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Environment of Iowa facts for kids

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Landforms of Iowa
Landforms of Iowa, based on Prior (1991)
Iowa topography
Topography of Iowa, with counties and major streams

The environment of Iowa has been heavily affected by agricultural production since it became a U.S. state in 1846. However, there remain natural areas in Iowa that reflect a wide varieties of environmental niches.

Ecology and biota

Iowa's natural vegetation is tallgrass prairie and savanna in upland areas, with dense forest and wetlands in floodplains and protected river valleys, and pothole wetlands in northern prairie areas. Most of Iowa is used for agriculture, crops cover 60% of the state, grasslands (mostly pasture and hay with some prairie and wetland) cover 30%, and forests cover 7%; urban areas and water cover another 1% each.

Presettlement biota

American bison k5680-1
Bison, once common, now found only in captivity in Iowa.

In 1840 Isaac Galland noted a large number of fauna in Iowa, including bison, elk, deer (either white-tailed deer or mule deer), raccoon, fox squirrel, mountain lion, lynx, gray wolf, black wolf, coyote (he called them prairie wolves), bear, beaver, otter, muskrat, mink, rabbits (presumably cottontail rabbit and hare), opossum, skunk, porcupine, groundhog, timber rattlesnake, prairie rattlesnake, bull snake, black snake, water moccasin, garter snake, water snakes, turkey, prairie chicken, quail, swan, geese, brant goose, duck, crane (he called them pelicans), crow, blackbird, bald eagle, "grey eagle" (probably a hawk or falcon), buzzard, raven, mourning dove, passenger pigeon, woodpeckers, woodcocks, hummingbird, and the honeybee. Galland also included a list of edible flora readily available in Iowa, including strawberry, blackberry, raspberry, gooseberry, plum, crabapple, hickory nut, black walnut, butternut, hazelnut, pecan, grape, cherry, black haw, red haw, pawpaw, and cranberry.

The first comprehensive listing of bird species in Iowa was compiled by Charles Rollin Keyes in 1889 which listed 262 species. The first comprehensive listing of mammals in Iowa was made by Herbert Osborne in 1890.

Natural Areas

There is a dearth of natural areas in Iowa; less than 1% of the tallgrass prairie that once covered most of Iowa remain intact, only about 5% of the state's prairie pothole wetlands remain, and most of the original forest has been lost. Iowa ranks 49th of U.S. states in public land holdings.

Threatened and endangered species

As of 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service the lists of threatened and endangered species in Iowa have included the following:

Federally endangered animal species:

Pallid Sturgeon released 1999
Pallid sturgeon, endangered in Iowa.

(3 more since 2010}

Federally threatened animal species:

  • Piping plover (Charadrius melodus), except Great Lakes watershed
  • Northern long-eared bat (Myotis septentrionalis)
  • Skipper, Dakota (Hesperia dacotae)

Extirpated federally endangered animal species:

Canis lupus 265b
Gray wolf, extirpated from Iowa, but occasionally visits from Minnesota or Wisconsin.

Locally extinguished animals are:

-* Note: Wolves occasionally reappear in Iowa, roaming south from home ranges in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Federally threatened plant species:

Northern monkshood purple
Northern monkshood, endangered in Iowa

Extinct animal species (historical):

Conuropsis carolinensisAWP026AA2
the Carolina parakeet once lived in Iowa, now extinct.

Landforms and topography

Despite popular perception, Iowa is generally not flat; most of the state consists of rolling hills. Prior divides Iowa into eight landforms based on glaciation, soils, topography, and river drainage:

  • The Paleozoic plateau, also known as the Driftless Area, is a region of scenic, high relief landscapes includes such features as resistant, bluff-forming bedrock outcrops, deep V-shaped valleys, caves, springs, and sinkholes. Glacial deposits and loess are thin or absent over most of the region.
  • The Des Moines lobe, a remnant of the extensive prairie wetlands that once covered the Des Moines Lobe. Often called the Prairie Pothole Region, the Des Moines Lobe was glaciated up until 12,000 years ago during the Wisconsin glaciation. The area is marked by rolling terrain and ridges. Historically, this area was peppered with small interconnected swamps, most of which were drained for farmland. The Iowa Great Lakes occur along the western edge of the Des Moines lobe.
  • The southern Iowa drift plain covers most of the southern half of Iowa. This is probably the most familiar landscape to travelers, since most of Interstate 80 in Iowa runs through the SIDP. The classic Iowa landscape, consisting of rolling hills of Wisconsin-age loess on Illinoian (or earlier) till. The SIDP is some of the most productive agricultural land in the world.
  • The Mississippi alluvial plain includes generally level areas of stream terraces, paleochannels, backwater sloughs, and oxbow lakes within the broad Mississippi River valley.
  • The Loess Hills consist of very thick deposits of loess in far western Iowa deposited during the Wisconsin and Illinoian periods. Highly eroded, leaving stark, beautiful "golden hills.
  • The Iowan surface in northeast Iowa is covered with eroded Illinoian till with moderate loess formation, frequently in the form of paha ridges, muted relief except for steep rolling hills near river valleys, and deeper valleys. These picturesque hills are depicted in many of the landscapes of Grant Wood.
  • The northwest Iowa plains are rolling hills consisting of eroded soils developed since pre-Wisconsinan glaciation, but with significant amounts of loess.
  • The Missouri alluvial plain is perhaps the only truly flat region of Iowa, the Missouri Alluvial Plain contains areas of terraces, sloughs, and oxbows. Its valley trench is not as deep as the Mississippi River system, and the Missouri River is contained in a much narrower channel. In Iowa, the eastern border of the Missouri Plains is the Loess Hills, forming steep rounded bluffs.

Gallery of Iowa landforms


Iowa rainfall
Iowa annual rainfall in inches

As in most of the U.S., surface water in Iowa is not safe to drink untreated, contamination by agricultural runoff including nitrates, herbicides, pesticides, and animal waste is common. Municipal water supplies are typically heavily chlorinated, this chlorine, combined with high nitrate levels, often give municipal water a strong smell, and the limestone bedrock in much of the state causes hard water.

Some communities, such as Iowa City resort to additional carbon filtration and lime softening coagulation-sedimentation to make the water more palatable. Water treatment is effective but comes at a price; while the Des Moines' advanced filtration system has led to water quality ranked among the nation's best. In January 2015, the Des Moines Water Works "sued drainage districts in three northern Iowa counties, claiming the tiles there act as a conduit that accelerates the movement of fertilizer from farm fields into Iowa waterways". Between 2010 and 2015 more than 60 Iowa cities and towns had high nitrate levels in drinking water.

In 2015, there were a record number of beach closures because of harmful algal bloom in Iowa.


Dubuque, Iowa during the flood of 1965.

Major flood events occurred in Iowa in 1851, 1892, 1965, 1993, 2008. The Great flood of 1851 hit all of Iowa, and almost destroyed the nascent town of Des Moines. "The Des Moines and Raccoon rivers rose to an unprecedented height, inundating the entire country east of the Des Moines river. Crops were utterly destroyed, houses and fences swept away." After the town of Dudley was destroyed, survivors moved to higher ground and founded Carlisle. The flood of 1851 produced record levels on the Iowa River at Iowa City and the Cedar River at Cedar Rapids that stood until the Iowa flood of 2008. The flash flood of 1892 destroyed much of Sioux City. The Flood of 1965 affected eastern Iowa, from Cedar Rapids to Dubuque, with cities along the Mississippi hardest hit. The 1993 floods were widespread across the upper Midwest, causing extensive damage to Coralville and Iowa City.


The Natural Resources Conservation Service divides Iowa into 23 soil regions. In general, soils of southern, eastern, and western Iowa are loess-derived, while soils of northern and central Iowa are till-derived. Most level areas of Iowa have soils highly suitable for agriculture, making Iowa one of the most productive farming regions of the world.

Climate statistics for selected cities

  • Iowa Department of Natural Resources,
  • Iowa Natural Resources Conservation Services,
  • Nature Conservancy Iowa,
  • Iowa Geological Survey,
  • Iowa Geographical Map Server,
  • U.S. Geological Survey Iowa Overview,
  • Geological Society of Iowa,

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