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.

Research profile: Dr. Art Bettis

Dr. Art Bettis presents during a Clear Creek Watershed bus tour in June of last year. Dr. Bettis serves as site coordinator for the Clear Creek critical zone observatory project. (Nick Fetty/CGRER)

Dr. Art Bettis acts as program director for the UI Environmental Sciences program and is a professor in the Earth and Environmental Science department. He also holds a joint appointment with the Institute of Hydraulic Research. Dr. Bettis has been at the university since 2000.

We sat down with Dr. Bettis to discuss his work within the Critical Zones Observatory program. The Critical Zones Observatory is an interdisciplinary research initiative examining the processes that take place at specific research sites across the U.S. and how those processes are altered by human action. Dr. Bettis’ work centers around the impacts of industrial agricultural on sites in the Midwest.

Jenna Ladd: What is your research focus?

Dr. Art Bettis: I am really interested in lots of things, but my main focus lately has been on soils and how they’re connected to the deeper geology. It’s how water moves through them, how water interacts with the solid materials and with the organic materials and how that impacts both the soils and the water that ends up in river and streams.

Jenna Ladd: Tell me about the Critical Zones Observatory and how it came to be.

Dr. Art Bettis: The Critical Zones Observatory (CZO) is a National Science Foundation Project that was conceived about almost ten years ago. The idea with the CZO was to sort of try to document and understand the processes that were taking place from the top of the canopy of the vegetation to the bedrock surface or to some sort of deep aquifer. It’s an integrative science program so it involves geology and hydrology and biology and land-use studies, all sorts of things. Originally, there were five observatories across the country that were funded for five years. After the first five years, there was another call for proposals and they funded four of the original observatories again and brought in another seven new observatories and the Clear Creek observatory or the Intensively Managed Landscapes (IML) critical zone observatory was one of the new ones. This is our fourth year that we’re in with this project. It’s primarily National Science Foundation (NSF) funded, but it’s also, part of the whole idea of the CZO program is to engage other agencies and groups in research. It’s supposed to be sort of a research tank where people start doing things and it attracts other people to come and start doing more things.

JL: So, there are three research sites in Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota. Why were these locations selected?

AB: Well, the whole idea of the Intensively Managed Landscape CZO was to look at this critical zone in an area that really is an very important regional area that hasn’t been looked at. The other CZOs were all in mountainous areas or in forested regions and none of them were agricultural landscapes at all. So, that was the general impetus for setting up the Intensively Managed Landscape program. The idea was to try to capture some of the range of settings that are present to see how they may have similar issues or similar mechanisms or if they differ significantly. So, we chose Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota because they’re three really different landscapes. There’s a different lay of the land, different water issues, but they all share a common intensive row crop agricultural land use.

JL: You mentioned that these Midwestern states were brought in to see if there were similarities in the natural processes that are happening. Have you found similarities?

AB: Oh yeah, there are a lot of general things. Row crop agriculture dominates all three areas. Agricultural tile drainage is a really common thing in all three areas. Degradation of surface waters is a really common thing. The impacts on streams and lakes is a really common element. Also, sort of a non-scientific thing, the economy of all those areas is really heavily dependent upon this kind of land use. There’s a lot of commonalities. Even though it may be a really different kind of landscape, just the intensity of agricultural land use makes it similar to the Central Valley in California or places in Europe or places in China or something like that that are under those same kinds of pressures from intensive agricultural use.

JL: So humans have almost forced them into uniformity?

AB: Yeah, exactly. It’s mostly intentionally engineered for crop production. That engineering of the landscape has really made it behave in ways that are more similar among those drastically different places than they would normally be.

JL: Within Iowa, why was the Clear Creek watershed selected specifically?

AB: It’s sort of a historical thing. There was a guy, Thanos Papanicolaou, who used to be a researcher in engineering at IIHR—Hydroscience and Engineering, who had already started doing quite a few projects out there, maybe five or six years previous to the first call for the CZOs. So, he had already had a watershed experiment station kind of set up there and had already been doing some things. Then also, Clear Creek is really typical of a large part of the landscape in the Midwest that wasn’t glaciated during the last glaciation so it’s an area that has the same kinds of issues and same kinds of landscapes and soils and stuff that a lot of the other areas in the region do too, plus it’s close [laughs]. But that wasn’t the reason why. Mostly it was the previous investigations and then this similarity to a lot of other areas.

JL: So what are some of the CZOs major findings so far?

AB: What we’ve found, you know, no surprise, the workings of the landscapes have been altered a whole lot. Basically, the main finding that is sort of driving things along is that prior to intensive agricultural land use, the landscape and the processes on the landscape acted to transform materials on the landscape: To turn dead vegetation into organic matter, to turn decaying organic matter into nutrients for plants and animals without having them end up in a stream to degrade the stream. Basically, processes were around where there was a lot of contact time and things were moving sort of slowly through the system, and with agricultural land use, in an effort to increase crop production, they’ve sped everything up and the landscape has really changed from a transformer of materials into a transporter of materials. So, there’s really short residence time on the landscape: sentiment gets moved to the stream quickly, nutrients go through the system really quickly, that’s why we have to add so much now and a lot of what we add goes through the system. That’s had huge impacts, both locally and off site. That presents us with lots of problems and lots of opportunities to try to figure out how to change the system so that it transforms more things. We’re not going to go back to the way it was, we’ve changed it to where it can’t go back to the way it was, but there might be some things that can be done to alter the way things work on a landscape now in its new mode of operation.

JL: I’ve never heard it describe that way, in terms of transformation versus transportation. That’s a really nice way to conceptualize it.

AB: It’s sort of the essence of what it’s about.

JL: Can you expand a little bit about the impacts of a transportive system?

AB: A transportive system does a lot of things. Number one, it’s very efficient. Water doesn’t stay on the landscape a long time so you don’t have areas that are too wet to plant in the spring, thanks to agricultural drainage. You don’t have places that are too wet year round for agriculture. You are able to control moisture conditions in seedbeds to where your seeds are more likely germinate or find favorable conditions.

With sediment, you know, there are not a lot of positives with transportation because we removed soils and remove solid materials from the landscape and we clog streams and lakes with sediment. The downside of the water moving fast is that the water doesn’t move all by itself. It moves with either sediment or with nutrients. Really what it’s about is that the system now is better for growing crops without considering the costs. So, whether the system is better in the long run, I think, is fairly debatable.

JL: What steps has the CZO taken to engage the general public?

AB:  We have an education and outreach component. We have led several field trips for both agencies and local people. Then we also engage K-12 teachers every summer. We had a workshop last summer for twelve K-12 teachers, and this year we’ve got eleven or twelve K-12 teachers that Ted Neal, over in the education  department is working with. So, they’re working in the CZO. They get to choose what kind of things they’re interested in and how they want to develop some curriculum.

That’s the other thing about the CZO, the data is publicly available really fast. Of course, it’s data that might be hard for the public to digest, but the whole idea is to have it available for people that want to use it and then to make it available as things are going along. So, it’s not like data that gets stored away for years and years and nobody has access to it. That’s part of the NSF program, is to make the data very readily available to anybody who wants to use it. So there’s a really short period where the data is not available and then it’s out there for everybody.

JL: It seems like farmers get much of blame when it comes to erosion and water quality issues in Iowa. What are your thoughts on that?

AB: We work on farms so we work with farmers and we have some really great cooperators. On one side, as an environmental scientist, row crop agricultural and industrial farming is really not very good for our landscape or for our environment. On the other hand, I know these people that are totally engaged in it and sort of see that they are indeed concerned about the environment, but they’re kind of between a rock and a hard place because it’s how they make a living. It’s been really interesting to sort of see both sides of this story and come to the realization that, you know, most farmers, just like most people, are good people and want to do right, but they also have to make a living, just like we all have cars. [laughs]

JL: How does climate change affect these intensively managed landscapes?

AB: That’s a huge thing. Obviously, climate change will have an impact and is having an impact on our crops on many fronts. I think we’re going to see more of these large storms and seasonal pattern issues and then along with that is just a change in weather. Like this last winter, you know, case in point. It was very weird, it froze but not for very long and so that really changes the whole subsurface hydrology and all of the relationships of what goes on geochemically and biologically in the ground.

But yeah, climate change is going to be huge. Floods are the things we think about when we’re in towns, but out in the country, whenever there’s that much water, that water is full of sediment so it’s also erosion that’s going right along with that flood—both in the channels and off the fields. That’s a real tough aspect of how we deal with our soils that intensively. Soil is like a bank account and before people started using it heavily for agriculture, there were a lot of deposits, lots of organic matter and lots of nutrients. We’ve been withdrawing for a long time [laughs], and we’re at the point now where they don’t have much in reserve so if you don’t put on chemicals, you can’t grow a crop very well after a few years. That’s also going to be really impacted by climate change because, once again, this stuff doesn’t do any good if it’s not there when the plant needs it.

JL: Are you concerned that CZO funding will be affected by the new administration?

AB: We don’t know. There was just a national meeting in Virgina earlier this month for the CZOs with NSF, and NSF is very pleased with how the CZOs have gone and there’s no talk of not having another five year funding round, which will be next year. So, you know, between you and me, it’s easy not to say climate in the CZO [laughs] and I think that’s kind of a good thing right now. There are one or two or three principle investigators for each CZO, but each one of them has probably at least 15 different investigators from different institutions. So, that’s kind of what NSF likes to see and it’s really worked well in this program. There’s a large network of international sites that are starting to come up. They’re not funded by NSF, they’re funded by their own countries. China has five now and they’re building four more real soon, Germany has three. I think there are forty of them internationally or something like that so the concept has caught on.

A Critical Zones Observatory researcher collects soil samples at the Clear Creek watershed intensively managed landscape research site. (Critical Zones Observatory)

Iowa teachers lead development of Next Generation Science curriculum

Teachers work in small groups to develop curriculum plans that align with Iowa’s new science standards. (Left to right: Taylor Schlicher, Southeast Junior High; Zach Miller, University of Iowa MAT Science Education; Susanna Ziemer, University of Iowa MAT Science Education; Ted Neal, Clinical Instructor, University of Iowa; Courtney Van Wyk, Pella Christian Grade School; Stacey DeCoster; Grinnell Middle School)

Jenna Ladd| June 22, 2017

Science teachers gathered at the University of Iowa’s Lindquist Center on Tuesday to develop new curriculum for eighth grade students.

The working group was hosted by the UI College of Education and the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER) as a part of the Iowa K-12 Climate Science Education Initiative. The joint initiative seeks to make the transition to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which were approved by the Iowa Board of Education in 2015, easier for Iowa teachers. Clinical instructor Ted Neal along with education graduate students Susanna Herder, Andrea Malek and Zachary Miller have begun developing curriculum bundles for 8th grade science classes that meet the NGSS standards.

Many of the NGSS standards require students to explore how the Earth’s climate system works. For its part, CGRER plans to make some of its members’ climate science data available to Iowa educators. Using an open inquiry approach, students can answer their own questions about topics such as land use or weather patterns in their local environment.

During the day’s opening remarks Ted Neal said, “The research is very clear that if we do open inquiry with kids, the learning is off the charts.”

Neal and his team of graduate students presented an eighth grade science course plan that included six curriculum bundles, with each bundle meeting certain NGSS benchmarks. Bundles five and six have already been developed by the College of Education team and CGRER member Dr. Scott Spak. Tuesday’s goal, Neal explained, was for the seven teachers in attendance to take the lead on the development of the four additional curriculum bundles.

Bundle five provides students access to aerial maps of their communities from throughout history. Students are free to observe how land use in Iowa has changed over time and what effects that may have on natural systems. Chelsie Slaba teaches science at Dike-New Hartford High School and tried the map lesson with her students last year. Slaba said, “I was surprised. I heard it here and thought, ‘I don’t know if that will really work.’ I tried and who knew maps could be so interesting to them?” She continued, “They looked at their own family farms, because a lot of my kids live on farms or their grandparents’ [farms] or a special place to them to hone in on.”

Slaba used only NGSS with her ninth grade students last year and plans to implement the standards with her physics students next year. She added, “It was really empowering as a teacher.”

The Iowa K-12 Climate Science Education Initiative plans to begin developing curriculum bundles for grades five and six in the fall. Ultimately, Neal explained, the group aims to host a free online database where all curriculum and related scientific data are available free of charge to Iowa educators.

The morning session concluded with teachers broken up into smaller groups brainstorming ideas for bundles one through four. The educators rattled off phenomena related to the standards that still resonate with eighth-graders: cell phones to explore energy use, tennis shoes to explain resource extraction, driving cars to investigate physics.

Slaba said that some teachers are afraid to allow for more student-led lessons due to the pressure they feel for their students to perform well on standardized tests. However, her experience thus far may assuage their worries. She said, “Over the three years, my Iowa assessment scores have just gone up by a few percent each time.”

Urban heat islands compound economic impact of climate change

A 2011 heatwave in New York City produces an orange sunset. (Chris Goldberg/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | May 30, 2017

A recent study published in Nature Climate Change revealed that the climate change is likely to be twice as costly in cities than in rural areas.

An international group of economists found that the world’s largest cities could see temperature spikes of 46 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100 if greenhouse gases continue to rise at the current rate. The top 25% largest cities could are likely to see temperatures rise by about 45 degrees Fahrenheit in the same period of time.

The report explains that about 41 degrees Fahrenheit of warming can be explained by global climate change, but the additional four to five degrees of warming will be the result of the urban heat island effect. 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.

Based on their analysis of 1,692 cities, the economists expect the combined heating affect to have negative economic consequences for urban areas. Higher temperatures cause workers to be less productive, raise cooling costs for buildings, and deteriorate 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. In contrast, the most-impacted cities are expected to lose 10.9 percent of their GDP. The researchers provided cost-benefit analyses of several cooling measures in the report, including cooling pavements, green roofs and the reintroduction of vegetation in urban areas. For example, transforming 20 percent of a city’s pavement and rooftops to cooling surfaces could save a city up to 12 times what the structures cost to maintain and install, providing a bump to the local GDP.

The researchers conclude that local efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change can play an important role in global efforts. One of the study’s authors, Professor Richard S.J. Tol, Professor of Economics at the University of Sussex, said, “Any hard-won victories over climate change on a global scale could be wiped out by the effects of uncontrolled urban heat islands.” Tol added, “It is clear that we have until now underestimated the dramatic impact that local policies could make in reducing urban warming.”

UI professor researches geology behind ocean formation

Early morning on the South China sea
Sunrise on the South China Sea, where UI professor David Peate is spending his summer researching continental rifts. (flickr/Ivan Herman)
Jenna Ladd | May 19, 2017

The spring semester has come to a close and most UI professors have retreated to their campus labs to catch up on research. Dr. David Peate, on the other hand, is spending his summer days floating on the South China Sea.

This is no pleasure cruise, however. The professor of Earth and Environmental sciences is working 12-hour days to advance scientific understanding of how continents separate and oceans are formed. Peate embarked on the 9-week expedition funded by the International Ocean Discovery Program with 125 other scientists and crew members from around the world, he explained in an interview with Iowa Now.

In the interview, Peate explained that when continents drift apart, the uppermost layer of the Earth’s crust is stretched so much that parts of a deeper layer called the mantle can ooze up into the crust. Sometimes the mantle is so hot that it rises up as lava and forms continental boundaries like those seen in eastern Greenland and northern Europe, he explained. Other times, the mantle rises at cooler temperatures and no lava is formed. The expedition’s primary mission is to understand the difference between these two types of continental rifts.

The continental rift in the South China sea is “different than other well-studied rifted margins. For one, it is not covered by thick piles of lava flows, unlike most other examples of continental rifting, which spawned lava flows,” he said.

The researchers’ ship is equipped with a three mile long steel tube that drills into the ocean floor to collect cores. “That is equivalent to the distance between the Old Capitol and Iowa City West High School,” Peate explained to Iowa Now. Once pulled up, cores are separated into five-foot lengths and prepared for geologists to study. Peate is mostly interested in volcanic rock. Some of the cores will return to Iowa with him. He said, “I will collaborate with other international scientists from the expedition to make detailed chemical investigations of all the volcanic rocks that we find.” Peate continued, “Combining results from the different drilled sites will allow us to build a picture of how the volcanic activity changed through time as the rifting event happened.”

Peate’s other areas of research include the formation and transport of magma in Iceland and the driving forces behind large magma eruptions. His compete interview with Iowa Now can be found here.

Scientists construct massive fake sun to develop new renewable energy source

“Synlight,” the world’s largest artificial sun, was created by scientists to develop new ways to create hydrogen fuel. (Bruno Amaru/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | March 24, 2017

Scientists in Germany have constructed the world’s largest artificial sun in order research how to produce a developing renewable energy source.

Hydrogen is regarded as the renewable fuel of the future, mostly because it does not produce greenhouse gas emissions when burned. However, the gas isn’t found alone in the nature so scientists must split the molecules that make up water (H2O) in order to harness its power. Separating H20 molecules requires a great deal of energy; the German scientists hope to learn how to get that energy from sunlight.

The artificial sun, called “Synlight,” is comprised of 149 high-powered film projector spotlights and is able to generate 350 kilowatts. Bernard Hoffschmidt is research director at the German Aerospace Center, Synlight’s home. Hoffschmidt told the Guardian, “If you went in the room when it was switched on, you’d burn directly.”

The researchers will point all of the artificial sun’s energy at a single 8 by 8 inch spot where it will emit 10,000 times the amount of light that reaches Earth naturally from the sun. Using these strong rays, the scientists will be able to experiment with new ways of creating hydrogen fuel using energy from the sun.

In the short term, Synlight uses an incredible amount of energy: four hours of operation is equivalent to how much electricity a family of four would use in a year. Long term, the researchers anticipate it could help them learn how to use naturally occurring sunlight to produce hydrogen fuel without the use of any fossil fuels.

Hoffschmidt said, “We’d need billions of tons of hydrogen if we wanted to drive airplanes and cars on CO2-free fuel. Climate change is speeding up so we need to speed up innovation.”

Dr. Charles Stanier provides Lake Michigan Ozone Study update

Red dots indicate areas where mean ozone levels were above 70 parts per billion, which is the new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standard. (Rob Kaleel/LADCO)
Jenna Ladd | March 9, 2017

The Lake Michigan Ozone Study 2017, a collaborative research campaign designed to better understand ozone levels around the lake, will begin this May.

The communities around Lake Michigan frequently experience an overabundance of surface-level ozone, which can cause respiratory problems for humans and harm plant life. Through the study, scientists are working to generate new information about how ozone in the area is formed and transported above the lake.

Brad Pierce is NOAA Advanced Satellite Products Branch scientist stationed at the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies (CIMSS) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He said, “There are these sites along the lake… that are in violation, and they’re not really areas that have a whole lot of industry.” Pierce added, “The sense is that a lot of this has to do with lake breeze circulations. We want to go out and measure the lake breeze circulation and the transport of ozone precursors – the emissions that end up producing ozone – in the springtime when this lake breeze is most dominant.”

Since the study was commissioned last year, it has received additional support from the scientific community. Dr. Charles Stanier is a CGRER member and UI professor of chemical and biochemical engineering. He said, “We’ve expanded from one aircraft and two [air quality monitoring] ground sites to two aircrafts and seven ground sites. We’ve got extensive measurements that will start in May and continue into June and then extensive computer simulations that will help make sense of what we see.”

The collaborative field campaign consists of scientists from several universities such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Iowa, and many more as well as professionals from the agencies like the Lake Michigan Air Directors Consortium (LADCO) and NASA.

Dr. Stanier provides more information about the study’s goals and primary research questions below.