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.

Iowa State’s agricultural and biosystems engineering program ranks best in country

Bird’s eye view of Iowa State University’s new Biorenewables Complex which was completed in 2014. (Iowa State University.)
Jake Slobe | October 12, 2016

Iowa State University’s agricultural and biosystems engineering undergraduate program was recently ranked No. 1 in the country by U.S. News and World Report’s 2017 Best Colleges.

The report stated that, “Students who enroll at this major research, land-grant university experience a unique personal, welcoming environment, and a rich collection of academic and extra-curricular programs that help them discover their own individual greatness.”

Department Chair Steven Mickelson credits much of the ranking to the university’s new Biorenewables Complex. The complex, consisting of Elings Hall, Sukup Hall and the Biorenewables Research Laboratory, opened in 2014 and offers cutting-edge classrooms and laboratories.

While the new complex has been significant in boosting the level of ISU’s engineering department, it is just one of many changes within the program in the last few years.

In the summer of 2013, ISU teamed up with the Center for Industrial Research and Service (CIRAS) to invest in a 3-D metal printer that will contribute to students’ learning. The new laser printer has been building parts for Iowa manufacturers since last fall and allows students to learn about the advantages of adopting metal 3D printing as part of the design and manufacturing process.

The department has also recently acquired a state-of-the-art water flume.  The new water flume allows students to simulate Iowa streamflow which assists them in crop research.

“These two new pieces of technology are used for teaching and learning that gives great experience to help students with jobs and research,” Mickelson said.

Mickelson also attributes the ranking to the program’s growth in undergraduate and graduate students. The program has seen a 46 percent increase in undergraduate students and a 25 percent increase in graduate students over the last 5 years.

He emphasizes the importance of hands-on learning experiences in the classroom. He says hands-on learning curriculum accounts for 38 percent of all classes in the department.

“Hiring high-quality faculty, getting the right people on the bus to being with is what makes this department great.”

On The Radio – 2016 Iowa Climate Statement


Jake Slobe | October 10, 2016

This week’s on the radio discusses the sixth annual Iowa Climate Statement. The full statement can be found here.

Transcript: The sixth annual Iowa Climate Statement was released on October fifth.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The document, titled Iowa Climate Statement 2016: The Multiple Benefits of Climate-Smart Agriculture, was signed by 180 science researchers and faculty from thirty-eight Iowa colleges and universities. This year’s statement centers around Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s U.S. Department of Agriculture Initiative “Building Blocks for Climate-Smart Agriculture.” Vilsack’s initiative aims to expand nation-wide voluntary, incentive-based programs for farmers to combat human-induced climate change.

The climate statement champions proven conservation techniques such as planting perennial plants on marginal cropland and reduced-till or no till farming that would decrease nation-wide net emissions and increase carbon storage in soil. Statement authors note that the document is part of a larger effort, strengthened by the December 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, to offset human-caused climate change.

For more information about the 2016 Iowa Climate Statement or to read the full document, visit

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

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 professor selected to serve on U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce

University of Iowa associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, associate faculty research engineer at IIHR, and Director of the Environmental Policy Research Program, David Cwiertny. (Anne Easker, IIHR)
Jenna Ladd | October 6, 2016

Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER) member David Cwiertny has been selected to serve on the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce as minority staff. Cwiertny, who is also the Director of the Public Policy Center’s Environmental Policy Research Program, received the appointment through the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). AAAS creates opportunities for scientists to offer their expertise and analytical skills to legislators while also learning more about the policy making process firsthand. Cwiertny said,

“Evidence, rooted in sound science, should whenever possible be used to inform and improve decision making and new policy.  And science has never been more important for informing policy, particularly as society begins to address how best to manage and adapt to a changing climate. So in my discipline of environmental engineering and environmental science, I think there is a real opportunity for scientists and engineers to help advance policy that better enables sustainable development both in the US and around the globe.”   

As an AAAS 2016-2017 Congressional Fellow, he will serve on both the energy and power and environment and economy subcommittees. Cwiertney, who is also an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and associate faculty research engineer at IIHR—Hydroscience and Engineering, will function as a technical expert within the two subcommittees, which are responsible for all legislation and regulation related to water, air, and soil quality and energy. He added, “I’m eager to see, first hand, what the major hurdles are to translating scientific discovery into evidence-based decision making, and how we can improve and evolve our craft as researchers to better help policy makers.”

Cwiertny is one of two fellows that were selected from a pool of over 100 applicants.