UI professor researches geology behind ocean formation


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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.

Neonicotinoids found in University of Iowa drinking water


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Activated carbon filters were shown to effectively remove neonic insecticides from drinking water. (Minnesota Department of Health)
Jenna Ladd | April 7, 2017

Neonicotinoids, a specific class of pesticides, have been detected for the first time ever in tap water according to a recently published study by University of Iowa scientists and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Neonics became widely used by farmers in the early 1990s, mostly because they are harmful to insects but to not other species. The pesticides are still very popular, despite mounting research that suggests they are lethal to bees and other helpful insect species.

A team of researchers compared tap water samples from the University of Iowa drinking water supply to samples of Iowa City municipal tap water. Tap water from each source was tested for three primary neonicotinoid types: clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam. The University of Iowa filtration system removed only a minute amount of each insecticide. In contrast, the City of Iowa City successfully removed 100 percent, 94 percent and 85 percent, respectively, of each primary neonicotinoid.

Researchers say this can be explained by the different filtration systems used in each facility. Neonicotinoids readily dissolve in water, they say, and therefore easily slip through the University’s sand filters. The city employs an activated carbon filter that successfully removes the chemicals. Dr. Gregory LeFevre, University of Iowa environmental engineer and one of the study’s authors, said that activated carbon filters can be a cost-effective way to tackle these insecticides in an interview with the Washington Post. In fact, the University purchased a small activated carbon filtration system shortly after the study wrapped up in July 2016.

Levels of neonicotinoids in University water were relatively small, ranging from 0.24 to 57.3 nanograms per liter. LeFevre said, “Parts per trillion is a really, really small concentration.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has not set a limit for neonicotinoid levels in drinking water. The study’s authors argue that more research is called for to assess neonicotinoid exposure on a larger scale. LeFevre explained, “Without really good toxicity data it is hard to ascertain the scale of this, but whenever we have pesticides in the drinking water that is something that raises a flag no matter what type of concentration it is.”

CGRER co-director delivers UI Presidential Lecture


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Dr. Gregory Carmichael (left) and University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld (right) at the 34th Annual Presidential Lecture on Sunday. (Jake Slobe/CGRER)
Jenna Ladd | February 21, 2017

UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research co-director Dr. Gregory Carmichael delivered the 34th Annual Presidential Lecture to a crowded assembly hall at the Levitt Center for University Advancement on Sunday.

The lecture, titled “What Goes Around, Comes Around: The Global Reach of Air Pollution” featured opening remarks from University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld. Quoting Dr. Jerry Schnoor, Carmichael’s co-director at CGRER, President Harreld joked, “Greg is now more traveled than George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air, four million miles and counting.” Carmichael’s extensive research of the long-range transport of air pollution has taken him to many parts of Eastern Asia, South America, Africa and Europe, among other locations.

Carmichael’s lecture was organized into three parts: the global reach of air pollution, the link between climate change and air pollution, and a finally, a discussion about the action necessary to curb air pollution worldwide. The lecturer made a strong case for air pollution research, citing that it is the root cause of 7 million avoidable deaths per year. Carmichael pointed out that air pollution has economic consequences too; each year, it leads to loss of 10 percent of U.S. soybean yields.

The lecture encouraged a sense of urgency when it comes to cleaning up the atmosphere. Carmichael warned, “That molecule that we put in the air today will stay in the air for a long time.” He went on to say that 20 percent of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere today will remain there for thousands of years. Professor Carmichael’s research focuses primarily on the utilization of comprehensive computer models and big data to simulate the interplay of air pollutants with weather and climate.

His work has been instrumental in understanding the way in which air pollutants from China move across the Pacific Ocean and affect the Western U.S. He said, “Fifteen to twenty percent of clean air policies in the Western U.S. are being offset by Chinese emissions.”

Above all, the Karl Kammermeyer professor of chemical and biochemical engineering emphasized his passion for instructing and advising students. Carmichael has supervised the research of 40 PhD and 35 Masters of Science students at the University of Iowa.

To learn more about Dr. Carmichael’s career, check out episode 5 of CGRER’s EnvIowa podcast.

EnvIowa Podcast: Dr. Gregory Carmichael


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Dr. Gregory Carmichael has worked closely with scientists in East Asia since 1983 to address pressing air quality problems in that region. (Tim Schoon/University of Iowa)
Jenna Ladd | February 17, 2017

In Episode 5 of EnvIowa we speak with Dr. Gregory Carmichael, Karl Kammermeyer Professor of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering and Co-Director of the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, about his extensive research on global air pollution.

Dr. Carmichael shares his experiences collaborating with scientists in China, explains why air quality issues in East Asia should matter to Iowans and offers some perspective about what climate science research may look under the new federal administration.

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.

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.

CGRER co-director Gregory Carmichael to deliver UI Presidential Lecture


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CGRER co-director Gregory Carmichael will give the 34th annual UI Presidential Lecture titled, “What Goes Around, Comes Around: The Global Reach of Air Pollution.” (Tim Schoon, University of Iowa)
Jenna Ladd | January 31, 2017

Co-director of the University of Iowa Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER), Gregory Carmichael, will give this year’s University of Iowa Presidential Lecture.

Carmichael became faculty at the University of Iowa in 1978 after earning a BS in chemical engineering at Iowa State University and a PhD from the University of Kentucky. Nearly four decades later, the Karl Kammermeyer Professor of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering remains devoted to studying the global impact of pollution on air quality.

In an interview with IowaNow, Carmichael recounts how he initially became interested in air quality issues. He said, “At the time I was doing my graduate studies, acid rain was emerging as a big problem. That was really the first air pollution problem that demonstrated to people that we could have an impact beyond our local environment.”

Carmichael has won several awards including the Regents Faculty Recognition Award in 1998, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers Lawrence K. Cecil Award in 2012, NASA Group Achievement Awards in 2005 and 2009. Over time, Carmichael’s research became increasingly international. In the most recent fifteen years, his research team has has conducted air quality forecasting field experiments in Chile, California, the Arctic, and Beijing.

Much of his research considers how air pollution travels intercontinentally. He said, “We have done a lot of work on this topic over time, and this long-range transport of pollution is now being taken into consideration in the management of U.S. air quality and in international discussions. Wherever the emissions are occurring, they have an impact not only locally but globally as well.”

Carmichael became co-director of CGRER in 1991, and currently serves alongside Dr. Jerry Schnoor, University of Iowa professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

“What Goes Around, Comes Around: The Global Reach of Air Pollution”

UI Presidential Lecture by Dr. Gregory Carmichael 

Where: Levitt Center for University Advancement

When: Sunday, Feb. 19 at 3:30 pm