Iowans to see more health effects of drought, heat waves

By: - April 28, 2023 11:46 am

A combine passes through an area of a cornfield at Boblink Prairie Farms near Aurelia, Iowa, where beavers have swiped stalks to prepare their dams for winter. (Photo by Nathan Anderson, courtesy of Bobolink Prairie Farms)

As droughts become a consistent reality across the country, the health implications of extreme dryness and excessive heat will increasingly plague Iowa.

 As of April 20, the U.S. Drought Monitor reported more than half of the state was abnormally dry or in a moderate or severe drought. The western Iowa counties of Woodbury and Monona are experiencing exceptional drought. As the summer season begins, drought is expected to worsen.

Increasing drought typically comes with excessive heat, leading to heat stroke and stress, and can lead to algae blooms, toxins in crops and poorer air quality, environmental and public health experts say.

Iowa saw its worst drought in a decade in 2022, with nearly three-quarters of the state suffering from drought conditions last December.

Iowa Climatologist Justin Glisan, who compiles and processes Iowa climate data for current and future weather data research needs for the state Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, said Iowans need to be prepared for a variety of weather conditions as climate patterns shift in the near and distant future.  

“Extremes are becoming more extreme,” he said. “With drier dries and wetter wets, the expectation moving forward is more droughts, more flash flooding, more heat waves.”

The gradient narrowing, he said, leading to more extreme temperatures in the Midwest and Iowa.

The 2022 winter, however, did put Iowa in less dire conditions regarding drought. It was the fourth wettest winter on record for Iowa, Glisan said, due to significant rain in early December infiltrating soil to prevent a deeper freeze. February 2023 was the 11th wettest on record, as well. Winter is typically the driest season.

 Another forecast that will delay drought in Iowa this year is the end of La Niña season, Glisan said.

Justin Glisan is Iowa’s state climatologist. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship)

 “We’ve seen in the climate monitoring a shift to ENSO-neutral, which is between La Niña and El Niño, when the atmosphere decouples from the ocean,” he said. “So, when we look at analog years (on record) with this transition in March, April, May, we see wetter and cooler conditions in the spring.”

 An El Niño is predicted in the summer months. Glisan said the neutral conditions will lead to less drought conditions in spring 2023, but the overall prediction is drought in the summer months.

 Chad Hahn, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service, said in an email that drought conditions will lessen this summer from recent history, but that it’s still likely to see dryness across the state.

“Improvement in the drought conditions is expected; however drought conditions are expected to persist especially across far northwest Iowa,” he said.

Heat concerns

 Alongside droughts, extreme heat days are also likely to increase in the near future. Peter Thorne, University of Iowa distinguished chair and professor in the College of Public Health, said Iowa is extremely likely to experience warmer days in the spring and summer months this year.

“We’re expecting Iowa to have higher humidity than we’ve experienced in the past and more extreme temperature days, particularly higher evening temperatures,” he said. “There’s the potential for increased heat stress and heat stroke, which can affect anyone trying to enjoy time outside.”

 These conditions present concerns for a variety of workers, Thorne said. As the warmer temperatures evaporate what water is left in the air or in surface water, it is not safe for people to be outside for long stints, he said.

 “This will affect people who work outside, including construction workers, farmers, landscapers, and people who have jobs that put them at risk of the heat,” he said. “It also disproportionately impacts people at lower socioeconomic statuses in our communities where they may not have air conditioning, so they will suffer in the heat.”

 Brandi Janssen, a clinical associate professor and the director of undergraduate programs in the UI’s Department of Occupational and Environmental Health, said communities need to think ahead in the long term about heat and what they can do to ensure there are cooling-off centers at places like public libraries.

 The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions reported that these warmer temperatures also dry out soils and vegetation, which could lead to reduced crop yields for farmers.

 Health effects of altering climates

As droughts continue to plague Iowa for potentially longer terms with worse conditions in the next couple of years, the health of Iowans could be at risk.

 Some of the health effects Glisan said Iowans should be aware of include algae blooms affecting water quality, potential toxins in crops and wildfires in the west leading to poor air quality.

 Iowans have experienced more algae blooms in recent history, Thorne said, from when warmer surface water does not mix with the rest of the body of water. It can lead to various toxins in the water, something Thorne said needs to be better communicated to the public.

Peter Thorne is the University of Iowa distinguished chair and a professor in the College of Public Health. (Photo courtesy of the University of Iowa)

“There’s a segment of society who is not getting the message, especially people in rural Iowa who are not getting relevant and useful information about their area,” he said. “We need to make sure we’re delivering information about heat and algae blooms in a way that will be helpful to their particular situation … This is essential with algal blooms with cyanobacteria that produce toxins that are toxic to the liver or the neurological system that can lead to a variety of symptoms and even death. People and pets should not be in that water nor drinking it.”

 Another concern, Glisan said is the extremely warm temperatures that can cause extreme harm to many communities.

 “Higher dew points, even in the presence of drought, can happen, and you get heat waves and heat indices that impact humans and livestock with heat stress,” he said. 

Heat stress, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, can lead to heat stroke, heat exhaustion, cramps and rashes. Some heat-related illnesses can lead to dizziness, confusion, loss of consciousness, seizures and emergency room visits.

 Glisan said stakeholders in Iowa are examining how to create better infrastructure in case of extreme droughts in the near future.

 “If we do get into a drought condition where we have to start paring back recreational water use and watering golf courses, things like that, so we can get water into our livestock facilities, we’re figuring that out,” he said. “Those are the things we need to think about for the next drought alongside better drought monitoring so the (drought) map actually represents what we see on the ground. Having more data points only helps us do our jobs better.”

 One aspect of the altering climate that is not often discussed, Thorne said, is displacement from climate shifts across the U.S.

“The frequency and severity of major weather events, like hurricanes or massive flooding, can lead to the displacement of people,” he said. “People lose their homes; they lose their livelihoods. That impacts their mental health and stress and it’s a huge expense … The Midwest, while there are a lot of other challenges, may be a place people flock to in the future. People will retreat here, and we need to be prepared for that.”

 Janssen, said communities across the state need to think ahead for these conditions so residents can protect themselves in severe droughts.

Brandi Janssen is a clinical associate professor and the director of undergraduate programs in the University of Iowa’s Department of Occupational and Environmental Health. (Photo courtesy of the University of Iowa)

 “One thing about drought is there is always a possibility of a water shortage in certain communities,” she said. “And that’s why we need general preparedness from places to think about what are the water sources, how do you prioritize water use, and what are you using it for. Making sure people, especially those in particularly vulnerable populations, have access to the water they need is a consideration needed in emergency preparedness. That requires good communication at municipal levels.”

 Another concern for Iowans deals with agriculture. If there are fewer crops that survive and grow properly in such conditions, Janssen said there could be food production issues.

 “Drought and food production are really closely tied, and a major drought could affect food access,” she said. “There are also issues with the lack of forage for livestock. If there isn’t enough to feed them, that’s going to have an impact on the food supply and the mental health and wellbeing of the people who produce it.”

 Altering agricultural production

Weather patterns, including the El Niño/La Niña seasons, are already changing how farmers in the state work.

 Nathan Anderson, the owner and operator of Bobolink Prairie Farms near Aurelia, Iowa, said climate alters every year for farmers, from changing patterns in the Pacific Ocean to warming across the globe affecting the health of crops.

 “If we don’t have the best information about the growing season coming up or the weather patterns don’t go as far as we’d like, or they change, your recency bias and your management decisions are impacted,” he said. “For our farm, I started farming full time in 2010 after graduating from Iowa State, and in 2012 we had one of the driest years we’ve ever had. In 2013 and 2014, we had some pretty heavy rainfall and some severe rainfall events. Those first couple of experiences really impacted the way my wife and I think about our farm and how we plan for things.”

A week-old calf rests in the sunshine at Bobolink Prairie Farms near Aurelia, Iowa. (Photo by Nathan Anderson, courtesy of Bobolink Prairie Farms)

Droughts in recent summers have caused some of Anderson’s calves to be smaller. When the calves are smaller, it either means the consumer will see fewer, smaller beef options or Anderson has to adjust his feed and the timeframe for the cattle to catch up on growth. Either way, he said it’s not ideal in a busy time.

 “We have very small windows to get a lot done,” he said. “With spring rainfall patterns that can shrink our planting windows, there is stress in that timeframe and we’re running a lot more hours, which can be dangerous. We’re on the road at night with increased tiredness and stress. It impacts us and everyone around us in a negative way.”

 Finding balance and staying up to date on the weather patterns are two ways to mitigate the stress of shorter windows because of weather patterns, Anderson said. Dividing work between people, he said, can also be helpful.

Janssen said moving shifts to different parts of the day is essential to protect the health of Iowa’s farmers and their staff.

 She said making these slight changes, like Anderson and many other farmers already have, could mean the difference between life and death.

 “Last year and the year before, in the state of Iowa, we’ve had deaths of farm workers as a result of heat stress,” she said. “It can happen in the context of drought or on its own, but it’s something to pay attention to and think about. There are a lot of vulnerable workers in the agricultural systems who would be exposed to higher risks of heat stress. It’s a challenge because we still grow crops outside, so you have to move shifts and be creative to protect people from the heat.”

Sustainable agriculture aims to protect the environment and expand natural resources, Janssen said, and it is needed to protect farmers’ mental health with weather conditions like drought, excessive heat or flooding.

 “Drought affects your income as a farmer,” she said. “It changes your ability to keep your livestock healthy, which then has an impact on your mental health and wellbeing, your feelings about life and your daily ability to maintain your farm. Losing livestock or having contaminants in your soil from drought or flooding directly affects the mental health of farmers.”

 Farmers are also tasked with making up for losses in other states because of weather conditions, Janssen said, which is an added stressor.

 “We know right now that lettuce from California will be interrupted because of excess rain and snow in that area,” she said. “And that will affect the food supply and change prices at the grocery store. It also may increase the ability for our farmers to produce some of that food that would come from out of state to balance things if we don’t have a drought.”

Anderson said many farmers he knows are examining ways to improve soil health to ensure there are quality harvests regardless of dry, hot weather in the state.

“I think a lot of farmers are trying to implement practices to improve soil health including diversifying cropping systems and implementing a third crop or perennial crops,” he said. “We can also target areas of a field using prescription conversations. Those build resiliency and help us in times like this.”

Prescription conservation is when farmers map their fields and assign different cover crops and crop rotation during planting to reduce runoff and protect the quality of their land.  

 Thorne said farmers, and Iowans overall, have the ability to minimize droughts’ effects on the state’s population.

 “Iowans need to look at the future and think about our energy systems and the role Iowa can play in that,” he said. “I’d love to see the agricultural estate being used for solar or wind energy or carbon sequestration. There is a role for agriculture in improving the climate and reducing greenhouse gas emissions and sequester carbon rather than releasing it.”

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Eleanor Hildebrandt
Eleanor Hildebrandt

Eleanor Hildebrandt is a senior at the University of Iowa majoring in journalism and mass communication and global health studies, with a minor in German. She is a managing editor at the university newspaper, the Daily Iowan, and has served as an reporter intern at Iowa Capital Dispatch.