Record flooding, droughts and a sweeping inland hurricane have decimated farm fields, small businesses and the livelihoods of countless Iowans over the last decade plus. And if we do not act to curb greenhouse gas emissions, it could cost the Quad-Cities millions more annually in economic damages by 2100. That’s according to estimates and predictions compiled by state and regional climate science experts based on national and local climate data.
"Climate change is already here, and it’s affecting people, plants, animals and large sectors of our economy," Jerry Schnoor, co-director of the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research at the University of Iowa said in a 2018 climate statement signed by 201 science faculty and researches from 37 Iowa colleges and universities. It described the need to fortify buildings and public infrastructure from a hotter and wetter future.
The 2020 statement, endorsed by 230 Iowa science faculty and researchers, focused on how the global health pandemic, drought and derecho show the need for science-based climate policies.
Not being prepared for the pandemic has far outweighed the costs of prevention and preparation, and the cost of ignoring climate change is no different, said Silvia Secchi, associate professor of geographical and sustainability Sciences at the University of Iowa.
The Aug. 10 derecho, which brought winds of up to 140 miles per hour, left 75,000 Iowans without power, destroyed $1 billion in crops and flattened $300 million worth of grain bins.
"Damage from extreme events continues to pile up in our state at an unprecedented rate," said Dave Courard-Hauri, chair of environmental science and sustainability at Drake University.
Nations around the world are now developing "green economic stimulus plans," to recover from the pandemic and energy efficiency programs, alternative transportation, renewable energy, green jobs, electric and smart vehicles, education, research and development, and the like are shown to return many times more than was spent, according to an Oxford review of economic policy.
As the United States considers stimulus investments to rebuild the economy, "our leaders should adopt comprehensive rebuilding strategies that invest in energy efficiency programs, renewable energy, electric and smart vehicles and research and development," Eric Tate, associate professor of geographical and sustainability sciences at the University of Iowa, said in a Zoom news conference. "These smart investments now will better prepare us for the coming decades when extreme weather events will become more costly, more common and more severe."
Hotter, wetter, more humid
Globally, the five warmest years on record were each of the last five years. September was the hottest month ever in 141 years of record-keeping, according to the World Meteorological Association.
In Iowa, that has led to dramatic variability in rainfall, higher humidity and warmer nights, which will continue to get worse. Five-day heat wave temperatures in Iowa will increase by about 7 degrees Fahrenheit for the average year to about 98 degrees by mid-century, and by 13 degrees Fahrenheit once per decade compared to the heat waves in the late 20th century. One out of every 10 years is projected to have a five-day period with peak temperatures averaging 105 degrees.
"Heat is the leading cause of weather-related deaths in the United States," Betsy Stone, associate professor of chemistry at the University of Iowa, said in last year's Iowa Climate Statement. "People who work outdoors, such as building and road construction workers, military personnel and agricultural workers, are particularly at-risk for heat-related illness such as heat exhaustion, heat cramps or, in severe cases, heat stroke.
"Animals are also at risk," Stone said. "Iowa’s agricultural census includes 23 million hogs, 4 million cattle and 79 million poultry. With most housed in concentrated numbers, there are concerns of animal death and widespread productivity losses and negative economic impacts on animal production."
Heat may degrade animal health, making them more susceptible to infections and death, Stone said. Further, heat stress slows animal weight gain, so more energy and resources are requires to offset production efficiency losses.
"Increasing heat waves will require expanded disaster preparedness, increased energy utilization to cool homes and livestock facilities, and curtailment of outdoor work during times of extreme heat," she said
Scientists say the strongest rainfall events, covering areas as large as a third of the state, are projected to double in intensity by mid-century, with most of the change coming before 2025. By 2100, parts of Eastern Iowa could feel more like parts of the Gulf Coast — with more days above 90 degrees and a 30% increase in heavy rainfall events, according to recent climate modeling.
"These are really scary projections, which will have negative consequences for every Iowan," Schnoor said. "We must start now to adapt our built environment, including buildings and flood mitigation systems to this changing climate."
The means greater insulation of buildings; more controlled ventilation; well-placed, better-sized shaded windows oriented south to maximize solar gain in the winter and minimize it in the summer when the sun is more directly overhead; planting shade trees; and weatherizing buildings.
Quad-Cities communities, too, would benefit from investing in smart runoff management to reduce the effect of flooding, by infiltrating the rain where it falls, and slowing the runoff from infrastructure, Schnoor said, as well as install green infrastructure, including bioswales, rain gardens, urban forestry and permeable pavements.
Reducing carbon emissions remains the best long-term strategy and solution for avoiding climate impacts, Drake University's Courard-Hauri said.
Iowa saw its wettest 12-month period on record since officials records began in 1895, with more than 50 inches of rain, from June 2018 to May 2019.
And since 2008, Davenport has experienced seven of its 15 biggest floods. The most recent flood in 2019 was estimated to cause $30 million in lost revenue and damages.
Becca Nicke and her business partner, Red Perez, lost their downtown Davenport storefront to the historic 2019 flood.
Four feet of water poured into Abernathy's at 315 E. 2nd St. after a temporary flood wall breached April 30, 2019.
That day, Nicke, Perez and friends moved merchandise from the retail sales floor a vacant second floor, saving about 90% of the vintage retail business's inventory from flood waters.
"But we lost our storage, a photo studio, a hair salon we had rented, a kitchen and a sewing studio," Nicke said.
The damage, however, was so severe that her landlord decided to sell the building.
Fortunately, they weren't displaced for long.
After three months, with help from the Downtown Davenport Partnership and Davenport, Abernathy's reopened in a new space just six blocks away at 432 W. 3rd St.
"We moved into a new and upcoming area across from an awesome coffee shop and on a one-way street that gets tons of traffic," Nicke said. "We’ve experienced far increased visibility. People who never knew were on E. 2nd Street for six years are coming in for the very first time. It’s been a remarkable change that we are eternally grateful for."
The business recorded its highest sales ever on its first day of reopening, recouping roughly one quarter of the $32,000 in losses the retailer suffered as a result of the flood, Nicke said. The losses accounted for about one-third of Abernathy's yearly revenue. And the business raised about $3,700 for the move and renovations on a GoFundMe page.
"It's like losing a part of your life," Nicke said of the 2019 flood.
While "eternally grateful" for help from the community, downtown partnership and city for the move and success of the store's new location, Nicke said she is "patiently waiting to see what comes next" to help protect downtown Davenport from future flooding.
Davenport undertook a flood response and recovery planning study with several other entities, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, to better understand the potential economic damages each structure in the floodplain may be exposed to during flooding and potential flood mitigation.
"To basically help us determine if there are areas where we should consider property acquisition versus property preservation," Davenport Public Works Director Nicole Gleason said.
Gleason said the study should be finished with year, with "final operational output or guidance" for flood protection across the entire nine miles of riverfront and their costs.
The goal is to have the city council approve a plan by next November. Davenport Mayor Mike Matson said city officials are mindful of the impact a changing climate will have on city operations and Davenport businesses, noting Davenport is exploring the purchase of electric or hybrid electric vehicles.
"We are conscious (of climate change). We are aware of it, and we are looking at thinking of ways we can help mitigate climate change in our small way," Matson said.
Agriculture and shipping
The Upper Mississippi River, including Iowa and Illinois, saw record drought in 2012, following severe flooding in 2008 and 2011.
"The drought was significant enough to shutdown navigation on the Upper Mississippi River," said Roger Viadero Jr., director of the Institute for Environmental Studies at Western Illinois University. "Of course, that has major impacts for folks who are trying to grow crops. And, even if you could grow something with the lack of water, where are you doing to move it, if we don't have waterborne commerce to move those huge volume of commodities down river to get them to where they have to be?"
Then comes 2019. The river was at or above the major flood stage of 18 feet for 51 days, from March 23 to May 12, and reached three top 10 crests during that period.
"That is incredibly atypical ... but these events we are experiencing are not only coming more frequently ... but they're more severe and they're lasting longer" Viadero said. "And for folks who do business ... that has a tremendous impact on riverborne commerce."
From March through June of 2019, approximately 6.3 million tons of grains— worth almost a billion dollars — went unshipped due to disruptions to barge traffic, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Mississippi River Cities and Town Initiative and other groups estimates the Upper Mississippi River Basin supports more than 1 million jobs and generates more than $345 billion in annual revenue, with manufacturing, tourism and agricultural sectors accounting for 95 percent of the revenue and 92 percent of the jobs.
Climate change, however, has not been all bad news for Iowa and Illinois farmers.
Higher temperatures and heavier precipitation have increased yields for corn and soybeans in much of Iowa and Illinois.
"We probably had one of the betters crops in terms of yield potential that I had ever seen, because we had good planting conditions and pretty regularly spaced rain events leading up to mid- to late-July when it got really dry," said Hans Schnekloth, a sixth generation crop farmer from Eldridge.
Then the derecho hit in August, wiping roughly one third to one half of his field in Clinton County, or about 600 to 700 acres, highlighting the disparate effects of climate change.
In the near term, over the next two to three decades, climate change is expected to produce a longer growing season in Iowa, with warmer weather yielding more rainfall and higher summer humidity that favor increase corn production, said Iowa State University economists Dave Swenson, who helped author a 2010 report on climate change impacts on Iowa.
"Over that period of time the benefits will erode as the heat gets higher and creates stress, and the weather becomes more dry, creating stress for both corn and soybeans and livestock," Swenson said. "By mid-century, it’s expected we’ll slowly transition to more dry — less moisture, more heat and more arid situation," with parts of Iowa conducive to farming drying out and becoming more prone to drought.
Changes in seasonal rainfall patterns will also make springtime planting more difficult. And more heavier rainfall early in the growing season will create waterlogged soil conditions, resulting in shallower root systems more prone to disease and drought, according to Iowa agronomists.
"It's impacting industries, whether you're talking about people who are moving commodities, people who are growing the commodities," said Western Illinois University's Roger Viadero. "And we've got this unpredictability that increases the uncertainty, and it also increases the anxiety that folks feel, whether you are a grower, a mover or an end consumer. At the end of the day, when the corn prices goes up, when the commodity prices go up, we eventually all feel that."