“The country must get serious about climate-change legislation and making real changes in our daily lives to reduce carbon emissions. The future of our nation’s food supply hangs in the balance. “
THE news from this Midwestern farm is not good. The past four years of heavy rains and flash flooding here in southern Minnesota have left me worried about the future of agriculture in America’s grain belt. For some time computer models of climate change have been predicting just these kinds of weather patterns, but seeing them unfold on our farm has been harrowing nonetheless.
So begins a poignant, must-read NY Times op-ed, “An Almanac of Extreme Weather,” by Jack Hedin a Minnesota farmer.
In this piece, a farmer out-reports most of the U.S. media, with a seldom-told story that will ultimately be the much-retold story of the century, but needs to be heard now while there is still time to act:
My family and I produce vegetables, hay and grain on 250 acres in one of the richest agricultural areas in the world. While our farm is not large by modern standards, its roots are deep in this region; my great-grandfather homesteaded about 80 miles from here in the late 1800s.
He passed on a keen sensitivity to climate. His memoirs, self-published in the wake of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, describe tornadoes, droughts and other extreme weather. But even he would be surprised by the erratic weather we have experienced in the last decade.
In August 2007, a series of storms produced a breathtaking 23 inches of rain in 36 hours. The flooding that followed essentially erased our farm from the map. Fields were swamped under churning waters, which in places left a foot or more of debris and silt in their wake. Cornstalks were wrapped around bridge railings 10 feet above normal stream levels. We found butternut squashes from our farm two miles downstream, stranded in sapling branches five feet above the ground. A hillside of mature trees collapsed and slid hundreds of feet into a field below.
The machine shop on our farm was inundated with two feet of filthy runoff. When the water was finally gone, every tool, machine and surface was bathed in a toxic mix of used motor oil and rancid mud.
Our farm was able to stay in business only after receiving grants and low-interest private and government loans. Having experienced lesser floods in 2004 and 2005, my family and I decided the only prudent action would be to use the money to move over the winter to better, drier ground eight miles away.
This move proved prescient: in June 2008 torrential rains and flash flooding returned. The federal government declared the second natural disaster in less than a year for the region. Hundreds of acres of our neighbors’ cornfields were again underwater and had to be replanted. Earthmovers spent days regrading a 280-acre field just across the road from our new home. Had we remained at the old place, we would have lost a season’s worth of crops before they were a quarter grown.
The 2010 growing season has again been extraordinarily wet. The more than 20 inches of rain that I measured in my rain gauge in June and July disrupted nearly every operation on our farm. We managed to do a bare minimum of field preparation, planting and cultivating through midsummer, thanks only to the well-drained soils beneath our new home.
But in two weeks in July, moisture-fueled disease swept through a three-acre onion field, reducing tens of thousands of pounds of healthy onions to mush. With rain falling several times a week and our tractors sitting idle, weeds took over a seven-acre field of carrots, requiring many times the normal amount of hand labor to control. Crop losses topped $100,000 by mid-August.
The most recent onslaught was a pair of heavy storms in late September that dropped 8.2 inches of rain. Representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency again toured the area, and another federal disaster declaration was narrowly averted. But evidence of the loss was everywhere: debris piled up in unharvested cornfields, large washouts in fields recently stripped of pumpkins or soybeans, harvesting equipment again sitting idle.
My great-grandfather recognized that weather is never perfect for agriculture for an entire season; a full chapter of his memoir is dedicated to this observation. In his 60 years of farming he wrote that only one season, his final crop of 1937, had close to ideal weather. Like all other farmers of his time and ours, he learned to cope with significant, ill-timed fluctuations in temperature and precipitation.
But at least here in the Midwest, weather fluctuations have been more significant during my time than in his, the Dust Bowl notwithstanding. The weather in our area has become demonstrably more hostile to agriculture, and all signs are that this trend will continue. Minnesota’s state climatologist, Jim Zandlo, has concluded that no fewer than three “thousand-year rains” have occurred in the past seven years in our part of the state. And a University of Minnesota meteorologist, Mark Seeley, has found that summer storms in the region over the past two decades have been more intense and more geographically focused than at any time on record.
I can’t find the Zandlo or Seeley statements online, so if anyone can direct me to them, please post links in the comments.
No two farms have the same experience with the weather, and some people will contend that ours is an anomaly, that many corn and bean farms in our area have done well over the same period. But heavy summer weather causes harm to farm fields that is not easily seen or quantified, like nutrient leaching, organic-matter depletion and erosion. As climate change accelerates these trends, losses will likely mount proportionately, and across the board. How long can we continue to borrow from the “topsoil bank,” as torrential rains force us to make ever more frequent “withdrawals”?
Climate change, I believe, may eventually pose an existential threat to my way of life. A family farm like ours may simply not be able to adjust quickly enough to such unendingly volatile weather. We can’t charge enough for our crops in good years to cover losses in the ever-more-frequent bad ones. We can’t continue to move to better, drier ground. No new field drainage scheme will help us as atmospheric carbon concentrations edge up to 400 parts per million; hardware and technology alone can’t solve problems of this magnitude.
To make things worse, I see fewer acres in our area now planted with erosion-preventing techniques, like perennial contour strips, than there were a decade ago. I believe that federal agriculture policy is largely responsible, because it rewards the quantity of acres planted rather than the quality of practices employed.
But blaming the government isn’t sufficient. All farmers have an interest in adopting better farming techniques. I believe that we also have an obligation to do so, for the sake of future generations. If global climate change is a product of human use of fossil fuels “” and I believe it is “” then our farm is a big part of the problem. We burn thousands of gallons of diesel fuel a year in our 10 tractors, undermining the very foundation of our subsistence every time we cultivate a field or put up a bale of hay.
I accept responsibility for my complicity in this, but I also stand ready to accept the challenge of the future, to make serious changes in how I conduct business to produce less carbon. I don’t see that I have a choice, if I am to hope that the farm will be around for my own great-grandchildren.
But my farm, and my neighbors’ farms, can contribute only so much. Americans need to see our experience as a call for national action. The country must get serious about climate-change legislation and making real changes in our daily lives to reduce carbon emissions. The future of our nation’s food supply hangs in the balance.
Here are two posts on the connection between human-caused global warming and superstorms that have been devastating the nation and the world during what is likely to be the hottest year on record:
“Given the association of extreme weather and climate events with rising global temperature, the expectation of new record high temperatures in 2012 also suggests that the frequency and magnitude of extreme events could reach a high level in 2012. Extreme events include not only high temperatures, but also indirect effects of a warming atmosphere including the impact of higher temperature on extreme rainfall and droughts. The greater water vapor content of a warmer atmosphere allows larger rainfall anomalies and provides the fuel for stronger storms driven by latent heat.”
- Exclusive interview: Keven Trenberth, head of NCAR’s Climate Analysis Section on the link between global warming and extreme deluges:
“I find it systematically tends to get underplayed and it often gets underplayed by my fellow scientists. Because one of the opening statements, which I’m sure you’ve probably heard is “Well you can’t attribute a single event to climate change.” But there is a systematic influence on all of these weather events now-a-days because of the fact that there is this extra water vapor lurking around in the atmosphere than there used to be say 30 years ago. It’s about a 4% extra amount, it invigorates the storms, it provides plenty of moisture for these storms and it’s unfortunate that the public is not associating these with the fact that this is one manifestation of climate change. And the prospects are that these kinds of things will only get bigger and worse in the future.”
The past 12 months have been the hottest on record, according to NASA. So perhaps it isn’t completely surprising that we are seeing these record-smashing deluges. But the number of these beyond-extreme events just in the United States alone ought to make people take notice:
- Coastal North Carolina’s suffered its second 500-year rainfall in 11 years
- We had Tennessee’s 1000-year deluge aka Nashville’s ‘Katrina’.
- Capital Climate wrote about Oklahoma City Paralyzed By Flash Floods.
- The Northeast was hit by record global-warming-type deluge (a piece which has links to the scientific literature).
- Weather Channel expert Stu Ostro discussed Georgia’s record-smashing global-warming-type deluge: “Nevertheless, there’s a straightforward connection in the way the changing climate “set the table” for what happened this September in Atlanta and elsewhere. It behooves us to understand not only theoretical expected increases in heavy precipitation (via relatively slow/linear changes in temperatures, evaporation, and atmospheric moisture) but also how changing circulation patterns are already squeezing out that moisture in extreme doses and affecting weather in other ways.”
And, of course, another part of the world has been even more devastated by deluges and flooding, albeit while receiving only moderate attention in this country (see Juan Cole: The media’s failure to cover “the great Pakistani deluge” is “itself a security threat” to America).
And then there was the devastation to Russia, a country that always thought it was going to benefit from climate change:
- Russian President Medvedev: “What is happening now in our central regions is evidence of this global climate change, because we have never in our history faced such weather conditions in the past.” NYT: “Russia Bans Grain Exports After Drought Shrivels Crop”
- Russian Meteorological Center: “There was nothing similar to this on the territory of Russia during the last one thousand years in regard to the heat.”
This is all one big coincidence for the anti-science disinformers. But for the rest of us, the really scary part is that we’ve only warmed about a degree Fahrenheit in the past half-century. We are on track to warm nearly 10 times that this century (see M.I.T. doubles its 2095 warming projection to 10°F “” with 866 ppm and Arctic warming of 20°F ).
In short, we ain’t seen nothing yet!
- Study: Global warming is driving increased frequency of extreme wet or dry summer weather in southeast, so droughts and deluges are likely to get worse