilantro harvest.

In the long-term, Ginsberg is working to make hydroponic garden designs available to other downtown business owners. He aims to create a system that would allow owners to input rooftop dimensions and receive a cheap plan for hydroponic garden construction in return. He expects he could make these plans available for as little as 99 cents.

Green-roofs like these offer advantages to growers like runoff delay and stormwater management, improved air quality, and healthy foods with a small carbon footprint.

Iowa City Downtown District Executive Director Nancy Bird said the district is looking to back more projects like Ginsberg’s as a part of their larger sustainability focus for the downtown area.

Iowa City Science Boosters Club at the Linn County Fair


(Nick Fetty/CGRER)
Nick Fetty | June 24, 2016

The Iowa City Science Boosters Club taught children about climate change through a hands-on experiment at the Linn County Fair on Thursday June 23.

Hundreds of children stopped by the ICSBC booth in the Lynn Dunn Memorial Building at the Linn County Fairgrounds to learn about the effects that ocean acidification can have on marine life. Participants blew bubbles into cups of water and then measured the water’s pH level. They found the carbon from their breath lowered the pH level similar to how with climate change excess carbon in the atmosphere contributes to more acidity in oceans. The higher acidity level in oceans can damage the shells of mussels, clams, and other shellfish which can make them more susceptible to predators and create a whole slew of ecological issues.

“We’re here for youth day and this is related to our outreach work with schools. The National Center for Science Education is really interested in changing community attitudes towards science education and supporting science teachers,” said Emily Schoerning, Director of Research at the National Center for Science Education. “So if we can give these families a positive, upbeat, hands-on experience with climate change that will make them less concerned with talking about climate change and less concerned about their kids learning about climate change in schools.”

Schoerning also said that the ICSBC has raised more than $10,000 in its first year which provided Iowa classrooms with durable science equipment. To learn more about the ICSBC club check out their Facebook page or to establish a science boosters club in your area, find out how to do so with information from the Nation Center for Science Education.