Human activity, El Niño contribute to record-setting CO2 levels

Former CGRER graduate outreach assistant, Nick Fetty, interviews Dubuque mayor Roy Buol at the COP21 conference in Paris last December. (KC McGinnis/CGRER)
Jenna Ladd | October 25, 2016

With carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reaching 400 parts per million (ppm), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) recently announced that a new era of “climate change reality” has begun.

Earth’s atmosphere contained 400 molecules of CO2 for every one million molecules for the first time in globally recorded history in 2015, and 2016 is likely to be the first year where global averages exceed this threshold.

Even though human outputs of CO2 remained steady from 2014 through 2015, a particularly strong El Niño in 2015 caused a dramatic increase in greenhouse gas levels. El Niño is a weather phenomenon characterized by especially warm temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific Ocean that have far-reaching weather effects. In 2015, the phenomenon caused drought in tropical regions around the globe, which negatively affected the amount of gases that forests, vegetation, and oceans were able to absorb.

While El Niño heightened the spike of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere last year, human activities like agriculture and industry caused 37 percent of the warming effect due to methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide increase from 1990 through 2015. Petteri Taalas, WMO secretary-general, said, “The El Niño event has disappeared. Climate change has not.” Scientists at the longest-running greenhouse gas monitoring station in the world in Hawaii say that CO2 levels will not drop below 400 ppm for several generations. Carbon dioxide is responsible for around two-thirds of the warming effect that long-lived greenhouse gases have on the atmosphere.

WMO released this report just before the next round of climate talks associated with the Paris Agreement, a climate change mitigation plan signed by 200 nations last December. Participating countries committed to limiting temperature increases to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Taalas said, “The year 2015 ushered in a new era of optimism and climate action with the Paris climate change agreement. But it will also make history as marking a new era of climate change reality with record high greenhouse gas concentrations.”

The 200 nations will meet in Morocco next month to forge a path forward.

NOAA expects Iowa winter to be unpredictable

Iowa falls between regions of the country that will a experience particularly  cold winter and those that will have a particularly warm winter. (NOAA)
Jenna Ladd | October 21, 2016

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released its predictions for winter weather on Thursday.

Last year the midwest experienced the warmest winter on record in 121 years, but this year NOAA says that Iowans can expect a grab bag of both warm and cold temperatures. Both temperature and precipitation are expected to hover around average from December through February for much of the state, except for the northern most part of the state, which is expected to be colder than usual.

NOAA also expects a weak La Niña this year. La Niña is characterized by particularly cold ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific, and often affects weather trends in the United States. Variances in La Niña’s strength and duration from year to year can make forecasting winter temperatures difficult. Mike Halpert is deputy director with NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, he said, “Because there is still some uncertainly about when La Niña will develop and persist through the winter, probabilities on the maps this year are fairly conservative.”

Winter 2015-2016 was the wettest Iowa winter on record in 101 years. Other parts of the Midwest and the Western U.S. are predicted to receive high amounts precipitation this year, with Idaho, North Dakota and the Ohio Valley all among those that will be affected. Unusually cool temperatures are on the forecast from Eastern Montana through Wisconsin.

In short, NOAA expects wetter and colder than usual temperatures for the far northern Midwest and warmer with drier winter conditions for the Southern U.S., and most of Iowa falls somewhere in the middle. Much like most winters, Iowans should prepare for anything.

CGRER members Jerry Schnoor, Larry Weber and Gene Takle share climate and flood prevention expertise with Iowans

The Iowa River overflows onto the University of Iowa campus following the 2008 flood. (rachaelvoorhees/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | October 18, 2016

In the face of more frequent flooding and much heavier rains, it is estimated that Iowa will need $4 to $5 billion to protect its communities moving forward. 

Flood mitigation efforts in the state thus far have centered around building levees, flood walls, and protecting utilities, but Iowa researchers have found that upstream structures like wetlands and detention pounds are an effective means of flood prevention. Sen. Rob Hogg of Cedar Rapids said that some lawmakers have acknowledged the need to ramp up these strategies, but the conversation is often buried by health care and education budget arguments. Hogg said, “If you can’t reach agreement over funding the basics, it’s really hard to get to the next level, to discuss funding water management.”

The increasing frequency of extreme rainfall may demand that flood mitigation take center stage at the capital. “We were hard-pressed to get 4-inch rainfalls 100 years ago, and now it’s very common,” said Jerry Schnoor, co-director at the University of Iowa’s Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research. Eugene Takle, director of the climate science program at Iowa State University, agreed, “In the Cedar River basin, we found the 100-year flood a century ago is now very likely to be a 25-year flood.” The Cedar basin’s record flood in 2008 had a $5 billion price tag.

Takle and other experts say these changes are primarily due to climate change. Rising greenhouse gases in the atmosphere allow it to hold more water vapor. “When you have more water vapor, you can expect more rain events,” he said. Takle’s data support this claim: atmospheric water vapor has increased by 31 percent in the winter months since 1970 and by 14 percent in the spring; average annual rainfall in Iowa has risen by 33 percent since 1970. Takle said, “This is consistent with what the climate models said would happen. The Midwest has experienced a big increase in extreme events.” According to NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information, Iowa has had 26 flood disasters with damages adding up to more than $1 billion since 1980.

Larry Weber, director at the University of IIHR – Hydroscience & Engineering, parent organization of the Iowa Flood Center, said that the loss of prairie potholes and wetlands, which can soak up heavy rainfalls, has contributed to these flooding events. He said, “We’ve taken away a lot of those natural storage areas.”

Iowa lawmakers passed a sales-tax funding plan in 2012 to provide $1.4 billion in flood prevention structures, but more funding is needed. Eight-nine towns and cities have identified $35 million in flood prevention structures that do not have funding. Some Iowa lawmakers are working to increase the sales tax by three-eighths of 1 cent in order to fund the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, which would provide $180 million each year to restore wetlands, protect wildlife habitat, reduce runoff and improve trails, and more.

One and a half million dollars in federal supplemental aid money allocated to the Iowa Flood Center’s Iowa Watersheds Project after the 2008 flood has reduced flooding downstream by 15-20 percent in the Otter, Beaver and South Chequest watersheds. The center received $98 million in federal grant money this year for similar flood mitigation projects in 25 additional watersheds. Weber said, “We’re making great strides in the places where we work, we just need to be working in more places — whether it’s through our projects, or the work of other state and federal agencies, private landowners, and nonprofit groups.”

EnvIowa Podcast: Dr. Betsy Stone discusses upcoming annual Iowa Climate Festival

Jenna Ladd | October 13, 2016

The third annual Iowa Climate Festival will take place at the University of Iowa’s Museum of Natural History on Saturday.

As with previous festivals, the event will be split into two parts. First, The Iowa Climate Symposium will feature three presenters followed by panel discussions with audience members. Dr. Betsy Stone, associate professor of chemistry at the University of Iowa, organized the first Iowa Climate Festival in 2014. She said, “The theme of the symposium this year is: Now that we have a growing consensus on climate change, where do we go from here? So this is really looking toward the future.”

Following the symposium, participants will be invited to participate in interactive experiments that are related to climate change at the Climate Science Fair. Stone said, “We have a lot of really exciting hands-on experiments that people can explore and use to understand more about climate science.” She added, “A lot of these [experiments] were developed with elementary or middle schoolers in mind, but we’ve done these at lot of different events and adults get really excited about it too.” The event is scheduled to begin at 2 pm and is free, open to the public, and family friendly.

This year’s Iowa Climate Festival is sponsored by the American Chemical Society (ACS) and is hosted by the Iowa section of the ACS in partnership with the University of Iowa Department of Chemistry, Museum of Natural History, Office of Sustainability, and Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER).

To learn more about the festival’s featured speakers and specific exhibits at the Climate Science Fair, listen to episode two of EnvIowa above or find it on iTunes.

Climate Educator Forum 2016

Connie Mutel, Senior Science Writer for IIHR, offered suggestions for educators to more effectively communicate about climate change at the Iowa Climate Science Educators Forum. (Jenna Ladd/CGRER)
Jenna Ladd | October 7, 2016

The University of Iowa Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research hosted the 2016 Iowa Climate Science Educators Forum in West Des Moines this Friday.

The event featured presentations from leaders in higher education, scientists, and experts in related fields that aimed to improve climate science education for students in Iowa. Kris A. Kilibarda, State Science Consultant for the Iowa Department of Education, outlined the goals and implementation plan for Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). NGSS are K-12 science standards that will be adopted by schools in Iowa over the next three years. The standards promote cross-curriculum, investigative learning that includes elements of climate science.

Des Moines Area Community College student Maxwell Blend attended the forum. Maxell, now 25, attended K-12 within the Valley Community School District. He said, “Growing up, I guess I wasn’t introduced to science or mathematics super early on, at least not in a complex manner…so it’s really cool to see that they’re actually going to be teaching students some of those critical thinking skills.”


Event organizer David Courard-Hauri also took the time to reflect on the recent release of the sixth annual Iowa climate statement titled Iowa Climate Statement 2016: The Multiple Benefits of Climate-Smart Agriculture

Giselle Bruskewitz, Coordinator of Sustainability Education at Central College, said that she found both the statement and forum to be relevant to her work. She said,

“I think all of that kind of ties into what we do at Central College with interdisciplinary education. Climate change should be part of what we’re teaching in higher ed, and it should be pervasive not only in the curriculum but also in the day-to-day experiences, such as how we’re eating on campus and how that ties us to our agricultural system.”

Central College is one of only 13 colleges in the country to require all of its students to take a sustainability course before graduating. The campus boasts an organic garden that provides experiential learning and food for students. The Pella college also leads a Sustainability Faculty Workshop for higher education instructors of all disciplines to design courses which integrate sustainability into their coursework. “This interdisciplinary approach is something that’s really central to what we do,”Bruskewitz added.

Over the lunch hour, Senior Science Writer for IIHR at the University of Iowa, Connie Mutel, offered suggestions for climate scientists looking to more effectively communicate their work to the general public. Mutel, who is also the author of A Sugar Creek Chronicle: Observing Climate Change from a Midwestern Woodland, emphasized the importance of storytelling and a solution-based tone when communicating about climate change.

Dr. Diane Debinski, Professor of Conservation Biology at the Iowa State University, presented about climate change adaptation within grassland ecosystems as reflected by her field work in Ringold County. Debinksi said,

“This conference was a great opportunity for educators from K-12 to university level to share ideas about how to communicate about climate change using stories, graphs, and imagery.”


Media receptive to 2016 Iowa Climate Statement

This year’s climate statement emphasized the many benefits of climate-smart agriculture. (Carl Wycoff/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | October 7, 2016

The 2016 Iowa Climate Statement was released on Wednesday with the endorsement of 187 scientists from institutions across the state and local media took notice.

A conference call was held on the morning of October 5th to announce the document’s release and to take questions from interested parties. Iowa Climate Statement 2016: The Multiple Benefits of Climate-Smart Agriculture explains why sustainable farming practices such as reduced tillage, buffer zones, and cover crops are necessary and how they can benefit farmers.

Agriculture makes up about 27 percent of Iowa’s greenhouse gas emissions. The wider implementation of practices like those outlined in the document would not only reduce emissions but store additional carbon in healthier soils, scientists say. The statement asks policymakers to further incentivize farmers to participate in conservation practices. Kamyar Enshayan, director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Education at the University of Northern Iowa, said, “You can’t just say, ‘Do it when you want to or whenever you can.’ Policymakers need to provide incentives for beneficial action.”

The release marks the sixth annual Iowa Climate Statement, a complete record of previous climate statements can be found here.

Additional press coverage of the 2016 Iowa Climate Statement is available below:

Iowa ranks among top 20 states for air pollution

Three of the national top 100 toxic chemical producing companies are located in Iowa. (Cliff/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | September 30, 2016

A recent analysis by the Center for Public Integrity found that Iowa is ranked among the top 20 states in the union for both toxic chemicals and greenhouse gases in the air.

The center, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that performs analysis of government and ethics issues that affect the public, analyzed federal air quality data from 2010 to 2014, the most recent year for which complete data is public. The report showed that Iowa’s hazardous air emissions increased from 17.6 million pounds per year in 2010 to 18.7 million pounds per year in 2014. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), some common hazardous air pollutants include lead compounds, arsenic compounds, vinyl chloride, and chloroform. Iowa ranks 17th nationally for toxic air emissions.

Analysis reveals that most toxic air emissions can be attributed to a handful of power plants, factories, and other facilities. Three of the top 100 contributors are located in the state of Iowa. Climax Molybdenum Co. of Fort Madison ranks among the top ten and released 4.4 million pounds of hazardous chemicals such as ammonia into the air in 2014. Eric Schaeffer, Director of the Environmental Integrity Project called ammonia a “serious pollutant.” Schaeffer said, “It can cause significant health effects when people are exposed to it,” he added, “But it also can lead to water pollution when it falls back to Earth and gets transformed into nitrogen.” Eric Kinneberg, a spokesperson for the Phoenix-based company that owns Climax Molybdenum, said that the plant is working to curb emissions. While not yet fully operational, the company is installing an ammonia scrubber that is predicted to cut ammonia emissions by 90 percent. Kinneberg said, “We share the same goals of achieving and maintaining clean air for all Iowans.”

While the Hawkeye state still ranks 19th nationally for greenhouse gas emissions, emissions dropped by 11 percent from 2010 to 2014. Experts say that much of Iowa’s greenhouse gas emission decrease can be explained by a surge in wind and solar energy investments. Power plants owned by MidAmerican Energy and Berkshire Hathaway are responsible for a large portion of greenhouse gases in the air, but both companies are making strides to limit emissions. Berkshire Hathaway said that it has invested in technology that has significantly reduced emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter and mercury. Perhaps more notably, MidAmerican Energy has retired four coal fueled units and switched a fifth over to natural gas, which also curbs emissions. The company has also invested over $10 billion in wind energy since 2014. MidAmerican most recently announced a $3.6 billion wind energy project that will be constructed on multiple sites around the state.