Inspired: How an Iowa sailor and photographer’s mission to both poles launched a life goal of fighting climate change

By: - April 30, 2020 9:59 am

David Thoreson Photos


How an Iowa sailor and photographer’s mission to both poles launched a life goal: fighting climate change

A historic sail through the Northwest Passage in the Arctic included high seas and high adventures. (top)

The crew of the Cloud Nine yacht pauses for a waterfront fire and a stunning view of the northern lights in the Yukon region. (bottom)

By: Perry Beeman – April 30, 2020

Unless Otherwise Noted, Photos By: David Thoreson

David Thoreson sailed to the ends of the earth to arrive at what now is his life’s mission.

The professional photographer and record-setting sailor is fighting climate change, mostly by informing people about what he saw in both polar regions with his own eyes. Often through a long lens.

Melting ice. Detoured caribou. Gwich’in people risking bear attacks on longer-than-usual caribou hunting treks. Calving glaciers. Thawing tundra.

Thoreson, based in the resort town of Okoboji, Iowa, saw those planetary changes from high perches on yachts, from behind the wheel, and in port. He documented a combination of trips so rare that he became the first American sailor to pass through the Arctic’s Northwest Passage in both directions.

One reason he could complete such an epic journey is Earth had changed. The North Pole had thawed. Any doubt Thoreson had about climate change was gone.

“I had always been chasing new photos. Looking for a new adventure. Looking out for what was across the next horizon,” Thoreson told a Tedx audience in 2015.

“Climate change was just a theory that was tossed about by scientists. I had now met this theory, face to face. It. Was. Real.”

Photographer/sailor David Thoreson relives his adventures for a Tedx audience in Vail, Colorado. (Photo by Christine Thoreson)

In an interview, Thoreson said he watched history unfold while battling high seas and brutal winds and dodging icebergs. At one point, his partner’s fiberglass yacht was locked in ice in the Arctic. On another, Antarctica unleashed storms against a sailboat barely fit to withstand the fury.

A couple of times, Thoreson thought he was going to die. But he managed to sail Antarctica, the Arctic Circle, the seas off the southern tip of Argentina, Chile, India, Canada and Europe.

He made international news by documenting some of the first evidence of warming at the poles.

This is the story of Thoreson’s winding course through death-defying adventures, climate change realities, book publishing, documentaries and the national speech circuit.

David Thoreson is never far from a camera with a long lens. He paused during a sail along Canada for a photo. (Photo by Zeta Strickland/Ocean Watch educator)

Postcards from the future

Thoreson, 60, is a fixture in the Iowa Great Lakes area, where he first made his name professionally by producing and selling more than 100,000 postcards per year. The images featured the natural beauty of the Iowa glacial lake chain. He also focused on over-the-lake fireworks, concerts, amusement parks, skiing, parasailing and fishing.

The area along the Minnesota border in northwest Iowa’s Dickinson County draws hundreds of thousands of people each year, mostly but not exclusively in summer. For some reason, no one had launched a postcard line in the area to this degree, anyway, Thoreson recalled.

His photography business turned into a surprisingly strong enterprise. But it was a meeting with a farmer/sailor from nearby Minnesota some years later that set Thoreson’s sights on grander goals.

Their mutual sailing adventures nearly killed them, twice, as storms bore down. But Thoreson and his hog farmer friend Roger Swanson lived to make history on some waters that aren’t on your average cruise ship itinerary.

“People always ask me, ‘David, you’re from Iowa, what was your pathway to the sea?’ The answer is really easy. I met a Minnesota hog farmer and the rest is history.”

The crew of the Cloud Nine tried twice to sail through the Northwest Passage, taking in Arctic sights on the trek. On the second try, 13 years after an initial attempt failed on frozen seas, the vessel passed through without touching ice.

California kid grows up in Iowa farm town; summer sailing leads to world view

Many in Iowa probably assume Thoreson was born along the Okoboji lakes, he’s been there so long. He runs Blue Water Studios, which is filled with stunning prints of fireworks over the lake, and regattas, of course.

Thoreson was born in Orange County Hospital in Santa Ana, Calif. His father, born in Sioux City, Iowa, was a Marine pilot stationed in California. Thoreson’s mother is from Algona, Iowa.

So it is no surprise that David Thoreson’s preschool years included a move back to Iowa, where his parents wanted to raise their children. It’s a common boomerang effect among Iowans.

Both sets of Thoreson’s grandparents had properties at the Iowa Great Lakes. “We spent every single summer there, splitting our time between the two places,” Thoreson recalled.

Thoreson, a self-described “pretty good” pitcher on the Algona baseball team and quarterback on the football team, had to decide whether to play baseball or sail in summer. Sailing won.

His mother, Judy, taught young David to sail aboard a 16-foot boat. The vessel was dubbed “Help,” which wasn’t a bow to the Beatles. The name was written upside down on the stern in case the boat capsized.

“I enjoyed sailing and racing sailboats in summer,” Thoreson said. “I just changed sports.” He left baseball behind, chasing new horizons.

He attended the University of Nebraska-Omaha on a full-ride football scholarship, switching positions to free safety. He got a degree in psychology and exercise science. He started working toward medical school, then realized he had no idea what he wanted to do with his professional career.

Before David Thoreson became a globe-spanning sailor, he explored the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the isles of the South Pacific by bike as a young adult. (Tripod self-portrait in Ozarks by David Thoreson)

The bike route less traveled

Thoreson decided to take a gap year. He would spend a year traveling.

But the popular European hostels tour so many teens and 20-somethings took in the early 1980s seemed like it could wait. Too easy, Thoreson thought.

So he and a friend took off for the isles of the South Pacific, New Zealand and Australia. They rode 1,300 miles in New Zealand alone on bicycles they had rebuilt.

“We thought it would be the most incredible journey,” Thoreson recalled. “It turned out it was.”

At least to that point in his life. Even more spectacular adventures were coming.

The world view from behind a camera

Thoreson bought a good camera before the Australia trip. With that kind of scenery, he quickly became enamored with capturing the beauty of some of the world’s most inspiring landscapes.

He got a job with the National Park Service. He photographed places all over the western U.S. for parks’ visitors centers.

At one point, he met a retired Air Force veteran who was into photography. Turns out the guy needed a hand.

Thoreson was there at the right time.

“When I came back to the U.S., I realized I didn’t know much about the U.S.,” Thoreson said. “I wanted to know the country more.

“Part of my interest was to see the world and to learn things out of the box I was in. I got shook up from top to bottom. I really didn’t have a world view. I felt ignorant about my own country.”

Thoreson would work hard 10 weeks or so on a project for the park service. Then he would travel, often bicycling.

At one point, he took a 10,000-mile solo bike trek from Okoboji into Canada, east to Nova Scotia, south to Maine. He got a job on a boat that took him down the eastern seaboard to Key West, Fla.

All the while, the camera was whirring. Thoreson also recorded the sights and sounds by writing in a journal. He eventually wrote freelance stories for the likes of Outside magazine.

“I had always been chasing new photos. Looking for a new adventure. Looking out for what was across the next horizon.”

David Thoreson lives in Okoboji, Iowa, in the Iowa Great Lakes, the same glacier-carved vacationland he visited during summers as a youth. His mom taught him to sail on these waters near the Arnolds Park amusement park (in background).

A 10,000-mile journey to find ‘home’

“All this time, I was writing and photographing and keeping extensive journals, thinking about this country and the environment I was seeing,” Thoreson said. “I compared places to Okoboji. I thought about where I would want to live.”

Just as it had during his high school baseball season, the Iowa Great Lakes won. Thoreson settled in Okoboji, a town that carries the same name as two of the region’s largest lakes.

Thoreson started his photography business — the postcards, the prints, the special editions of so many publications.

He restored images for a local museum. He sold photos to the Des Moines Register, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and the Sioux City Journal. He made images for county conservation boards and lake protection groups and the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit, statewide preservation group.

“I grew into an environmental and water quality advocate,” Thoreson said.

David Thoreson sailed around the Americas on Ocean Watch, setting another record in the process. (Photo by Christine Thoreson)

A fateful farmer

Someone told him about a farmer who lived 30 miles to the north of Okoboji. The guy was a sailor, too. He kept a museum underground on his land, protected by a bank vault door.

Thoreson had to meet Roger Swanson. He drove up to see the museum, and the mysterious Minnesota sailor. Thoreson saw the museum of sailing artifacts — “It changed my life forever” — but Swanson was off on one of his many exotic trips.

“My dream is to go sail the world,” Thoreson told Swanson’s son, Steven. “I have the time and means to do it.”

Swanson was a guy who could help. In 1981, he and two of his sons had sailed around the world, putting in 37,000 miles over two years and three months.

In 1990, when Swanson returned from a trip, Thoreson interviewed him. And Swanson interviewed Thoreson.

Swanson was a big name in sailing. He was well aware of the Okoboji Yacht Club’s strong reputation for skills and its frequent West Okoboji Lake regattas.

Swanson invited Thoreson on what was basically a test run for bigger trips. The scale of the trip says something about Swanson: Thoreson’s first open water passage on the seas (rather than West Okoboji Lake in Iowa) was a 38-day sail from Cape Town, South Africa, to the southern tip of Argentina aboard the 57-foot Cloud Nine in 1991.

Thoreson had told Swanson he wanted to sail to Antarctica. The trip from South Africa to Argentina was Thoreson’s test. He passed, showing no signs of seasickness. He picked up open sea navigation and sailing techniques quickly.

“Sailing is sailing,” Thoreson said. “It doesn’t matter if it is a lake or the open ocean, the wind is wind. It’s just bigger elements and sails.”

“I chose outdoor photography as a profession because it matched my search for new images with my boyhood dream of sailing the world’s oceans.”

A lifelong sailor, David Thoreson continues to compete with the Okoboji Yacht Club, whose reputation helped him land a spot on 38-day sail from South Africa to the southern tip of Argentina.

Sailing the South Pole like ‘being in front of a sand-blaster’

In 1992, Thoreson and his new sailing buddy sailed to Antarctica, aboard the first American yacht to sail below the Antarctic Circle. “It was possible if you could get around all the icebergs,” Thoreson said. “There was a lot of debris,” some of which he now attributes to climate change.

It was an unusual period. The thawing conditions worked in their favor at Antarctica. At Okoboji, where it was winter in North America, the lakes failed to freeze completely for the first time in recorded history, Thoreson said.

The sailing in Antarctica had been a soul-testing grind against 50- to 80-mile-per-hour winds and 30- to 40-foot seas.

Thoreson was battered but still upbeat and eager for more adventures.

“We got in some tremendous storm systems. I thought it might be the end,” Thoreson recalled.

“Icebergs were shedding ice,” he said. “The ice pellets would have ripped your face off if you weren’t protected. We were just getting shredded. It was like being in front of a sandblaster.”

Surviving the harsh conditions contributed to Thoreson’s sense that his life had again changed forever.

“Crew members were freezing and going down,” Thoreson said. “Our only lifeline was a ham radio person at Palmer Station,” one of two major scientific bases on the continent. “He kept saying, ‘Hang in there, we have showers and hot food waiting for you. We’d love to have you.’”

But the yacht was getting pushed back almost as soon as it advanced. It took four or five days, but they made it to Palmer, which usually doesn’t allow private vessels. The crew rested, relishing hot food, showers, and a break from the challenges of the open sea.

The crew of Cloud Nine, which included a Minnesota pig farmer and David Thoreson, a Californian who grew up in rural Iowa, watched for evidence of melting at Antarctica.

Climate change up close and personal

“That experience just blew my mind,” Thoreson said. “It’s not just the incredible beauty and awe of going to Antarctica, but the tremendous storms and weather systems we encountered down there.”

This was only the first of several spectacular polar trips — the others on the north end of the planet — for Thoreson. But he decided on that voyage to Antarctica that clearly Earth was changing, and he wanted to study what would become the biggest environmental issue of this century.

“I wanted to do more,” Thoreson said. “That kept leading me back to climate change and science. I began sailing as an understanding.”

While Thoreson worked on a documentary of the trip for Iowa Public Television, now Iowa PBS, Swanson began planning a trip to the North Pole.

David Thoreson, a resident of landlocked Iowa, became the first American sailor to pass through the thawing Northwest Passage in both directions.

Attempting a trip no Americans had completed

In 1994, the crew sailed the Northwest Passage — and got stuck in the ice. They had to turn back from their third goal, sailing through the Passage, but they accomplished two other goals. They sailed the entire west coast of Greenland, talking to fishermen.

And they achieved their second goal on their second attempt to find a way through the ice: They made it to Resolute, one of Canada’s northernmost and remote villages.

(And they paused to pay respects at a Northwest Passage cemetery where some of the 129 sailors who died on British Captain Sir John Franklin’s mission in 1845 were buried.) “Would our fate be the same?” Thoreson asked himself.

They again sailed on Cloud Nine without GPS, satellite phones or cell phones. “There were barely computers,” Thoreson recalled. “We were basically alone in the Arctic, and we found ourselves hopelessly pinned in the ice about every way you could be. It was very difficult to escape.”

In August, they gave up and turned back. “The Passage had won again,” Thoreson told a TedX crowd in Vail, Colorado

Photographer and sailor David Thoreson has traveled the world aboard yachts, but three major expeditions in the Arctic changed his life.

Act II: The Great Thaw

“I have had a rare opportunity to both observe and record planetary change in real time, right now.”

When David Thoreson made his first attempt to sail through the Northwest Passage in 1994, ice stalled the Cloud Nine. The endangered crew had to turn back. (top)

Ocean Watch makes it through the Arctic in 2009 without serious issues with ice. (bottom)

The Northwest Passage kept calling after the initial trip ended in a wall of ice.

In 2006, Swanson proposed they return. By then the Northwest Passage had become a scientific curiosity clearly changing as the globe warmed.

“I had been looking at all the research,” Thoreson recalled. “You could see that there was a downward spiral being reported on Arctic sea ice. Something was going on that was unusual.”

Swanson, then 75, had a message for Thoreson: “This isn’t a pleasure cruise. This is a business trip.”

Swanson, Thoreson and crew followed the course of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who had traversed the passage in 1903 on a ship with a 13-horsepower engine. Amundsen’s trip took three years.

When Swanson’s Cloud Nine got to the spot in Lancaster Sound where ice forced them to turn back in 1994, they noticed a change.

“We crossed the same point on the same day 13 years later, and there was no ice,” Thoreson said.

They sailed on and visited Inuit villagers who had never seen a boat.

“They were telling us about changes in the Arctic,” Thoreson said.

Exactly 13 years after heavy ice stalled the 1994 Northwest Passage trip, Cloud Nine made it through the same stretch of the Northwest Passage through open seas.

The crew made it all the way through the passage after a 73-day trip covering 7,000 miles. The trek was remarkable for many reasons, including this: “We never touched any ice,” Thoreson said.

“This was one of the first times the Passage had been completely opened up,” Thoreson said. “I was blogging, using native schools’ dial-up connection. The Wall Street Journal picked up the blog. We became international news. Climate change. Less ice.

“It was a 40% loss of sea ice in 13 years, I discovered later,” Thoreson said. What normally would take 10,000 years had happened in a shade over a decade.

“It changed my life,” Thoreson said. “I realized that I was seeing something that no human had ever experienced. I was an eyewitness to planetary climate change. I decided to dedicate the rest of my life to studying climate change and spreading the word about it.”

Swanson, now deceased, eventually won the Cruising Club of America’s Blue Water Medal, one of sailing’s highest honors, for a career that included 220,000 nautical miles of cruising literally around the world, including time in the Arctic, Antarctica, the South Pacific, Asia, Australia, India and Europe. He paid for his adventures by selling hogs, by inventing a fiberglass truck topper, and by working in engineering.

Thoreson logged nine voyages with Swanson over 16 years, enough nautical miles to go around the globe twice. India. South China Sea. The Caribbean.

“In my journal, as we exited the Arctic, I wrote: ‘We have seen the end of an era, and the beginning of a new one. The golden age of exploration has just closed and a new era is starting: the study and change of the earth’s climate.”

The crew of Ocean Watch sails along Alaska in 2009 as part of a voyage around the Americas to emphasize the importance of sea life.

Rockefeller rocks sailing around Americas

Thoreson was sitting at a picnic table doing his laundry in Kodiak, Alaska, when he got a cell call. Fellow sailor Mark Schrader was on the line wanting Thoreson’s photography services on a $7 million voyage around the Americas and through the Northwest Passage in 2009.

NASA was on board. So was NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They wanted to fully document what was going on with the ice, native peoples, the wildlife, the terrain as the Arctic changed.

Schrader, a small-town kid from Nebraska, was taking the small-town kid who grew up in Iowa on a massive voyage bankrolled in part by David Rockefeller Jr. Rockefeller is an environmentalist, sailor, philanthropist, nonprofit organizer and Harvard Law grad who is in the fourth generation of the high-profile family involved in banking.

“He wanted to show how important the oceans are, the giver of life,” Thoreson said of Rockfeller Jr.

Thoreson worked as photographer/sailor on a 13-month, 28,000-mile sail around the Americas aboard the 64-foot vessel Ocean Watch. The clockwise “Around the Americas” trip started and ended in Seattle.

Thoreson and Swanson’s crew became the first Americans to sail through the Passage from east to west. (Another vessel had made it through from west to east in the 1980s.)

It was on the Schrader-led voyage, aboard the 64-foot Ocean Watch yacht with 17 computers, that Thoreson became the first American to have sailed through the Passage in both directions, making it through the Passage west to east.

The Northwest Passage was just a small part of the voyage. Four hundred days, 13 countries and 51 ports later, Thoreson had contributed an important documentary.

The trek included the sailing world’s version of Mount Everest — and what sailors consider their Mount Everest summit — sailing round Cape Horn off South America.

Thoreson drew from tens of thousands images and 600 pages of journal entries to compile his book, “Over the Horizon: Exploring the Edges of a Changing Planet.” Related materials included a video.

Sailor and environmentalist David Rockefeller Jr. and several U.S. agencies were among the supporters of a sail around the Americas aboard Ocean Watch. David Thoreson was aboard in 2009 to document the beauty and importance of the seas and also because he had previously sailed the Northwest Passage.

Sailing the speakers’ circuit

In 2008, Thoreson found himself speaking at the World Science Festival in New York City, an event that featured the work of paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey and marine biologist Sylvia Earle. A crowd of 700 arrived to hear Thoreson. “I had never done any public speaking. I was scared to death,” he said.

These days, two agencies book Thoreson’s speeches, when he and audience members are allowed to leave their homes.

He spends half the year in Colorado’s Keystone ski area, and the warm weather half at Okoboji. He still runs his photo studio in Iowa. He has given talks around the country addressing climate change and water quality issues.

Climate change is in the background of almost every subject he addresses.

David Thoreson captured many rare sights with his photography, including this blue ice in the Arctic.

“We are at a very critical time when there have been a number of tipping points like what I saw in 2007,” Thoreson said. “They are continuing to happen. The steady state that has allowed civilization and ag cultivation is becoming unpredictable. That starts throwing everything off. Without that, you can’t have predictability in agriculture, or insurance or finance. The things that we have seen as predictable aren’t any more. That is going to become more so because of the tremendous amount of carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere and the oceans.”

Just as sailors can come from Iowa, concerns about climate change aren’t limited to the coasts.

Iowa, an American heartland agriculture center, had $2.9 billion in flood damage in 2019 that some blame at least in part on climate change. The Heartland has battled severe drought. Both are consistent with climate change science.

The state is seeing bigger rains that lead to more runoff. That increases flooding, pollution and erosion along the Mississippi River and contributes to the dead zone off Louisiana and Texas in the Gulf of Mexico.

“We can’t engineer our way out of this by building bigger tile,” Thoreson said of the underground tubes that drain farm fields but can worsen pollution and river levels downstream.

Arctic polar bears are both aggressive and endangered as their icy world thaws. David Thoreson survived some encounters with these bears and grizzlies, preferring to document their lives at a distance.

Eyes on Alaska, Arctic

Thoreson fears a general “failure to embrace science-based policies.”

“If we don’t recognize climate change as a threat to us nationally, we are not preparing now” for worsening conditions, Thoreson said. “We need to change our energy mix so we aren’t facing a tipping point.”

Iowa is big on wind energy — there are wind turbines visible from the very waters Thoreson sails on at home — and is building a solar industry. Thoreson hopes the move away from coal and natural gas continues nationally.

Thoreson said he will continue his work to oppose drilling in the Arctic, teaming up with the Alaska Wilderness League. He also is involved in the Citizens Climate Lobby and the International League of Conservation Photographers.

In recent years, David Thoreson has studied the plight of the Porcupine caribou and the northern Alaska natives who depend on them.

It was that last group that signed Thoreson and about two dozen other photographers to work on a documentary about changes in the caribou migration, thawing of the permafrost, and other signs of trouble in the Arctic tundra.

The issue of drilling in the Arctic refuge goes way back for Thoreson. In the middle of his high-school years, he wrote to Iowa Congressman Berkley Bedell, urging him to protect the Arctic refuge, which Thoreson had never seen.

He has now. And he saw the legislation in 2018 that both made sweeping tax cuts and opened to drilling the area known as ANWR. That is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that President Barack Obama and many before him had worked to protect for decades.

“That sent me sideways,” Thoreson said. “I couldn’t believe after all the work that people were doing and the fact that we didn’t really need the oil, we would open ANWR to drilling.”

Climate change and oil drilling has altered the migration of Porcupine caribou, which the Gwich’in people plan their lives around.

“The place where all life begins”

Thoreson said the Gwich’in people told him the 200,000 Porcupine caribou that migrate to the Arctic ocean plain already have changed their routes. The Gwich’in culture is closely related to the caribou, and the Gwich’in settled where they did because they knew the caribou would come through during migration in Alaska and Canada.

“The Gwich’in call it the place where all life begins,” Thoreson said.

Thoreson spent the summer of 2018 in the Arctic Circle. That fall, he lived with the Gwich’in at Old Crow in the Yukon north of the Arctic Circle. For the third straight year, no caribou had come to their settlement.

“This is the grocery store for the native people,” Thoreson said. “As soon as they lose those resources, they become food insecure.”

The pipelines and the oil rigs had changed the migration. The thawing had changed the vegetation that caribou eat. Caribou are accustomed to using their hooves to forage for food under the snow. But when the snow gave way to rain that turned to ice, they struggled to forage in the mushy conditions.

The Gwich’in have been forced to travel farther to hunt for food, Thoreson said. Those treks have taken them into areas where polar and grizzly bears are a clear and present danger.

Grizzly bears have been disrupted by oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

One day Thoreson was putting away his camera gear when he saw two grizzlies headed straight into camp. First, he grabbed his camera, which isn’t in the self-protection guidebook. He squeezed off a couple of frames. Then he stood up, tried to look big and talked loudly to the bears. That is in the guidebook. His buddy did the same.

The grizzlies, which are shy by nature, left. Thoreson watched them, in part because the bears can run up to 35 miles per hour. They do better in squishy tundra than humans do. Which is why experts tell people not to run.

Thoreson’s thoughts run back and forth between the Arctic Circle and Iowa, where record flooding in 1993 was the beginning of a long stretch of frequent high water, record drought and damaging tornadoes. There are threats across the globe. He wants Americans to address those threats, largely by continuing the push for solar and wind energy.

To Thoreson, less fossil fuel use means the globe will have smoother sailing.

David Thoreson has helped environmental groups document changes to the Arctic as the globe warms, including thawing ice and tundra and disruptions of local wildlife. (top) (Self-portrait by David Thoreson)

David Thoreson has in recent years documented the thawing and development of the Arctic tundra. He spent days talking to natives about how their traditional hunter-gatherer lives had been disrupted. This hunter was in northwest Canada’s Yukon Territory. (middle)

David Thoreson has studied the lifestyles of the Gwich’in people in Alaska, who planned their communities based on caribou migrations that now have been altered. (bottom)



Scientists with Iowa ties help unravel climate change mysteries

James Hansen, a native of Denison, Iowa, who became one of the world’s leading climate change authorities, stirred up more than the air in the hallowed halls of Congress when he testified in 1988 that climate change was already happening and would get worse. How much worse depended on which of his three scenarios in models came true. Each depended on how people, who were beginning to drive the climate with their activities, reacted.

His paper hit the front page of the New York Times.

Along the way, the shy Iowan who preferred to stay in the lab decided he had to aggressively talk about what he saw as a coming tipping point in the Earth’s atmosphere. He accused the White House and NASA, his employer, of altering his findings and trying to muzzle him.

It turned out Hansen’s model based on “heavy pollution” came remarkably close to what has actually happened. And Hansen went on to give Ted talks and make decades of important presentations. He retired from NASA, where he had run the Goddard Institute for Space Studies and became a climate activist.

Hansen’s work informed the later modeling work of Gene Takle, now an emeritus professor of agronomy at Iowa State University. Takle looked at how climate change would affect Iowa and the rest of the grain belt, a scientific point that previously had been too fine a point for models to address.

Takle’s contributions to the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, considered the lead authority on climate science, led to a share of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

Takle’s colleague at the University of Iowa, engineer Jerald Schnoor, also followed the local trend. The two of them authored an op-ed in the Des Moines Register laying out some of their findings and have been part of a broad group of scientists who once a year issue a statement calling for initiatives to cut emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.



How climate change has and will change Iowa

The following is compiled from climate researchers’ work at Iowa State University, the University of Iowa, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Warmer and wetter climate

By the middle of this century, five-day heat waves would jump in temperature by 7 degrees in an average year, compared with the late 20th century. Once a decade, the leap could be 13 degrees.

Bigger rains

The models predict less frequent but larger rains that will increase runoff, both worsening flooding and making it harder to keep soil moistures at good levels for crops. Eight- and 10-inch rains have fallen on a state where observers considered four inches a big storm decades ago. Rainfall has increased particularly in April, May and June since 2000. In less than a century, a storm with a 1-in-100 chance of occurring in a given year has changed to 1-in-25 odds.

Humid nights

This has more to do with our lives than how comfortable we are around the backyard picnic table. The more humid it is at night, the more carbon corn gives up through respiration and the lighter a load of corn is at the elevator. Weight = money.

Higher temperature

While corn yields have grown in part because of longer growing seasons, rising temperatures could hurt crops in the long run. At temperatures above 84 degrees, yields drop.

Higher grain drying and air-conditioning costs

Higher dew points can mean mold in grain storage bins. And higher humidity means higher air-conditioning bills in office buildings.


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