On The Radio – Humidity on the rise in Iowa


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Increased humidity poses health risks for Iowans according to the 2017 Iowa Climate Statement. (Teresa Shishim/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| September 18, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses how humidity has increased significantly during all seasons in all parts of Iowa since 1971.

Transcript: Humidity in the state of Iowa has increased significantly since 1971, according to the 2017 Iowa Climate Statement released last month.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Absolute humidity, usually measured by dew point temperature, has increased significantly in all parts of Iowa during all seasons. The largest increase was found in Dubuque with a 23 percent increase in springtime humidity from 1971 to 2017.

The statement’s lead co-authors Gene Takle, director of Iowa State’s Climate Science Program and professor of geological & atmospheric sciences at ISU, and Betsy Stone, associate professor of chemical and biochemical engineering at the University of Iowa, warned that increasing humidity makes conditions more favorable for increased rainfall, extreme rain events, mold and mosquitoes.

High humidity also presents health concerns for Iowans. More humid air along with rising temperatures can make conditions dangerous for manual laborers and individuals sensitive to heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

Titled, It’s Not Just the Heat, It’s the Humidity!, the statement ends with a call for Iowans to do more to mitigate the effects of climate change through improving energy efficiency, cutting emissions and advancing renewable energies.

For more information, visit Iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

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

Safe drinking water symposium next week in Des Moines


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Jenna Ladd| September 14, 2017

Water quality has been a growing concern for many Iowans in recent years, primarily due to nitrate runoff from agricultural fields frequently exceeding the EPA’s safe drinking water limits. A safe drinking water symposium will be held next Thursday and Friday, September 21 and 22 in Des Moines to unpack this issue and many others.

Challenges to Providing Safe Drinking Water in the Midwest” will feature Iowa-based and nationally-recognized speakers and discussion panels related to local, regional and national water quality issues. A few of the topics to be discussed are the Health Impacts of Nitrate in Drinking Water, Drinking Water Treatment Concerns, New and Emerging Drinking Water Threats, and Communicating with the Public on Drinking Water Issues.

The one-and-a-half-day event is co-sponsored by several centers at the University of Iowa, Drake University, the University of Northern Iowa as well as the Iowa Association of Water Agencies, and the Central Iowa Drinking Water Commission.

The event, which will be held at the Drake University Shivers Facility, is open to the public. Additional information regarding agenda, registration, hotel, and parking is available at https://cph.uiowa.edu/ehsrc/drinking-water-symposium-2017.html.  Alternatively, call (319) 335-4756 to speak with an organizer.

What: Challenges to Providing Safe Drinking Water in the Midwest: A Symposium

When: September 21 from 8 am to 5 pm, September 22 from 8 am to 12 pm

Where: Drake University, Shivers Facility, Des Moines

Climate change to make storms like Harvey more frequent, intense


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A Texas National Guard member rescues a Houston resident during Hurricane Harvey. (The National Guard/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| August 30, 2017

More than fourteen million olympic-sized swimming pools could be filled with the amount of rain that has fallen in Houston as a result of Hurricane Harvey, and scientists say that climate change added to the deluge.

To begin, sea surface temperatures near where Harvey picked up its strength were about 1 degree Celsius higher than average. The Clausius-Clapeyron equation, a law of thermodynamics, says that the warmer a body of air is, the more moisture it can hold. In this case, the atmosphere surrounding Hurricane Harvey was able to hold roughly three to five percent more moisture than usual.

“The water in the Gulf of Mexico is the heat reservoir to support these hurricanes,” said Ben Kirtman, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Miami, in a report from NPR. Kirtman added, “For a small change in temperature, you get a huge amount of evaporation.”

In the last three decades, sea levels have risen worldwide by about six inches thanks to a warming climate and, in part, to human activities like offshore oil drilling. Higher sea levels make inland floods more devastating.

Climate Central scientist Ben Strauss said, “Every storm surge today reaches higher because it starts from a higher level, because sea level is higher. A small amount of sea-level rise can lead to an unexpectedly large increase in damages to most kinds of structures.”

Scientists are careful to point out that climate change did not directly cause Harvey, but is likely to produce storms like it more often. A recent report from the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine revealed that category 4 hurricanes like Harvey will occur more frequently in the future due to a warming climate.

So far, fourteen casualties have been identified as the storm continues to devastate the area.

Drinking water symposium scheduled for September


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Jenna Ladd| August 23, 2017

A symposium examining issues related to drinking water in Iowa and across the U.S. is set to take place in Des Moines next month. Challenges to Providing Safe Drinking Water in the Midwest: A Symposium will feature presenters from Iowa as well as nationally-renowned speakers.

The event’s agenda includes panel discussions concerning the human health impacts of nitrate in drinking water, new and emerging drinking water threats, and communicating about water quality with the public, among other topics. The symposium is co-sponsered by the The University of Iowa Environmental Health Sciences Research Center and the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination along with Drake University.

What: Challenges to Providing Safe Drinking Water in the Midwest: A Symposium

When: September 21 from 8 am to 5 pm, September 22 from 8 am to 12 pm

Where: Drake University, Des Moines

Those interested in attending the symposium can register here.

Interactive tool to predict future days above 100 degrees


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With a new web-based platform, users can see hot day projections for many U.S. cities and towns. (Climate Central)
Jenna Ladd| August 18, 2017

By now it’s common knowledge that as greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in our atmosphere, intensely high temperatures are likely to occur more frequently.

But Climate Central, a climate research and news organization, has developed a way for residents of the continental U.S. to see exactly how much their communities will be affected. The interactive tool allows users to type in the name of their city or town and view the average number of days that will exceed specific temperature thresholds in 2050, 2075 and 2100.

The analysis includes data for nearly 30,000 cities and towns of various sizes from across the continental U.S. Each graph provides two possible outcomes: one in which greenhouse gas emissions continue as usual and one in which they are moderately curtailed.

Researchers based their projections on aggregated data from 21 global climate models.

At present, Des Moines experiences an average of zero days per year when the actual temperature is above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. According to this study, the city will likely see 15 days annually that exceed the temperature threshold in 2050 and up to 30 per year in 2100.

This year is on track to be the hottest year ever, followed by 2016, 2015, and 2014, respectively.

New study assesses flood risks for schools nationwide


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The impact of flooding on schools is often compounded by aging infrastructure, according to a recent study. (FEMA)
Jenna Ladd| August 8, 2017

A recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts generated flood risk scores for 84,123 primary and secondary schools nationwide.

The report’s authors pointed out that flooding is the most costly and common natural disaster, affecting every region of the U.S. Many times, severe floods badly damage schools, causing them to close. For example, the study points out, floods in West Virginia in June 2016 cost $130 million in damage to regional schools.

Researchers used three metrics to generate county-wide composite flood risk vulnerability scores for schools in all fifty states including: a school’s location within a designated flood zone, the percentage of a school’s neighborhood (as represented by ZIP code) located within a flood zone, and the number of historical flood-related federal disaster declarations in that county.

Among the study’s major findings are that flood risk is distributed across diverse regions of the country. Schools with the highest flood risk scores were located in the Atlantic Coast, Gulf Coast, Mississippi River corridor, and southwestern Arizona. Similarly, those schools with the highest composite flood risk scores were located in both coastal and inland regions. Those 100 counties with the highest composite flood risk scores include 6,444 schools that serve almost 4 million students.

The study made some recommendations for steps policymakers can take to increase flood resiliency for schools. They included generating up-to-date local flood maps, developing pre-disaster flood plans for schools, working to leverage federal assistance, and relocating schools out of floodplains if possible.

The Pew Charitable Trusts full analysis can be found here.

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The highest flood risk areas are scattered across many regions of the country. (Pew Charitable Trusts)

Climate change likely to cause surge in nutrient runoff


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A small portion of a hypoxic dead zone in the Chesapeake Bay. (Chesapeake Bay Program)
Jenna Ladd| August 4, 2017

A recent study found that increased precipitation due to climate change will lead to markedly increased nutrient runoff.

Nitrogen rich fertilizers are widely used by U.S. farmers. Many times, more fertilizer than crops can use are applied to the land and the excess runs off into local waterways, eventually draining into the ocean. Excessive nutrient enrichment, also known as eutrophication, decreases available oxygen in the water and kills off aquatic species, resulting in “dead zones.”

Warmer temperatures associated with climate change are expected to continue producing heavier rainfall, thereby increasing nutrient runoff by up to twenty percent by 2100. Anna Michalak, a professor of global ecology at the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford and one of the authors of the study, told the New York Times, “When we think about climate change, we are used to thinking about water quantity — drought, flooding, extreme rainfall and things along those lines. Climate change is just as tightly linked to issues related to water quality, and it’s not enough for the water to just be there, it has to be sustainable.”

Researchers concluded that the Upper Mississippi Atchafalaya River Basin, the Northeast and the Great Lakes basin are likely to see the largest increases in nutrient runoff because these areas of the country are already creating hypoxic dead zones. Climate change will likely compound these effects.

While the study focused on the continental U.S., the researchers did apply their model to parts of the world most similar to it. They found that large areas of East, South and Southeast Asia will likely see nutrient runoff surges similar to those in the U.S. Given that some people in these regions depend on surface water to survive, the impacts of nutrient pollution there may be especially lethal.