Science change and climate change

Science is ever changing. It is now possible to show that some of the increase in rainfall from storms and consequent flooding has a human fingerprint.

Science is getting better, and that is bad news for climate change deniers.

Only two years ago when I last taught a climate change course at the University of Iowa, I informed students that claiming any extreme weather event came from changes in the climate was too uncertain.

Now, that view needs revising. After working with Dr. James Boulter, professor of Chemistry in the Watershed Institute for Collaborative Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire, I have learned more.

The Iowa Policy Project worked with the Environmental Defense Fund to have Professor Boulter produce a report on climate change and flooding in Iowa. Working on this paper, I read material from the last three years that that brought me up to date on science’s ability to attribute extreme weather events to greenhouse gas effects on the climate.

Here is one source for my new understanding of what is known as “event attribution.” It is a statement from a report of the state of science relating to climate change and its physical impacts, in the Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4), by the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP).[1]

“…(T)he science of event attribution is rapidly advancing, including the understanding of the mechanisms that produce extreme events and the rapid progress in development of methods used for event attribution.”

Attribution has also been a subject addressed in a recent report of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.[2]

Science is ever changing. It is now possible to show that some of the increase in rainfall from storms and consequent flooding has a human fingerprint. We should not deny that, even as fossil-fuel supporters recklessly deny the existence of climate change or that we can already see its effects.

As Professor Boulter stated in his conclusion to the IPP report, “Now, as national politics begin to inundate Iowa’s media landscape — much as the floodwaters overran the physical landscape — it is crucial that science-informed discussions of policy responses to climate change be prominent in our personal conversations, candidates’ political statements and debates, and our community discussions across all forms of media.”

 

[1] Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4), by the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP). https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/3/

[2] National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine: “Attribution of Extreme Weather Events in the Context of Climate Change,” 2016. https://www.nap.edu/read/21852/chapter/1#x

David Osterberg is founder and former executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project and is IPP’s lead researcher on the environment and energy issues. He is professor emeritus of occupational and environmental health at the University of Iowa.

dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

More drainage and water quality benefits, too? Maybe

Can more drainage paired with wetlands improve water quality and farmers’ profits? Let the research proceed, and until then, let’s withhold judgment.

Will Hoyer
Will Hoyer

We’ve all heard about the area of hypoxia, or the so-called “Dead Zone,” in the Gulf of Mexico. As a result of all the rain and flooding this year and the amount of water flowing down the Mississippi, scientists are expecting the Dead Zone to be the largest ever recorded.

It’s starting to appear that these rain events are becoming the “new normal” just as climate modelers have predicted. Therefore it is becoming even more imperative that we take steps to reduce the amount of nutrients that are leaving Iowa fields and keep them from flowing downstream. The Wetland and Drainage Initiative that we write about in our latest report is an attempt by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) to study one potential way for doing just that.

At the heart of it the concept behind the Initiative, which some know as “the Iowa Plan,” is the idea that enlarging the subsurface drainage(or “tile”) capacity will allow fields to dry faster thus increasing crop yields. The additional profits from the higher yields could then pay for the construction of nitrate removal wetlands that would be built at the outlets of the tiles. The larger tile capacity would mean more nitrate leaving the fields but the nitrates would be removed by the wetlands. That’s the theory — but it needs to be tested. That’s what IDALS is doing, in partnership with other agencies and groups, at several sites in north central Iowa.

map showing Des Moines Lobe
The Des Moines Lobe is the focus of the IDALS initiative.

We really don’t know for sure if this Initiative will work as touted and there are lots of questions, questions that hopefully will be answered with rigorous, transparent monitoring of the pilot sites. Rightly or wrongly there is a lot of skepticism among some groups regarding anything IDALS does and so the onus is on IDALS to demonstrate that these pilot projects, were they to be expanded across the tile-drained parts of the state, would actually have water quality and crop yield benefits and would not have unintended negative consequences.

A lot of research underlies the Initiative, and with thorough monitoring of the pilot sites scientists will probably know a lot more in five years. It’s possible that these treatment wetlands will be playing a much bigger role in the next few decades in Iowa, Illinois and other tile drained parts of the country, but in five years the data may also show that the concept just does not work. We’ll see.

  • We should avoid a situation where farmers are putting in larger tiles with no way of removing the extra nitrogen and therefore contributing even more to downstream water problems.
  • We should avoid subsidizing farmers’ installations of larger tiles.
  • We should avoid draining the few remaining wetlands we have left.
  • We should avoid putting scarce public dollars into programs that may not have benefits.
  • We also should avoid putting all of our eggs in one basket. It’s going to take more than just these nitrate removal wetlands to get Iowa water quality to where it needs to be and there are lots of other steps that can be taken and existing programs that could use more resources in the meantime.

In short, this is a message to catch our breath and let the research tell us what’s happening. This Initiative combining enhanced drainage and nitrate-removal wetlands shows promise to benefit both farmers and water quality but until we see the numbers in a few years we will withhold judgment.

By Will Hoyer, Research Associate

But what have you done for me lately?

An astounding number of people have no idea what their government does for them — even as they benefit from government programs.

Source: Suzanne Mettler, "Reconstituting the Submerged State: The Challenges of Social Policy Reform in the Obama Era," via Sara Robinson, Campaign for America's Future

This NYTimes blog post is interesting enough, but what really caught my attention was a table from a recent academic political science paper that has made its way from liberal bloggers to a former Reagan economic advisor.

An astounding number of people have no idea what their government does for them, even as they benefit from government programs.

 

Posted by Andrew Cannon, Research Associate

Give thanks for what we do and do not have

Iowa does not have a reputation for having great water quality, but it could be worse.

Will Hoyer
Will Hoyer

My job here at IPP requires me to think a lot about water. Iowa does not have a reputation for having great water quality, and there are certainly plenty of threats, but it could be worse. As Thanksgiving approaches here are a few things I’m thankful for:

1) We don’t have companies extracting natural gas using unknown chemicals and potentially fouling our groundwater like Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan and other states do.

2) We have adequate water (for the most part). You don’t have to go too far to find areas where water quantity is a serious concern, like in Nebraska and Wisconsin. Travel further, to places like Florida and the American southwest and the issues get even more serious. Certainly increased chances of drought in the Midwest are recognized as a possibility with climate change, but to date we’ve avoided drought for a few decades.

3) We don’t (yet!) have major oil pipelines running across our state. It just so happens that they rupture occasionally like this one did in Michigan. A few years ago, Wisconsin had an oil pipeline break, too. And now there’s a pipeline proposed that would cross Nebraska.

4) While we’ve seen our fair share of flooding in parts of the state, we’re not going to see the problems that coastal cities will as sea levels rise.

5) We don’t have acutely toxic groundwater like this city in California does.

We in Iowa are plenty busy working on polluted runoff, CAFOs, emerging contaminants and seasonal flooding, among other things. That’s plenty for now.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Posted by Will Hoyer, Research Associate

‘Loading the dice’ for the ‘new normal’

I’ve heard it said that climate change is “loading the dice” toward extreme weather events. This means we must prepare for more frequent major floods — but also even larger floods.

Will Hoyer
Will Hoyer

Flooding is more and more a serious concern in Iowa. Some call it the “new normal.”

A book released earlier this year, A Watershed Year: Anatomy of the Iowa Floods of 2008, edited by Iowa historian and environmentalist Connie Mutel, helps us understand the “new normal” phenomenon. We are likely to see more frequent and possibly larger floods as rainfall patterns change as a result of climate change.

Can we, with any scientific validity, directly attribute any flood, heat wave, snowfall, hurricane or drought to climate change? Not yet. But the fact remains that the sorts of rainfall patterns Iowa has seen recently, and many of the extreme weather events seen across the world are exactly what climate models predict, as noted by a recent report from Environment Iowa.

I’ve heard it said that climate change is “loading the dice” toward making certain extreme weather events more likely to occur. What this means for Iowa is that we now have to prepare for more frequent major floods, but also be ready for even larger floods.

What can we do? There are no simple answers and clearly the solution is going to involve a combination of things. Iowa is taking the right steps by developing some excellent resources for municipal officials and local residents. But does the political will exist to make the difficult choices? Should we allow development in flood plains? (The Cedar Falls city council has decided to say no.) Should we build more levies around cities to protect them (but push flooding on to communities downstream)? Should we prohibit a net increase in runoff from any development site? Should we require or even pay farmers to reduce runoff from their fields?

In both rural and urban areas, healthy soil is the first line of defense against flooding as it can slow, store and clean prodigious amounts of rainfall and runoff. Unfortunately, as outgoing DNR Director Rich Leopold noted in an excellent and sobering editorial, our soils are not healthy. We’ve lost, and continue to lose, huge amounts of topsoil from our croplands and the soils in our urban developments aren’t really much better than concrete at holding onto water.

Healthy soil means cleaner water, less flooding, excellent crops and — quite possibly — dice that are a little less loaded. That’s a win-win-win-win for everyone.

Posted by Will Hoyer, Research Associate

Plenty of blame for Iowa floods

We can’t continue to follow the practices and policies that have created flooding problems, or create new policies that pose greater risk.

Will Hoyer
Will Hoyer

In 2008 it was Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. This year Ames is getting a turn. Oh, and throw in some serious flooding around Oskaloosa, Manchester, Colfax and elsewhere, not to mention the dam failure at Lake Delhi.

What’s going on? Why are towns, universities, farmers, the wealthy and the poor in Iowa all suffering from flood damage with frequencies far exceeding statistical expectations?

Point your finger at what you want: more development in flood plains and pavement everywhere, fewer functioning wetlands, degraded soil, more agricultural drainage tile, more row crops, and increasing frequency of heavy rains as a result of climate change. All play a role in causing havoc in Iowans’ lives and generating steep bills that have to be paid by someone, somehow.

What can be done? There are lots of things that need to be done, but a guiding principle that must be adhered to is a simple one: first, do no harm. We can’t continue to follow the practices and policies that have created the problems in the first place, or worse yet, create new policies or programs that create even greater flooding risk. Should we continue to build in flood plains? Should we continue to pave over agricultural land to build sprawling surface parking lots? Should we continue to follow agricultural cropping practices that degrade soil quality and reduce the natural ability of the soil to hold on to water? Should we “improve” field drainage so that water flows into rivers and streams even faster? The simple answer to all of these questions is no. Of course nothing, including finding policies that will address these issues while not causing harm elsewhere, is ever simple.

Stay tuned as IPP will be looking at some of these issues in encouraging policies that improve the management and quality of Iowa’s waters in ways that benefit all Iowans.

Posted by Will Hoyer, Research Associate

Over-regulated?

As we have seen, it is hard to regulate in America or in Iowa.

David Osterberg
David Osterberg

How much regulation is right for the United States? One might expect demand to rise after the speculative fury that ruined financial markets and then nearly destroyed the economy, or after the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill. However, some guys still take every chance they can to get on TV claiming g’mnt is the problem, crying that the economy is overregulated and they want less of it.

Actually, too little regulation leads to great potential mischief. We have a great example of it right here in Iowa. In 2008 we had massive floods all over eastern Iowa. Short-term responses dealt with the aftermath of the disaster, but we faced long-term questions as well.

Sensible regulatory policy would try to avoid the worst effects of another flood. We could limit development in the 500-year flood plain or plan for dikes to be breached, to let water flow onto farmland rather than on to city streets. (Compensating farmers and landowners is a better option than rebuilding cities, businesses and homes.)

A committee of Iowa experts looked into how to avoid the worst disasters from flooding. They recommended limits on development and establishing ways to spread out the flood wave before it hit cities and built-up areas.

The result? Legislation to do both was introduced into the most recent legislative session but powerful farm groups and developers were too strong and nearly nothing was done.

The Gulf oil spill, bankers speculating on our country’s future, and unwise development in the flood plain are all good reasons to rein in markets. However, as we have seen, it is hard to regulate in America or in Iowa.

Posted by David Osterberg, Executive Director