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As the world burns, UI researchers take action to fight climate change

Jerry Schnoor, professor of civil and environmental engineering, is researching how switchgrass, a prairie grass native to Iowa, someday could provide a clean source of heating fuel and substantially reduce greenhouse emissions, a necessary step to level off global warming trends. Photo by Tim Schoon.

When subzero winds whipped across campus this winter, many of us might have had trouble worrying about global warming.

But we shouldn’t let the weather fool us. Even on the coldest day, global warming is real—and we should be worried about it, according to Jerry Schnoor, professor of civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering.

“If we don’t cut back on greenhouse gas emissions by at least 70 percent, our children’s children will see the Earth as it has never looked in 55 million years,” he says.

He’s not alone in saying that. Scientists from around the world agree that global warming is real and that the consequences could be calamitous, according to a report in early February from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 

Schnoor and his colleagues in civil and environmental engineering are part of a campus-wide effort at The University of Iowa to blunt global warming with prompt action. Scientists in the College of Engineering are studying alternative sources of power, researchers in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences are studying the effects of warming on alpine tree lines and the migratory behavior of elk, and others even are investigating pollution on the nanoscale.

While many other universities around the country deal with environmental problems, what sets The University of Iowa apart is its practical application of faculty research. Scientists in engineering are collaborating with Facilities Management staff on the feasibility of hydro and wind power. Schnoor’s interest in using plants as clean fuel sources led to the University’s oat hull–burning program five years ago, which in turn led to not only energy cost-savings but also a reduction in the University's greenhouse gas emissions, a distinction that Schnoor says the University shares with few other universities—and with no Fortune 500 company or even any state in the union.

Schnoor chairs the University’s Energy Conservation Advisory Council, which recently developed an ambitious plan to reduce the University’s reliance on nonrenewable energy sources. The council's efforts so far stand to net the University an energy savings of $5 million.

It’s about more than saving money. For Schnoor and many others across campus, it’s about nothing less than saving the planet. Schnoor remains optimistic about that challenge, even while calling it more formidable than President Kennedy’s charge in 1960 to put a man on the moon.

fyi recently talked with Schnoor about the IPCC report and saving the world.

The weather—nature’s way of telling us something’s wrong? Or not?

The weather in global warming is a little bit like rolling two dice, only you’ve taken one of the dice and changed a one to a six. You’ve changed the probabilities. It’s not like you’re not going to have cold periods or even cold years—you are. But they’re going to be less frequent. The chances of having a cold spell are lessened by global warming but not zeroed out. At the same time, hot spells are going to get hotter, and may be more frequent.

So global warming is statistically significant?

Yes. It’s real, and we’re the cause. We’re producing emissions into the atmosphere of gases that affect the temperature and climate of the planet’s surface. The main greenhouse gases emitted due to human activity are carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide.

The results of global warming start with meteorological conditions but have much wider ramifications. The world has experienced a warming over the last 100 years, most of that taking place over the last 30 years—about 1 degree Fahrenheit over the entire planet and across the seasons.

That may not seem like much, but it’s enough to cause increased carbon dioxide in the environment that is leading to more drastic shifts in weather and the melting of Arctic ice sheets. Scientists in Greenland have discovered that the country’s ice sheet is disappearing faster than had been anticipated, yet another sign of glacial retreat that is taking place all over the globe.

The 1-degree rise in temperature is enough to set off a chain of secondary effects, including contamination of drinking water, increase in the number of areas where insect-carried infectious diseases can flourish, disruption of natural cycles like pollination and flowering, and diminishing biodiversity.

And yet there are skeptics.

There are very few, at least among scientists. The IPCC report is a big deal, because it represents more than 2,000 scientists and some 600 authors all agreeing on global warming. You seldom get any number of scientists, even two, to agree and make a consensus report on anything.

But in my view, it’s also a very conservative report. To get so many people to sign off on it, they had to be quite conservative. For example, on sea level rise, they only took into account the melting of glaciers and ice fields, and they chose not to include potential calamities of large masses of ice sliding off Greenland and Antarctica—if that happens, the sea level could rise six feet in a very short time, rather than the 17 inches predicted in the IPCC report over the next 100 years.

What would happen if we stopped all greenhouse gas emissions right now, today?

Carbon dioxide lives about 100 years in the atmosphere. What we are experiencing today with global warming is the cumulative effect of what we’ve done to the atmosphere over the past 100 years. Right now, no matter what we do, even if we could stop every emission of greenhouse gases, the Earth still will get at least 1 degree Celsius warmer. The best we can hope for is a 70 to 80 percent cutback in emissions. That’s a realistic goal, but it will simply allow us to level things off.

What’s it going to take?

It sounds formidable, and it is, but I’m optimistic. For one thing, we just haven’t tried very hard until now. In two areas alone, we could do so much more without much difficulty at all—transportation and buildings. There’s been no improvement in fleet efficiency standards since 1987 [Editor’s note: for more on U.S. automobile fuel economy goals, go to the CAFE Overview web site at]. We could easily double our fuel efficiency standards. Transportation amounts to 25 percent of our emissions, so we could immediately have a 12.5 percent reduction. And we haven’t made much improvement in our building codes, and where we have, we haven’t enforced them well enough. Heating, lighting, and cooling amount to almost 40 percent of our energy consumption and greenhouse emissions. So those two alone, transportation and buildings, amount to two-thirds of our greenhouse emissions.

Isn’t the University an example that it can be done?

Yes. We’ve reduced our greenhouse gas emissions. Not many companies, none of the Fortune 500, no states can say that, and very few other universities. We’ve mostly done that by burning oat hulls in the UI Main Power Plant [Editor’s note: See previous fyi story, “Biomass for the masses: An innovative oat-hull project at the UI Power Plant energizes campus,” at].

What can the average person do?          

Reduce your transportation footprint—buy a vehicle that gets better gas mileage, and drive less. Plant trees around the southern and western portions of your house to decrease air-conditioning needs. The obvious things—turn off lights, do an energy audit in your house. [Editor’s note: Facilities Management suggests energy saving tips for work and home at]

And these things will make a difference?

Yes. It’s also about changing our way of thinking. Certainly things like Al Gore’s movie [An Inconvenient Truth] help to inform us and get us thinking and talking, but maybe some weird weather also has people nervous about what’s going on. More than anything, I think there’s a pent-up belief that we’ve ignored the problem too long. 

by Gary Kuhlmann



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