By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

During periodic visits to see relatives and friends in the Upper Midwest, I’m always watching for signs of climate change, and movement toward greener living. It’s not idle curiosity. Effective responses to climate change will be critical here where so much of the world’s corn, beans and wheat are grown. I’m also interested because I know that the climate changes predicted for this region may not appear to be connected to global warming. In the Southwest, the U.S. is heating up and drying out, exactly what most people expect to see from global warming.

The Big Sioux River flooding west of Sioux Falls.

But the Midwest is wetter, sometimes cooler, sometimes hotter, and more turbulent.

I remember sparring with a global warming denier on the shores of Round Lake in Minnesota last year. It was a gorgeous evening. Stars pierced the night sky and a brisk wind whipped across the water. We bundled up in windbreakers around a campfire on this chilly August night. It was hard to convince anyone that the world was changing, let alone heating up.

This year was different. The Midwest, like many regions of the U.S., was smacked with wicked heat waves. Plentiful rain, though, kept crops growing. Last week, the rain moved into overdrive and rivers in South Dakota and Minnesota suddenly threatened farms and towns. The Big Sioux River, normally a robust but well-behaved waterway, jumped its riverbed and crawled over roads and unharvested corn.

On the local news, this event was treated as another bump among many that farmers face every year; a talking point for 6 a.m. coffee klatches. And yet, this extreme wet weather is exactly what the climate change models predict for this part of the U.S. It’s connected to the warming of the oceans, which puts more moisture in the air, leading to inland flooding.

As noted in the 2009 report by The U.S. Global Change Research Program, this pattern of overly generous rainfall can be as bad for business as stingy rainfall:

Flooded corn field in South Dakota, Sept. 24, 2010

This is the weather “weirding” that journalist Tom Friedman, author of Hot, Flat and Crowded, discusses in his work on climate and population changes. We’ll have hot weather in many parts of the globe, yes, but also wet, stormy and out-of-the norm events in many other regions.

For now, many farmers will chalk up this year’s flooding to another quirk of Mother Nature. No one chronicles and laments weather events better than those who depend so completely upon nature’s whims. But let’s hope we Americans do not miss the big picture. These floods in the Midwest join a string of recent floods. Look at what happened in the deadly flooding in Nashville earlier this year. And in Fargo the past two years. Remember Iowa in 2008?

Flooding, like drought, is a sign we’re tilting toward a more volatile environment, one in which we can’t count on getting the crops in safely.

If you’ve ever wondered whether we can afford to address climate change in the U.S., you might also ask, can we afford not to?

Flooded roads closed access to Baltic, S.D.

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