Iowa State researchers receive grants to improve glacier flow models and sea level predictions


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                         Calving of the Aialik Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska. (Alaska National Park Service)
Jake Slobe | February 15, 2017

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.

Both projects will use the glacier sliding simulator Iverson has been using since 2009 to study glacier movement.

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.

As global temperatures rise, future of agriculture uncertain


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Soybean yields could decrease by as much as 40 percent due to rising temperatures. (United Soybean Board/flickr)

 Jenna Ladd | January 20, 2017

Without further action to curb greenhouse gas emissions, global temperatures are expected to rise as much as 6.1 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial averages, which may meaningfully impact agricultural outputs.

According to a recent study by the the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and the University of Chicago, rising temperatures could significantly reduce U.S. grain harvests. Using a set of computer simulations, the researchers found that yield reduction could reach 40 percent for soybeans and almost 50 percent for corn by the end of the century if carbon emissions are not cut drastically. Wheat would fare slightly better, with its yields decreasing by an estimated 20 percent.

The researchers said, “The effects go far beyond the U.S., one of the largest crop exporters. World market crop prices might increase, which is an issue for food security in poor countries.”

A report by the European Union’s Joint Research Centre came to a different conclusion. They found that wheat may actually benefit from higher concentrations of carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere, while corn yields would decrease.

Although the global temperature has reached record highs for three consecutive years, U.S. corn and soybean yields were seemingly unaffected. Thanks in part to genetically modified seed, which can have adverse environmental impacts, corn and soybean output was higher than ever in 2016.

However, the extreme drought of 2012 serves as a reminder that agricultural productivity is vulnerable to a changing climate. That year, U.S. corn harvests decreased considerably and caused global corn prices to skyrocket.

2016 marks third consecutive hottest year on record


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Ethiopia, among many other African countries, experienced extreme drought and famine in 2016. (European Comission DG Echo/flickr)

 Jenna Ladd | January 19, 2017

Yet another record was set on Wednesday when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) released its annual Climate Report.

The report announced that 2016 was the hottest year on record for the third consecutive year. Deke Arndt is the chief of the monitoring group at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information in Asheville, N.C.

Arndt said, “[Last year] was the warmest year on record, beating 2015 by a few hundredths of a degree, and together those two years really blow away the rest of our record.” He continued, “And that doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you take that and you average it all the way around the planet, that’s a big number.”

Rising temperatures were not limited to certain regions. Experts said that some part of every major ocean and every major continent experienced record heat. The Arctic, however, saw some of the most extreme warming. During Fall of 2016, temperatures were a full 20 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than average across large parts of the Arctic ocean.

Scientists say the long-term warming caused by climate change was intensified by the El Niño weather phenomenon during 2015 and 2016. Their combined effect caused drought and famine in Zambia, Congo, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi, among other countries. Now that El Niño is coming to an end, Arndt said that the annual temperature-recording breaking probably will too, but an overall warming trend will continue.

Arndt said, “The long-term warming is driven almost entirely by greenhouse gases. We’ve seen a warming trend related to greenhouse gases for four, five, six decades now.”

The Climate Report, along with a separate analysis by NASA which duplicated its results, were released on the same day that confirmation hearings began for Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who has been nominated by President-elect Trump to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt, who staunchly supports the fossil fuel industry, is identified as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” in his official biography.

The complete report and a summary of its findings can be found here.

2016 to be hottest year on record


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2016 will likely be the third consecutive year that shatters global temperature records, according to the World Meteorological Organization. (Fosco Lucarelli/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | November 15, 2016

The World Meteorological Organization (WHO) released a report yesterday which predicts 2016 to be hottest year on record.

The report, which was published at the global climate summit in Morocco, found the current global temperature to be 34 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels. Earth’s global temperature has reached a new peak for the last two years, and 2016 could make three. Experts say that the El Niño weather phenomenon is partly responsible for higher temperatures during the first part of the year, but human activity can be blamed for the rest. Petteri Taalas is the WMO secretary general. He said, “Because of climate change, the occurrence and impact of extreme events has risen. Once in a generation heatwaves and flooding are becoming more regular.”

Extreme heat waves have been reported around the world throughout the year. Temperatures soared to 109 degrees Fahrenheit in South Africa in January, 112 degrees Fahrenheit in Thailand in April and 129 degrees Fahrenheit in Kuwait during July. WMO stated that at least half of the extreme weather events of recent years have been human-induced, they noted that the risk of extreme heat has increased by ten fold in some places. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has found extreme weather and climate-related events effect the farming and food security of over 60 million people worldwide.

Climate scientist Michael Mann of Penn State University responded to the report. He said,

“It is almost as if mother nature is making a statement. Just as one of the planet’s two largest emitters of carbon has elected a climate change denier [Donald Trump] – who has threatened to pull out of the Paris accord – to the highest office, she reminds us that she has the final word.”

Mann added, “Climate change is not like other issues that can be postponed from one year to the next. The US and world are already behind; speed is of the essence, because climate change and its impacts are coming sooner and with greater ferocity than anticipated.”

Not all of the report’s findings were negative. Carbon emissions have largely stabilized over the last three years after decades of growth, which experts say is mostly due to China burning less coal. Also, even though 2017 promises to be an extremely hot year, it most likely will not break records.

On The Radio – 2016 ‘water year’ much wetter than average


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Each  Water Summary Update provides the current status of water resources in Iowa measuring precipitation, stream flow, shallow groundwater, and drought monitoring. (Iowa DNR)
Jake Slobe | October 31, 2016
This week’s On The Radio segment discusses Iowa’s 2016 Water Summary Update, released by the Iowa DNR in October.

Transcript: Iowa’s 2016 Water Year, which ended on September thirtieth, is the third wettest year on record in 144 years.

 This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

 The Iowa Department of Natural Resources recently released its most recent Water Summary Update. The report provides an overview of the status of Iowa’s water resources and significant events that affect water supplies using four categories: precipitation, stream flow, shallow groundwater, and drought monitoring.

 The most recent update is a snapshot of the state’s water resources from August 31 through October 10. The update reveals that average statewide rainfall was 6.29 inches or 2.91 inches above average, making it the rainiest September since 1986.

 “The 2016 water year, which began in October 2015, and continued through September of this year, surprised Iowans with major unseasonal events including flooding on Thanksgiving last year, rainfall in January, and major flooding in September. While perhaps unexpected, these are consistent with early predictions from climate scientists that global warming will be characterized by increased variability of weather patterns. For Iowans, this implies that we have to be vigilant and prepare year round. Always stay tuned to the current weather conditions and forecasts.”

Streamflow was also found to be above average throughout the state. Following heavy rain events at the end of September in the Cedar and Wapsipinicon River basins, peak streamflow in several locations was found to be the second-highest in recorded history. These values were only topped by the historic 2008 flood.

 For more information about weather and climate in Iowa, visit iowaenvironmentalfocus.org.

 From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Jenna Ladd.

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.”

November U.N. climate conference aims for universal agreement


(Elliot Gilfix/Flickr)
(Elliot Gilfix/Flickr)
KC McGinnis | September 1, 2015

World leaders will gather in Paris this November in hopes of reaching an international agreement on climate change and mitigation standards.

The 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP21, will be held from November 30 to December 11. There, delegates from the 196 states that have ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will seek to reach a unanimous and legally-binding agreement on a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit global warming to 2°C that can be implemented by 2020.

“We therefore have a historic responsibility, as we are the first generation to really become aware of the problem and yet the last generation that can deal with it,” said French minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development in a Youtube statement.

To reach this agreement, member countries will be required to submit documentation of their contributions to greenhouse gas reductions, which will be summarized to give a broad picture of their efforts. Participants will then discuss tangible steps and options for reducing their carbon footprints, such as renewable energy, carbon taxes, technological innovations and sustainable agricultural practices.

The challenge for COP21 will be to prove that international negotiations between large member states with complex agendas can in fact be fruitful. Last year’s COP20 conference in Lima, Peru was blasted by the convention’s Women & Gender Constituency, who claimed that it “failed to move substantially forward towards the ultimate goal of agreeing on a plan to avert climate catastrophe.”

“Governments should be immediately implementing a renewable and safe energy transformation,” wrote Bridget Burns, of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization, “but here at COP 20 in Lima, in spite of working almost 2 days overtime, they did not come close to reaching this goal.”

COP21 could prove to be either a crucial point in the fight against climate change or another failed attempt at the kind of global cooperation scientists agree is necessary to prevent catastrophic effects of climate change like rapid sea level rise.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kJyY5xmFrpY