"Scenes From An Extreme Summer: ‘We’ve Never Seen Anything Like This Before’"
The 12-month period from August 2011 to July 2012 was the hottest ever recorded for the U.S. So far this year, more than 27,000 high temperature records have been broken or tied — beating cold temperature records by 10 to 1. All the while, the U.S. has faced a barrage of record-breaking wildfires, powerful storms, and an historic drought that covers the majority of the country.
“You look out the window and you see climate change in action,” said Kevin Trenberth, a scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in an interview this summer. Below are some ways that these extremes have manifested themselves around the country.
MARION, Ohio — Driving down the long, flat road in rural Ohio, I can see a grey mist rising above the soybean fields from three miles away.
But I know it’s not mist, it’s smoke.
I pull up to the field and get out of the car, sucking in the acrid smoke rising from the ground. It smells like burning plastic. Most of the vegetation has burned away and the ground is sinking in on itself. Black, cratered, and smoldering, the field looks like someone had just peppered it with heavy artillery.
A fire truck pulls up behind my vehicle and three men get out.
“What do you think about all of this?” asks Clint Canterbury, chief of the First Consolidated Fire District.
“What do you think about all of this?” I respond.
“I know it’s causing us a lot of headaches,” says Canterbury.
We are standing on the edge of a 15-acre underground fire that Canterbury’s team of firefighters hasn’t been able to extinguish. The field, which borders a 200-acre soybean farm, sits on top of a deep deposit of spongy peat, also known as “muskego muck.”
In late May, as temperatures rose into the 90’s – nearing record highs for the region at that time of year – Canterbury’s department got a call about a field fire. But after trying to put it out, they soon realized the fire was spreading underground, “burning layers off, sinking down, burning more layers, and causing new spots to pop up,” says Canterbury.
The lack of snow over the winter combined with the spring and summer heat waves dried out the muck, making it susceptible to burning. And when the local fire department found no evidence of a man-made fire, they concluded that it was spontaneous combustion.
“I’ve talked to a lot of old farmers and they say ‘we’ve never seen anything like this before,'” says Canterbury.
As summer unfolded, temperatures continued to rise, and little rain came, the problem just got worse. The fire is now burning five feet below ground at temperatures of up to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, feeding the dried sediment and sending a constant stream of acrid smoke into the air, day and night.
According to Canterbury, a boy across the street with asthma has had breathing problems because of the smoke.
“The smoke just lingers here. You can see it for miles and miles. We believe this could go on well into the winter — and if we don’t get much snow like last year, this could likely burn for years,” he says.
OTTUMWA, Iowa — Mark Flammang, a fisheries biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, sits on the banks of the Des Moines River, surveying the water.
To his left, the low water levels have exposed large patches of sand. To his right, a hydropower facility sits idle, allowing only the minimum flow to pass through the dam. The temperatures are in the mid-90’s, a welcome change to the long period of 100-plus days in July that caused the river to overheat.
At one point in July — even with water levels four times higher than current levels — the temperature of the Des Moines River climbed to 97 degrees. And that created conditions for one of the biggest and longest fish kills in Iowa’s history.
“It was literally tens of thousands of fish. The kill started and it went on and on and on,” says Flammang. “We were following dead fish for well over a week.”
When it was over, approximately 37,000 shovelnose sturgeon and 12,000 channel catfish turned up dead, resulting in estimated economic losses of $10 million.
There were so many dead fish, officials along the Mississippi River thought they were experiencing a massive kill when the carcasses eventually washed southward.
Flammang and his team of researchers have been looking at a variety of causes for recent fish kills. At first they thought it might be a virus. Then they thought it might have been an oxygen deficiency. But after surveying the data from their logging devices, they believe they’ve narrowed it down to one main cause: heat.
“We’ve concentrating our work on determining whether it’s purely heat causing this. And it does appear to be directly tied to temperature,” says Flammang.
There are a number of factors that contribute to the higher water temperatures along the Des Moines River. As a body of water heavily influenced by human activity, the river has become much wider and more shallow over the years. It also has a number of dams and reservoirs, which have changed the flow of the river.
Those elements, combined with the recent historic heat wave during the hottest month ever recorded for the U.S., created deadly conditions for fish in the Des Moines river.
“I had never seen anything like it before,” says Flammang. “This was unprecedented in my career.”
POMEROY, Iowa — As I travel down the dusty, dirt road to farmer Gregg Heide’s house in Northwestern Iowa, the browning corn fields make it look like late September. The combines are already at work in some fields, plowing crops that have passed their peak.
“It’s like the plant is saving its last bit of energy to protect the corn,” says Heide, when I ask him about how the fields are doing.
Compared with other areas of the Midwest experiencing extreme drought, this pocket of Iowa has been spared from the worst of the crisis. While many corn fields are stunted and browning, the soybean crops have bounced back after some recent rain.
But farmers in the region have certainly felt a pinch. Heide leans up against his truck parked at the base of a large wind turbine in the middle of his bean field, pondering the summer’s extreme heat and drought.
“I’ve been farming since the 80’s and I feel like I have noticed a change in the weather. The storms have gotten stronger, and the drought periods seem to be getting more intense,” he says. “And when I read some of the research on how humans are influencing climate, I get concerned.”
Heide is not alone. According to a recent survey, nearly 70 percent of Iowa farmers say the climate is changing and causing more extreme weather.
And those anecdotal changes that farmers are noticing are part of a well-documented, long-term trend in the region, say researchers.
“There’s no question about that,” says Gene Tackle, professor of atmospheric sciences at Iowa State University. “We’ve seen a shift in precipitation backing up what the climate models were originally predicting. Over extensive areas of the Midwest, we see the trend for extreme events is upward.”
However, while more than two thirds of Iowa farmers say they understand the climate is changing, many of them are still skeptical about the human influence. As Vice President of the progressive Iowa Farmer’s Union, Gregg Heide works in his spare time trying to get farmers more active on renewable energy and climate issues.
Heide looks up at the wind turbine, which is part of a 286-megawatt wind project dotting the landscape around his 500-acre farm. Along with leasing his land for the turbine, he also owns a 10-kilowatt solar system that provides electricity for his entire farm.
“I started out getting into renewable energy because of the economic benefits it can bring to farmers and rural communities. But then I started understanding the environmental side of this — reading stuff from James Hansen and other climate scientists — and now that’s also become important to me.”
Heide is part of a minority on climate issues within the farming community. But as extreme weather gets more extreme, that is likely to change.
“Personally I’m really nervous about it,” says Iowa State’s Tackle. “There’s consistency here in documentation. And I try to convey that you don’t have to rely on the models — we can now document the major changes we’re seeing. Farmers get that.”