How has the Iowa Climate been Changing?

By Shianne Gruss,

At a recent University of Iowa STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) workshop, several middle and high school teachers from across the state addressed this question, as well as how to encourage their students to begin asking the same thing.

The workshop, titled “Hot Topic: Climate & Iowa,” was developed in part by IIHR Assistant Researcher Engineer Gabriele Villarini to fulfill the broader impacts component of his 2014 NSF Career Award. “My personal interest when it comes to science is science with a purpose,” says Villarini, who is also an assistant professor in the UI Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “I try to answer the questions ‘who cares?’ and ‘who can benefit from it?’ We can do all this great science, but at the end of the day if it remains in published papers, the impacts are limited.”

Ted Neal, UI College of Education, instructs teachers on how to teach climate science at a special STEM workshop, April 25-26, 2015.

Ted Neal, UI College of Education, instructs teachers on how to teach climate science at a special STEM workshop, April 25-26, 2015.

While Villarini possessed historical data for Iowa precipitation, discharge, and temperature, what he lacked was the know-how to turn those data points into relevant lesson plans. Fortunately, Ted Neal, clinical instructor of science education in the UI College of Education, has been teaching pre-educators, educators, and K-12 students the importance of STEM learning for years. “Gabriele and I figured out what each of us could bring to the table, then we merged that stuff together,” says Neal.

That “stuff” included 50 plus years of Iowa climate data at more than 60 locations, lessons on mapping floodplains, and coding basics using “R,” a statistical computing software. “The key objective was to discuss the issue of climate in Iowa and also to provide the teachers with tools, so that they would be able to tackle this issue themselves,” says Villarini.

Cindy Hilsabeck, a 6-8 science teacher at Starmont Middle School in Arlington, particularly enjoyed Neal’s 3D-mapping of flood plains. “We have some flooding issues in one of the towns near our school, and I’m hoping to attempt this project—perhaps with Ted’s help!” she added.

Like many of the participating teachers across Iowa, Hilsabeck recently picked up teaching earth science because of budget cuts and expanding education requirements. She says the workshop provided her with training on major concepts. “I try to keep applications relevant to the students, and Iowa climate is truly relevant to them!”

Climate is just one of the required subjects included in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which could very well replace the Iowa Core in upcoming years. The Iowa Board of Education is expected to discuss the adoption of NGSS at its next meeting, scheduled for June 11–12. The proposal will then continue to the Iowa Legislature.

Middle and high school teachers from all over Iowa came to the workshop, "Hot Topic: Climate & Iowa," April 25-26, 2015.

Middle and high school teachers from all over Iowa came to the workshop, “Hot Topic: Climate & Iowa,” April 25-26, 2015.

“One of the things we wanted to make sure was that what we were proposing was directly relevant to these new standards for teaching science in schools,” says Villarini. The standards include four topics: Physical Sciences; Life Sciences; Earth and Space Sciences; and Engineering, Technology, and Applications of Science. As part of the NGSS, teachers are required to develop lessons that address a question through scientific investigation.

Both Villarini and Neal stressed the importance of teachers and students addressing climate change in the classroom.

“Climate change is a hotly debated topic,” says Villarini. He explains that by experiencing data first-hand, rather than purely reading scientific articles, a person can make a more informed decision about such a highly contested subject.

According to data compiled by the Iowa Climate Change Advisory Council, the changing climate has affected the state in a number of ways. Iowa has already experienced many changes, ranging from more precipitation, which has led to extreme flooding events, to higher temperatures and humidity; from agricultural challenges, such as increased soil erosion and runoff, to changes in animal migration patterns; and finally from the public health effects of air pollution to those of a warmer climate.

Neal believes these changes, and general attitudes toward them, are actually overwhelming students these days. “Kids actually get bogged down,” he says. “They just throw their hands up and say, ‘There’s nothing I can do about it; it’s too big for me.’ But there are things we can do about it. And that’s where I think we need to go with this to get kids interested. We need to be letting kids look at the real data and make a decision based on science and data, not based on politics or religion or my mom said that climate change isn’t happening, because that’s not going to move our kids forward.”

There are plans underway to repeat the workshop, “Hot Topic: Climate & Iowa,” later this year and in 2016 at other locations around the state.


Downpours on upswing: Research finds flooding on the rise in central U.S. World-Herald,Published on: April 14th, 2015

Developing a Climate Forecast for Iowa

North Dakota flooding.

Sandbags in Fargo, N.D., spring 2010. (Photo by Scott Rowe)

In 2010, Scott Rowe spent his spring break sandbagging in Fargo, N.D., to help protect the city from floodwaters. At the time, he was an undergraduate studying atmospheric sciences at the University of North Dakota. The sandbagging effort was successful, and Rowe says he was intrigued to see how the community came together to respond to the flood threat. “It was fun. We were overfed, almost,” Rowe says, remembering the outpouring of gratitude and food for the volunteers.

He also came away with a serious interest in hydrology, which brought him to IIHR and the Iowa Flood Center for graduate studies. But Rowe has been interested in weather for a long time. He spent the first 12 years of his life in Tornado Alley. Since Texas homes rarely have basements, Rowe took shelter in the bathtub when tornado warnings were issued, sometimes with his bike helmet on for extra protection.

From then on, Rowe was fascinated by weather. He is now working on a master’s degree at IIHR under the supervision of his advisor, Gabriele Villarini. Together, they are developing a statewide climate forecast for Iowa to offer a basic idea of what precipitation can be expected in the season ahead. Their forecasts will be basic by design, Rowe explains, and limited to predicting whether precipitation will be average, above average, or below average. “It’s difficult to even make an exact precipitation forecast for 24 hours for now,” he says. Compound that over an entire season, Rowe says, and that error can become “ginormous.” With that said, depending on the success of the new system, Rowe and Villarini may attempt more quantitative statements in the future.

Rowe is analyzing Iowa’s climate data to rank the average monthly temperature and precipitation back to 1950. By correlating the atmospheric anomalies associated with the wettest and driest months, Rowe says, they’re able to use a number of existing climate models to develop a long-lead climate forecast.

Once Rowe and Villarini have a few forecasts under their belt, they’ll evaluate the accuracy by comparing their prediction to what actually happened. That information will be vital to improving the predictions, Rowe explains. “A bad forecast model is of no use to us.”

Although Rowe has no interest in broadcasting, he enjoys weather forecasting and hopes to find a job with the National Weather Service or some other forecasting agency after graduation. He may even find his way back to North Dakota, where he first got his feet wet in weather forecasting.

Iowa Scientists Release 2013 Climate Statement



David Courard-Hauri, 515-271-3812; Gene Takle, 515-294-9871; Jerry Schnoor, 319-335-5649; Joe Bolkcom, 319-330-9541

The Iowa River inundates Lower City Park in Iowa City. June 2013.

October 18, 2013

(Des Moines) Our state has long held a proud tradition of helping to “feed the world.” Our ability to do so is now increasingly threatened by adverse weather conditions, according to a statewide group of Iowa scientists.

“Our climate has disrupted agricultural production during the past two years and is projected to become even more harmful in coming decades as our climate continues to warm and change,” said Gene Takle, Director of the ISU Climate Science Program at Iowa State University. “Iowa’s soils and agriculture remain our most important economic resources, but these resources are threatened by climate change.”

The Iowa Climate Statement 2013: A Rising Challenge to Iowa Agriculture was released today by 155 science faculty and research staff from 36 Iowa colleges and universities. “The strong support for the statement represents the growing consensus among Iowa science faculty and research staff that action is needed now to reduce heat trapping gases and implement both adaptation and mitigation strategies,” stated Dave Courard‐Hauri, Chair, Environmental Science and Policy Program, Drake University.

“We have confidence in recent findings that climate change is real and having an impact on Iowa agriculture and on our natural resources,” said Jerry Schnoor, Co‐Director, Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research at the University of Iowa. Swings from one extreme to another have characterized Iowa’s 2013 weather patterns. Iowa started the year under the widespread drought but the spring of 2013 was the wettest in the 140 years of recordkeeping. By mid‐August, very dry conditions had returned to Iowa, subjecting many of the state’s croplands to moderate drought.

“Intense rain events, the most notable evidence of climate change in Iowa, dramatically increase soil erosion, which degrades the future of agricultural production,” stated Christopher Anderson, Research Assistant Professor at Iowa State University. “As Iowa farmers continue to adjust to more intense rain events, they must also manage the negative effects of hot and dry weather.”

“Weather events this year are bringing climate change home to the many Iowans who also work the land on a small scale, visit the Farmer’s Market, or simply love Iowa’s sweet corn and tomatoes,” said Greg Carmichael, Co‐director, UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research. “The climate likely will continue to warm due to increasing global emissions and accumulation of heat trapping gases,” stated Neil Bernstein, Chair, Department of Natural and Applied Sciences, Mount Mercy University. There is solid evidence that extreme high temperatures are occurring disproportionately more than extreme low temperatures.”

“It is time for all Iowans to work together to limit future climate change and make Iowa more resilient to extreme weather. Doing so will allow us to pass on to future generations our proud tradition of helping to feed the world,” said Laura Jackson, Director, Tallgrass Prairie Center, Professor of Biology at the University of Northern Iowa.

Lead Authors

Gene Takle, Director, Climate Science Program, Professor of Agronomy, Professor of Geological and Atmospheric Sciences, Iowa State University

Jerald Schnoor, Co-Director, Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, University of Iowa

Christopher J. Anderson, Research Assistant Professor, Assistant Director, ISU Climate Science Program, Iowa State University

Greg Carmichael, Co-Director, Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, University of Iowa

Laura Jackson, Director, Tallgrass Prairie Center, Professor of Biology, University of Northern Iowa

Neil Bernstein, Chair, Department of Natural and Applied Sciences, Mount Mercy University

David Courard-Hauri, Chair, Environmental Science and Policy Program, Drake University

Editing assistance by Connie Mutel, Senior Science Writer, IIHR—Hydroscience & Engineering, University of Iowa

Statement Endorser Affiliations

Buena Vista University; Central College; Clarke University; Coe College; Cornell College; Des Moines Area Community College; Dordt College; Drake University; Eastern Iowa Community College; Ellsworth Community College; Grinnell College; Indian Hills Community College; Iowa Central Community College; Iowa Lakes Community College; Iowa State University; Iowa Valley Community College; Iowa Western Community College; Kirkwood Community College; Loras College; Luther College; Maharishi University of Management; Marshalltown Community College; Morningside College; Mounth Mercy University; Northeast Iowa Community College; Scott Community College; Simpson College; Southeastern Community College; Southwestern Community College; Saint Ambrose University; University of Iowa; University of Northern Iowa; Upper Iowa University; Wadorf College; Wartburg College; Western Iowa Tech Community College; William Penn University.

Endorser affiliations are for identification purposes only and do not reflect view of their academic institutions.

Iowa Climate Statement 2013: Climate Change Threatens Iowa Farms for Global and Regional Environmental Research,Published on: October 18th, 2013

NASA Study Forecasts More Extreme Weather

By Jackie Stolze

Here’s the rainfall forecast for the next hundred years: whatever you’re experiencing now will become more extreme.  A new NASA rainfall study predicts that in the next 100 years, wet areas will receive more very heavy rainfalls, while arid regions will experience more droughts.

The study, which will soon appear in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, used data from 14 global climate models. William Lau, NASA’s deputy director of atmospheric studies and the study’s lead investigator, says the results are “amazing.”

Lau’s study is the first to examine the global rainfall system from a basic science viewpoint. While the global climate models produce differing results for specific locations, one result is clear across the board: as global temperatures rise, the atmosphere can hold more water vapor as moisture. The moisture tends to collect in areas that already receive significant rainfall, while intensifying droughts in already dry areas. For each degree Fahrenheit of global temperature increase, wet areas receive 3.9 percent more heavy rainfall. Meanwhile, droughts increase by 2.6 percent in dry areas.

Iowa Flood Center researcher Gabriele Villarini also conducts research on rainfall based on observational records, although he was not involved in this study. He calls the NASA study fascinating. “These modeling results are consistent with some of the detected changes in rainfall over the Central United States, with a redistribution toward more intense rainfall over the recent past,” Villarini says.

The Iowa Flood Center is partnering with NASA on the Iowa Flood Studies project, also known as IFloodS. IFloodS researchers are collecting ground data across Eastern Iowa as part of NASA’s Global Precipitation Measurement Mission, an international satellite mission that will set a new standard for global precipitation measurements from space. To learn more about GPM, visit

Changing Frequency of Heavy Rainfall over the Central United States

Gabriele Villarini photo

Gabriele Villarini

Villarini et al. used daily rainfall measurements from 447 rain gauges with a record of least 50 years throughout the central United States to examine the presence of changes in the frequency of heavy rainfall, which they defined as days exceeding the 95th percentile of the at-site rainfall distribution. The observational records covered at least the second half of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century, providing information about the most recent changes in heavy rainfall events over this area. They found a generally increasing trend in the northern part of the study region (roughly the Upper Mississippi River basin).

“We tried to explain these results and the differences between the northern and southern parts of the study region in light of changes in temperature,” Villarini says. “We found that the northern region is experiencing large increasing trends in temperature, resulting in an increase in atmospheric water vapor. Therefore, there is more water vapor available for precipitation.” In addition to increasing temperatures, they also indicated the increased irrigation over the Ogallala Aquifer, which likely resulted in an increase in water vapor in the area.

Villarini, G., J.A. Smith, and G.A. Vecchi, Changing frequency of heavy rainfall over the central United StatesJournal of Climate, 26(1), 343-350, 2013.

Iowa Climate Statement: The Drought of 2012 Environmental Focus,Published on: November 19th, 2012