Iowa City Press-Citizen: Scientists Say Drought a Sign of Climate Change

Tuesday, November 20, 2012
By Tara Bannow
Iowa City Press-Citizen

More than 40 University of Iowa scientists — some of them irked by the lack of climate change discussion in the recent presidential election — added their name to a statement released Monday declaring that climate change caused the 2012 drought.

All told, 138 science faculty and research staff from 27 Iowa colleges and universities — 44 from UI — put their stamps of approval on the statement, which conceded that although science can’t with 100 percent certainty pin human activities as the drought’s culprit, such extreme weather events in recent years are symptomatic of a climate that’s growing warmer because of the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

With Iowa in the midst of an ongoing drought and the recent devastation of the East Coast by the unprecedented Hurricane Sandy, now is a “teachable moment” when it comes to climate change, said Jerry Schnoor, co-director of UI’s Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research and a leader in organizing the statement.

“We wanted to make clear that most scientists and people who teach science in our colleges and universities in Iowa feel quite strongly that climate change is here now and we’re suffering costs as a result of that,” he said. “There are a lot of things we can do to respond, both in terms of adapting to climate change and mitigating it and lowering our own emissions.”

Many of the statement’s supporters are among the group of scientists that released the 2010 report ‘Climate Change Impacts on Iowa’ to the governor and state Legislature in an attempt to bring the issue to the forefront of political conversation.

Eugene Takle, an Iowa State University atmospheric science professor and director of the university’s Climate Science Program, was an author of the 2010 report. He also helped organize a group of scientists who released a statement ahead of the 2012 Iowa Caucuses encouraging candidates to make climate change a topic of discussion, as with the most recent statement.

“We have the evidence here,” Takle said. “It’s in our backyards; it’s in our basements. It’s time we start thinking about it and get the political discussion going so that we can decide on some ways to take action.”

Iowa saw a 500-year flood in 1993 followed by floods that should not have happened for hundreds of years in 2008 and 2010, Takle said. In 2012, the state was hit with a drought on par with the worst of the 20th century, he said.

“We wanted to make a statement clarifying that we can’t point to any single event as being evidence of climate change, but we have multiple extreme events — these are not part of the natural record we’ve seen in the last 120 years,” Takle said.

The statement advises Iowans to invest in infrastructure improvements that will protect against the extreme weather that’s likely to strike again. In Iowa City, that already can be seen in conversations about raising Dubuque Street near Interstate 80, Schnoor said. Other examples include moving transformers for water treatment plants higher, he said.

“No longer can we put the physical plants of our buildings in the basements,” he said. “That’s traditionally what has been done. Now it has to go on the roof in the future.”

Likewise, farmers need to start thinking about methods of preserving topsoil in the event of future flooding, Takle said.

As far as individual citizens are concerned, the scientists said just being aware of the issue is important, but they also stress reducing energy consumption by weatherizing homes, driving less and using energy-efficient appliances.

Greg Carmichael, another co-director of UI’s Center for Global and Regional Environmental Health, said a motivating factor in getting involved with the statement was the 2012 presidential election, in which mention of climate change was “unheard of.”

“It seems like over the last couple of years, at least as a nation, we’ve avoided talking about climate change, yet the science keeps telling us that humans are impacting climate in ways that’s never happened before,” he said, “and that these events that are occurring — like the drought, the increased severity of storms that just happened on the East Coast — are consistent with climate change, and so we felt an obligation to try to speak from the science community and try to get the issue back in front of people.”