Wildfires become more common and intense as Earth warms up


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Smoke billows from the Lodgepole Complex wildfire of eastern Montana. (Montana Public Radio)
Jenna Ladd| July 26, 2017

A wildfire as large as New York City is currently ripping across eastern Montana, and experts say climate change making fires like these larger and more common.

As climate change takes hold, wet areas are becoming wetter and dry areas are becoming drier. Rising temperatures in spring and summer months mean that soils are remaining dry for longer, which makes drought more likely, thereby lengthening the wildfire season.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, wildfires have become more likely and more intense since the 1980’s. They last nearly five times as long, occur almost four times as often and burn more than six times the land area on average.

Moving forward, residents of fire-prone regions can expect the wildfire season to lengthen. In the southwestern U.S., scientists predict wildfire season will increase from  seven months to twelve months.

The economic impacts of wildfires are staggering. Since 2000, the U.S. Forest Service has spent more than $1 billion on fire suppression in one fiscal year on two occasions. During the first decade of the 21st century, wildfires cost an average of $665 million per year in economic damages.

In their full report on this issue, the Union of Concerned Scientists say it’s not too late for humans to slow the course of climate change. They write,

“The global temperature is increasing and the climate is changing due to the greenhouse-gas emissions we have already produced, leading to a likely rise in the incidence of wildfires. But it is not too late. What we do now has the power to influence the frequency and severity of these fires and their effects on us.”

Researchers use climate data to predict Zika outbreaks


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The Aedes aegypti mosquito transmits many diseases including Zika. (Sanofi Pasteur/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| July 25, 2017

Zika virus spread rampantly throughout the Americas in 2014 and 2015. While the infection itself presents with few noticeable symptoms, it has been linked to an increased number of babies born with microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can result in paralysis.

So far, there have been 5,932 cases of the virus reported in the U.S. and nearly 40,000 in U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico. Zika is transmitted by the Aedes mosquito and human sexual contact.

In a study published recently in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology, researchers developed a way to predict Zika outbreaks before they happen. The scientists used climate data from Zika-prone areas to build computer models for Aedes mosquito populations.

One of the study’s authors, Dr. Ángel Muñoz of Princeton University, said, “Both the mosquitos that transmit Zika and the virus itself are climate-sensitive.” He continued in an interview with E & E news, “High temperatures, like the ones observed during the record-breaking years 2015 and 2016, generally increase the virus replication rates and also the speed of mosquito reproduction. The overall effect of high temperatures is an increase in the potential risk of transmission.”

The researchers used their computer model to test how well their projections of the virus spreading matched with what actually occurred in 2014 and 2015. They found that their model could consistently predict a Zika outbreak one month before it occurred. In some areas, the model predicted an epidemic three months in advance.

Their computer model is not without its limitations. First, the study notes that scientists can only confidently make predictions for entire countries and regions, not cities or towns. Second, Aedes mosquitos also carry dengue and chikungunya, so the model does not distinguish whether the mosquitos are carrying Zika or another vector-borne disease. It simply indicates when conditions for disease transmission are highly suitable.

Dr. Benjamin Beard is deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Vector-Borne Diseases. Referring to the changing climate and increased international travel, he said in an email, “We are seeing an accelerated threat from mosquito-borne diseases overall. Over the past few decades, we have seen a resurgence of dengue and the introduction of West Nile, chikungunya, and now Zika virus into the Western Hemisphere.”

On The Radio – Urban areas to suffer economic costs of climate change


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According to a recent study, the world’s larger cities, such as New York City, will be hit hardest by global warming. (Chris Goldberg/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| July 24, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment describes how climate change will have a disproportionate economic impact on urban areas.

Transcript: A recent study by an international group of economists found that climate change will likely cost cities twice as much as rural areas.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, found that the largest quarter of the world’s cities could see more intense temperature spikes by 2050 due to the combined effect of global warming and urban heat island effects. Urban heat islands are formed when naturally cooling surfaces like vegetation and bodies of water are replaced by surfaces that trap heat like concrete and asphalt.

Higher temperatures in cities have negative economic impacts including less productive workers, higher cooling costs for buildings and poorer water and air quality. On average, the global gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to drop by 5.6 percent by 2100 due to climate change. The combined climate change and heat island effect means that the most-impacted cities are expected to lose about 11 percent of their GDP in the same period.

The economists noted that some actions can be taken to mitigate these effects including installing cooling pavements and green roofs and reintroducing vegetation in urban areas.

To read the full story and for more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

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

Linn County joins growing coalition still committed to Paris Climate Accord


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The Linn County Board of Supervisors recently voted to stay committed to the Paris Climate Agreement. (cedar-rapids.org)
Jenna Ladd | July 18, 2017

The Linn County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on Monday to remain committed to the Paris Climate Accord, despite President Trump’s withdrawal at the federal level.

Linn County joins a group of more than 1,200 mayors, governors, college and university leaders, businesses, and investors that make up the We Are Still In coalition. An open letter from the coalition, which makes up more than $6 trillion of the U.S. economy, reads:

“In the absence of leadership from Washington, states, cities, colleges and universities, businesses and investors, representing a sizeable percentage of the U.S. economy will pursue ambitious climate goals, working together to take forceful action and to ensure that the U.S. remains a global leader in reducing emissions.”

Iowa City, Johnson County, Des Moines and Fairfield are also members of the coalition.

Following the board’s decision, businesses, local organizations and local leaders spoke during a news conference. Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker said, “Leadership on the tough issues can originate at the local level. One community can make a difference, this is our hope here today,” according to a report from The Gazette.

Local leaders emphasized that to keep the U.S.’s pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 28 percent before 2025, coalition members must walk-the-talk. Walker continued, “In absence of leadership in the federal government, the job is up to us locally.”

The role of climate change in extreme weather events presented in interactive map


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A screenshot of Carbon Brief’s new interactive map. Extreme weather events attributable to human-induced climate change are in orange, those that are not are in blue. (Carbon Brief)
Jenna Ladd | July 14, 2017

The body of scientific research examining the extent to which extreme weather can be attributed to human-induced climate change is growing. Carbon Brief, a climate journalism site out of the United Kingdom, recently created an interactive map that color-codes these studies, making it easy to discern which events were caused by climate change and which were not.

Carbon Brief mapped a total of 144 extreme weather events worldwide that have been included in “extreme event attribution” studies.  The investigators determined that 63 percent of all extreme weather events studied thus far “were made more likely or more severe” by human-induced climate change. Extreme heat waves account for almost half of those events that can be attributed to human-induced global warming.

Roz Pidcock is one of the map’s creators. She said, “The temptation is to look at the result of one study and think that is the definitive last word, but in reality, the evidence needs to be considered in its entirety to make sense of how climate change is influencing extreme weather.”

In 14 percent of the studies, scientists determined that humans had no discernible impact on the likelihood or severity of the weather event. For five percent of the weather events studied, climate change made the event less likely or less intense. The vast majority of these occurrences included cold, snow and ice events.

Perhaps the most striking finding included in the report is the overwhelming effect climate change has on the intensity and severity of heat waves. The investigators looked at 48 heat wave attribution studies and determined that 85 percent of those events were made more severe or more likely thanks to global warming.

The authors write, “One study suggests that the Korean heatwave in the summer of 2013 had become 10 times more likely due to climate change, for example. Only one study on extreme heat didn’t find a role for climate change – an analysis of the Russian heatwave in 2010.”

Fewer than ten extreme weather attribution studies have been published so far in 2017. Carbon Brief plans to continue adding updating its map and providing analysis for new studies as they are published in peer-reviewed articles.

Climate change to disproportionately affect the poor


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Researchers provide visual representations of projected damages related to climate change. (Journal Science)
Jenna Ladd | July 3, 2017

A study published in the journal Science found that climate change will likely cause economic damages for the poorest parts of the U.S. while economically benefiting more affluent areas.

Researchers figured the economic costs of climate-related impacts like rising sea levels, more extreme weather and higher temperatures. They ran many simulations which calculated the potential costs and benefits of each phenomenon for a variety of industries and business sectors. They figured that on average, the U.S. will lose roughly 0.7 percent gross domestic product (GDP) per 1 degree Fahrenheit increase in global temperatures. This economic burden, however, will not be shared equally by all parts of the country.

The poorest counties in the U.S., which are mostly in the South and southern Midwest, are likely to suffer the most intense economic downturn, with some counties expected to lose more than 20 percent of their gross county product.

Solomon Hsiang is a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and one of the study’s authors. In an interview with the Washington Post, he said, “What we’re seeing here is that climate change will have a very large impact on the quality of life and economic opportunity in the coming decades for ourselves and our children.”

The Northern and Western U.S. are likely to experience fewer economic consequences. Some areas may benefit from the changing climate where higher temperatures mean longer farming seasons and lower energy costs. Hsiang said, “The poor regions will get poorer and the richer regions will benefit.”

Iowa will likely fall in line with projections for the Midwest. Researchers warned that agricultural markets could see economic devastation similar to that experienced during the Dust Bowl.

At present, the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans earn about 20 percent of all U.S. income. The researchers warn that climate change may further widen this earning gap. The report reads, “Combining impacts across sectors reveals that warming causes a net transfer of value from Southern, Central and Mid-Atlantic regions toward the Pacific Northwest, the Great Lakes region, and New England. … [B]ecause losses are largest in regions that are already poorer on average, climate change tends to increase preexisting inequality in the United States.”

Suicide rates for farmers exceed rates for all other occupations


More farmers are taking their lives than any other occupation in the country, University of Iowa researchers have discovered. (flickr/Daniel Brock)

Katelyn Weisbrod | June 27, 2017

The rate of suicide among farmers is drastically higher than any other occupation, according to a study done by University of Iowa researchers.

From 1992 to 2010, 230 American farmers committed suicide at an annual rate ranging from 0.36 per 100,000 to 0.92 per 100,000. Comparatively, no other occupation exceeded 0.19 suicides per 100,000 workers for any year during this same period.

Co-author of the study Corinne Peek-Asa, a professor in the UI College of Public Health, said in a UI press release that financial issues related to economic or weather conditions can contribute to the suicide rate, as well as other stressors like physical pain from labor, societal isolation, and inaccessible healthcare. Peek-Asa also said a farmer’s job is a large part of his or her identity, and he or she may take failure extremely personally.

“They struggle with their ability to carve out the role they see for themselves as farmers,” Peek-Asa said in the release. “They can’t take care of their family; they feel like they have fewer and fewer options and can’t dig themselves out. Eventually, suicide becomes an option.”

The number of farmer suicides has significantly declined since the farming crisis of the 1980s, when grain trade with the Soviet Union halted and millions of farms went under. Over 1,000 farmers took their lives that decade.

Although the suicide rate has declined since the 1980s crisis, another agricultural disaster could be on the horizon. As the effects of climate change set in through increased temperatures and precipitation, farmers could soon face serious setbacks.

In a press release issued after President Trump announced his intent to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said, “We cannot sustain a viable food system if climate change is left unchecked … Increasingly unpredictable and destructive weather [will] wreak havoc on family farm operations, future generations, and food prices and availability for years to come.”