Thomas R. O'Donnell

Posts Tagged ‘environment’

Climatologists offer evidence – and encourage action – on climate change

In Government on August 19, 2019 at 7:27 am
An aerial view of flooding at Camp Ashland, Nebraska on March 17, 2019.

An aerial view of the flooding at the Camp Ashland, Nebraska on March 17, 2019, after a Platte River levee broke. Nebraska experienced its worst flooding ever in spring 2019, something climatologists say is likely to become more common under global climate change. Credit: Staff Sgt. Herschel Talley, Nebraska National Guard, via photopin (license).

When you want to learn about climate change, talk people who study climate.

SciLine, the science information service for journalists, did just that. As part of a science essentials boot camp for political reporters, the nonprofit (associated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science) gathered three state climatologists before a Science Center of Iowa audience earlier this month.

The climate mavens from Iowa, Nebraska and North Carolina were unequivocal in their assertion that man-made climate change is real. Doubts among the public, especially farmers, are fading as bouts of extreme weather become more common, they said.

The three experts varied somewhat, however, in their thoughts on how we should respond to the climate change threat. And it seemed to me that the discussion mostly missed the point in a substantial way.

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Science marches on – with some conspicuous absences

In Government, STEM on April 9, 2018 at 7:42 am
Woman holds a sign saying "Empirical Data Trumps Imperial Alt-Facts" at the 2017 March for Science Iowa.

A pointed sign from the 2017 March for Science Iowa.

Plans are shaping up for the 2018 version of the March for Science Iowa, a more overtly political version of last year’s event, when more than 3,000 Iowans flooded the Capitol grounds.

With elections coming up, organizers (including your humble correspondent) have invited candidates to appear on Saturday (the event starts with the march at around 1:00, followed by candidate forums and speeches at 2:00) to detail their views on publicly supported research, science education and evidence-based policy.

The march is nonpartisan: We want to hear from politicians and candidates from both parties. But it is not nonpolitical: We demand that our elected officials and contenders uphold science.

We invited candidates for governor, the Third Congressional District, agriculture secretary and secretary of state. Most will attend.

But only from one party. Guess which.

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Cooler, wetter weather: Thanks, corn and beans … I think

In Government, University research on March 8, 2018 at 7:39 am
Cornfields might not understand it, but they're messing with our weather.

Corn might not get it, but it’s messing up our weather. Credit: ANBerlin A bed in the corn field? via photopin (license).

About now, farmers in Iowa and across the Corn Belt get itchy. As the weather warms, they start tuning plows and planters, preparing to put another crop of corn and soybeans in the ground.

Within months, the rural Midwest will largely be a sea of towering stalks filling out ears and squat bean plants putting on pods.

But this sea of biomass has unforeseen effects on Midwestern climate, a study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests – and, I would argue, contributes to global climate change.

When you’re driving past those carpeted fields this summer, you can thank them for countering higher temperatures driven by greenhouse gas emissions, but curse them for more frequent drenching, violent thunderstorms and tornadoes.

It stands to reason that agriculture – which has never been more intense or widespread in human history – is doing something to our weather. But there are bigger questions about its impact. Read the rest of this entry »

Paper: Too much precaution stilts innovation, could perpetuate hunger

In Uncategorized on July 14, 2013 at 6:08 pm
Caution tape

Photo credit: Robert Couse-Baker via photopin cc

I’m a pretty careful guy. I wear my seatbelt, floss my teeth, and look both ways before crossing the street. These precautions keep me safe and healthy.

Precautions are generally prudent, wise and forward-looking. We all want to be safe as possible. Why risk a bad outcome?

This is a simple way to consider the Precautionary Principle, an approach regulators often use to consider new technology. It’s best, they say, to be careful, lest unexpected, unwanted consequences crop up. What can be wrong with that?

Plenty, a new report from an Ames-based agricultural policy think tank says. Citing a long string of academic papers and case studies, it blasts misapplication of the Precautionary Principle for blocking technology like genetic engineering of grains while ignoring the costs: less food for a growing population, less income for rural farmers and greater environmental harm.

The principle is ambiguous, arbitrarily applied, and biased against new technologies, the paper says, and its consequences have been mostly negative. It ignores technology’s many benefits while focusing on its risks, no matter how small.

“The [principle] has been tried but has failed as a risk management strategy,” the authors say. “It is time to move beyond it” – a conclusion some environmentalists are sure to challenge.

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Digging into a crater’s past in Decorah

In Uncategorized on February 21, 2013 at 4:05 am

drillJust about everyone from Iowa knows about the famed Manson Impact Structure, a divot 23 miles across at the point where Humboldt, Webster, Calhoun and Pocahontas counties meet. Researchers say a meteor smacked the area about 74 million years ago, leaving what the Iowa Geological & Water Survey says is “the largest intact, on-shore meteorite crater in the United States.”

Well, I’m not sure how big the news is here, but earlier this week the Washington Post reported on research suggesting there’s another, smaller (4 miles across) crater in the vicinity of Decorah, in Iowa’s far northeast corner, giving the state an imaginary face a little like Popeye’s.

The story is well done, but doesn’t delve into the interesting Iowan who helped find the first clues of the crater’s existence.

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