Friday, January 24, 2014

Drought in the American West: pray for rain but act like your lives depend on political change … by gimleteye

On Wednesday, federal officials designated portions of 11 drought-ridden western and central states as primary disaster areas. I'm traveling through some of them. A local newspaper in Santa Monica reports, "Last year was one of the driest in California's history. Rainfall in Los Angeles was 3.6 inches. The yearly average to date is 14.93, according to statistics from the National Weather Service." You can feel the drought everywhere, although people still seem to be sleepwalking through the consequences.

In his State of the State remarks this week, Governor Jerry Brown sounded warnings about this year's drought. His tone was not so dire as reality would dictate, generally following the pattern of political caution when it comes to delivering really bad news. After all, climate change messengers are walking around with so many arrows from sources like Fox News that they look like porcupines.

I drove up through Ventura county yesterday, through rich farmland where many hundreds of acres of crops have not been planted or where crops that have been planted are all tented to maximize water retention. The earth looks like it could blow away in the first strong wind. On NPR, stories of farmers sadly, bitterly pulling out fruit and nut trees they cannot nourish for lack of rain. Fire danger is extremely high. In January, a friend remarked to me, the hills above the Pacific in Ojai are supposed to look like Ireland not like the Arizona desert.

Comparisons are being drawn to the great California drought of the mid 1970s. The big difference is that climate change signals had not yet manifest as they are today, everywhere.

“What we’re seeing meteorologically is a blocking pattern that is deflecting all the storms,” said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist with the Lincoln, Neb.-based National Drought Mitigation Center. “There really hasn’t been a lot of indication that this pattern is breaking down.” In Utah the winter snowpack has not materialized. "While storms have dumped rain and snow in the East, droughts are persisting or intensifying in the West, according to officials connected with the U.S. Drought Monitor, an index on which the USDA’s declarations are based. A ridge of high pressure is to blame for keeping storms off the Pacific coast and guiding them to the East." (Insurance Journal, Jan. 23, 2014)

On the flight from LA to Salt Lake City, the weather was clear. Below, the Sierras -- the primary water supply to southern California -- were brown smudges, abnormal in the absence of snowpack.

We have experienced our own climate extremes in Miami this winter -- mosquitoes in December and January thanks to extraordinarily wet weather. Climate is oscillating at extreme ends: extremely wet, extremely dry, extremely hot, extremely cold. The Australian Open tennis tournament was played with court side temperatures in excess of 115 degrees. As Tom Friedman noted in the New York Times, the other day, drought in Syria has already created a million climate change refugees. Temperature swings during and after the recent polar vortex event in the northeast were on the order of 70 degrees.

Still, the anti-environmental trolls cruise the blogsphere to dampen down public outrage, calling up the story lines from Rush Limbaugh, Karl Rove, and Fox News.

So the comments on blogs continue to reflect a small minority of people who continue to grind away, denying climate change, providing political cover for elected representatives across the spectrum. In Florida, from Gov. Rick Scott to US Senator Marco Rubio (REP) and Senator Bill Nelson (D) still agitating for Congressional legislation to bail out coastal dwellers.

But the fact of business are immutable: insurance industries and bankers are already planning for their staged retreats from business models wrecked by climate change. Joe Romm, founder of, asks Tom Friedman in the NY Times, "In the future, who will help a country like Syria when it gets devastated by its next drought if we are in a world where everyone is dealing with something like a Superstorm Sandy?" Never mind Syria, who will help tens of millions in the American Southwest or Floridians, for that matter?

So far, we can manage the impacts but the next news from the American west will be along the lines of mandatory water cutbacks on the order of historical intervention by government. The strange reaction of people to global weirding -- the chaotic changes in climate as a consequence of global warming -- include the idea that somehow what we have been seeing constitutes a stable, new normal. Pray for rain, but when it comes to reversing climate change causing gases and emissions, we ought to be acting as though our national security and individual lives depend on it.

1 comment:

Antal Kardos said...

I was in the Sierra's last week, up in Sequoia/King's Canyon National Park, about 9000 ft up, and what should normally be several feet of snow cover was NOTHING with an air temp around 60 degrees. I inquired with a ranger about whether any roads were still closed for winter by saying "I know it's been a dry year," where her response was to laugh at me and say "that's an understatement."