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.

University of Iowa drinking water exceeds maximum contaminant levels for disinfectant by-products


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Chlorine treatments react with organic matter in waterways to form Total Thihalomethanes, which have been linked to cancer and reproductive problems. (Jenna Ladd/CGRER)
Jenna Ladd | February 14, 2017

University of Iowa facilities management received notice on February 1 that its drinking water system contains levels of Total Trihalomethanes (TTHM) that exceed the federal drinking water standard.

In an email sent out to University faculty, staff and students on February 9, it was reported that the drinking water tested on average between 0.081 and 0.110 mg/L over the last year. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum contaminant level (MCL) for TTHM is 0.08 mg/L.

TTHM is a group of four chemicals: chloroform, bromodichloromethane, dibromochloromethane and bromoform. TTHM form when chlorine reacts with natural organic matter like leaves, algae and river weeds in drinking water. In its statement, the University said that more chlorination was necessary this year because higher than usual temperatures led to more organic waste in waterways.

The notice read, “You do not need to use an alternative (e.g., bottled) water supply. Disease prevention specialists with University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics say special precautions are not necessary.”

Chloroform and dibromochloromethane are Class B carcinogens, meaning they have been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals. TTHM has also been linked to heart, lung, kidney, liver, and central nervous system damage, according to a report by the University of West Virginia.

University officials cautioned, “However, some people who drink water-containing trihalomethanes in excess of the MCL over many years may experience problems with their liver, kidneys, or central nervous system, and may have an increased risk of getting cancer.”

A study by the California Department of Health suggests that even short-term exposure to high TTHM levels in drinking water can have serious consequences for pregnant women. Scientists monitored 5,144 women during their first trimester of pregnancy. Participants who drank five or more glasses of cold home tap water containing 0.075 mg/L or more of TTHM had a miscarriage rate of 15.9 percent. Women that drank less than five glasses per day or who had home tap water with less than 0.075 mg/L TTHM had a miscarriage rate of 9.5 percent.

A reverse osmosis filtration system for the University of Iowa drinking water supply is currently in its design phase. Facilities management expects to have the new system up and running within the next 18 months. Officials say it will help address Iowa’s nitrate problem and filter out naturally occurring organic matter, resulting in fewer TTHM.

Iowa Falls family honored with sustainable agriculture award


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Wetlands can improve water quality and create habitat for wildlife on Iowa farms. (Scott Smithson/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | February 10, 2017

John and Beverly Gilbert were honored with the 2017 Practical Farmers of Iowa Sustainable Agriculture Achievement Award at last month’s Practical Farmers of Iowa Conference.

Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) is a non-profit organization dedicated to “strengthening Iowa farms and communities through farmer-led investigation and information sharing.” Each year PFI offers the Sustainable Agricultural Achievement Award to an individual or couple that demonstrates a strong commitment to practicing sustainable agriculture and sharing that knowledge with others, all while fostering community.

John and Beverly Gilbert of Iowa Falls keep a 770-acre farm featuring corn, soybeans, oats, hay, and some annual crops for forage. The family also milks 50 to 60 Brown Swiss cattle and keeps pastured-raised, antibiotic-free pigs that are sold to Niman Ranch.

The Gilberts’ farm borders Southfork stream, a tributary of the Iowa River. They have taken many measures to improve water and soil quality on their land including stream buffers, extensive grass headlands and waterways, and terraces. The farm also features woodland areas, a prairie marsh remnant, and a restored shallow wetland, all a part of the Gilberts’ conservation efforts.

John said, “The mindset has gotten so focused on raising corn and beans that not many understand the potential of this landscape to support people. I have long thought that if we can’t replace the number of people we have farming, there are serious problems ahead for society.”

Wendy Johnson, PFI board member and farmer near Charles City, commended the recognition of the family. She said,

“Their farming system, management and decision-making encompass all that is or should be good about Iowa: its air, water and soil. They protect these elements alongside creating a viable farming business for multiple families. Their farm is what PFI means to me: a sustainable farm on all levels.”

Hy-Vee supermarkets take on U.S. food waste problem


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Hy-Vee stores have announced a program offering “ugly” produce in order to combat food waste in the United States. (Sarah R/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | February 9, 2017

Iowa’s Hy-Vee supermarket chain announced a new initiative to reduce food waste last month.

The employee-owned corporation began offering “ugly” produce in nearly all of its 242 stores in mid-January. “Ugly” produce are those vegetables and fruits that typically are not sold at market due to industry size and shape preferences. Hy-Vee partnered with Robinson Fresh to offer its original line of Misfits® produce. Depending on what is available seasonally, four to six Misfits® produce items are delivered to Hy-Vee stores where shoppers can purchase them at a discounted price. The program’s produce offerings include peppers, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes and apples, among other fruits and vegetables. On average, consumers can expect to pay 30 percent less for the “ugly” items.

John Griesenbrock is Hy-Vee’s vice president of produce/HealthMarkets. He said, “As a company with several focused environmental efforts, we feel it’s our responsibility to help educate consumers and dispel any misperceptions about produce that is not cosmetically perfect.”

The company’s press release notes that a movement to reduce food waste through the purchase of less-than-perfect produce has spread across Europe and is picking up steam in the U.S. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that 30 to 40 percent of the U.S. food supply goes to waste. Food waste makes up the vast majority of waste found in municipal land fills and quickly generates methane, which is a greenhouse gas that is 84 times more potent than CO2 during its first two decades in the atmosphere.

Hy-Vee’s Misfit® program supports the USDA and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency effort to achieve a 50 percent food waste reduction nationwide by 2030.

“We understand that there is product left in the field because farmers don’t think there’s a market for it,” said Robinson Fresh general manager Hunter Winton. He added, “With the Misfits program, farmers have an outlet to sell more produce and customers have an opportunity to save money and help reduce waste.”

Study finds Iowa groundwater is extracted at unsustainable rate


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The Jordan Aquifer lies beneath most of Iowa; locations with water use permits for tapping into the aquifer are shown above. (Iowa DNR)
Jenna Ladd | February 7, 2017

A recent study found the groundwater in Iowa’s Jordan Aquifer to be much older than previously known, and scientists say that could have implications for water use in the state.

Researchers from the Iowa Geological Survey at the University of Iowa in collaboration with Grinnell College, the UI Geology Department and Iowa Department of Natural Resources used isotopic age dating to estimate the age of groundwater in the Jordan Aquifer. The study measured major and minor ions, stable isotopes (d18O and dD) and
the radioactive isotope Chlorine 36 in eight wells scattered across the aquifer. The peer-reviewed journal article explains that the groundwater in northern and central Iowa is somewhere between 70,000 to nearly 180,000 years old.

The study points out that ethanol production in the state relies heavily on groundwater from the Jordan aquifer, which also provides roughly 300,000 residents with drinking water. From 2003 to 2013, annual use of groundwater from the aquifer for ethanol production increased by 7.4 billion liters per year.

Keith Schilling is a research scientist at the Iowa Geological Survey at the University of Iowa and the study’s leading author. He said,

“The implications for biofuel refineries and any water use of the aquifer is the realization that the groundwater is very old. It is not going to be recharged in any human timeframes so we should make sure that water from the aquifer is being managed appropriately.”

Beyond the lagging groundwater regeneration rate, the study also notes that increased groundwater pumping can result in detrimental water quality changes such as radium contamination. The authors conclude with a call for new ethanol refineries to steer clear of the Jordan Aquifer and utilize more sustainable groundwater sources instead.

Nearly 140,000 gallons of oil spill from Iowa pipeline


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Heavy snowfall in northern Iowa early this week complicated diesel oil clean-up efforts in Worth County, Iowa. (echoroo/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | January 27, 2017

Nearly 140,000 gallons of diesel fuel erupted from a broken pipeline onto an Iowa farm earlier this week.

The pipeline, located in north-central Worth County, was first discovered to have ruptured on Wednesday morning. Since then, clean up crews have managed to remove roughly 18 percent of the petroleum product despite high winds and heavy snowfall, according to a Thursday morning interview with Iowa Department of Natural Resources spokesperson Jeff Vansteenburg. Vansteenburg said that the diesel fuel and contaminated snow are being taken to a facility in Minneapolis, Minnesota while the remaining contaminated soil will be moved to a landfill near Clear Lake, Iowa.

Vansteenburg reported that the diesel fuel did not reach the nearby Willow Creek and wildlife reserve. The cause of the leak is still under investigation.

Magellan Midstream Partners, an Oklahoma-based company, owns the pipeline, which stretches through Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin. Last October, another pipeline operated by Magellen Midstream Partners ruptured and released anhydrous ammonia, resulting in the evacuation of 23 homes and the death of one person near Decatur, Nebraska. The company was also fined over $45,000 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2010 after roughly 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel leaked into a Milford, Iowa creek.

The Worth County spill is the largest diesel fuel spill since 2010 according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Since 2010, 807 spills have been reported to the administration causing an estimated $342 million in property damages and spewing 3 million gallons of refined oil products into the environment.

President Trump signed executive actions on Tuesday reviving the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. Ed Fallon is the director of Bold Iowa, an organization fighting the Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipeline projects. Fallon said, “We’ve been saying all along it’s not a question of if a pipeline will leak, it’s a question of when and where and how bad it will be.”

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is charged with regulating pipelines in the U.S. Inside Energy reported last year that the agency is underfunded and understaffed. It read,

“According to PHMSA, the agency has 533 inspectors on its payroll. That works out to around one inspector for every 5,000 miles of pipe. A government audit in October [2016] found that that PHMSA is behind on implementing new rules. It has 41 mandates and recommendations related to pipeline safety that await rulemaking.”

A 2016 report by Inside Energy provides a map of all the oil pipeline spills reported since 2010.

Rusty patched bumble bee added to Iowa endangered species list


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The rusty patched bumble bee used to be found across 31 states and parts of Canada, but is now only found in a few upper Midwest locations. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Jenna Ladd | January 12, 2017

The rusty patched bumble bee was recently added to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service endangered species list for the first time.

The Xerces Society, a non-profit conservation group out of Portland, Oregon, petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service for the species’ new designation. Serina Jepsen, director of the Xerces endangered species program, said in an interview with Radio Iowa, “The rusty patched bumble bee has declined by about 90% from its historic range,” Jepsen added, “It used to occur across 31 states as well as some Canadian provinces. It now occurs in just a handful of locations and it really only exists in any numbers in a few areas in the upper Midwest.”

Small numbers of the rusty patched bumble bee are still found in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana, but meaningful populations have not been detected in Iowa in years. Native pollinators like the rusty patched bumble bee are estimated to add $9 billion in value to the agricultural economy each year.

Jepsen said, “These animals together, not just the rusty patched bumble bee, but the rusty patched bumble bee and all of the other native bees that provide pollination to both wildflowers and natural ecosystems as well as our crops, are incredibly important to functioning ecosystems.”

Now that the species has been added to the endangered species list, “The Fish and Wildlife Service now has the authority to develop a recovery plan and work towards the species recovery. I think this will really make the difference this species needs in terms of its future survival and existence, really,” Jepsen said.

She added that providing habitat that sustains all pollinators depends on the continuation of investment from public agencies combined with efforts of private citizens.

The rusty patched bumble bee has a way of giving back.

Jepsen said, “Addressing the threats to the rusty patched bumble bee that it faces, from pesticide use, from disease, from habitat loss, will help not only this species but a wide variety of other native pollinators that are really important to functioning natural ecosystems as well as agricultural systems.”