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Jul 182011

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Back from vacation, where we witnessed the slow-motion disaster of the Missouri River flood, we find ourselves settling into a summer sauna that is beyond typical, even for Texas.

Nearly the entire state is suffering from either drought, protracted excessive heat or both.

The extreme temperatures began in June, sweeping across the South, from Arizona to Florida, and threaten to continue through August. Starting late last week, the heat wave spread across the Midwest, singeing Northern cities like Chicago and Minneapolis (which sampled 103 in June) unaccustomed to triple digits.

Sure, we’re used to heat here in Texas. But how much, for how long and starting how early?

While no single recent weather oddity can be pinned on climate change, these recent events, taken as a whole, look a lot like what’s been predicted: Hot seasons that begin earlier and last longer, punctuated by record-busting temperature spikes.

Add to that picture elevated evening “lows”… a swath of extended drought across Texas and Oklahoma …. extended flooding affecting several Midwestern and Southern states, and you’ve cooked up a pretty good picture of the hallmarks of global warming or climate change, if you prefer that term.

Want record highs starting earlier in the season? The Texas panhandle shattered records faster than a rattler striking a gopher.

  • Childress, outside of Amarillo, hit 117 on June 26, breaking record set in 1893.
  • Amarillo set its own record of 111 on June 26, breaking a record set in 1892 (how did they survive such heat back then?). And Dalhart hit 110 on the same day, breaking a record set in 1948.

Cities elsewhere also broke all-year record highs.

  • Tallahassee hit 105 on June 15, the city’s hottest day of any month since 1892.
  • Gage, Okla., tied its record of 113 on June 26, the hottest day in that town since 1947.

In the Southwest and the Plains states this is the stuff of the Dust Bowl, and according to weather forecasters, the same phenomenon is at work in 2011. The ongoing drought in Texas and Oklahoma has exacerbated the heat and effectively staves off rainfall, extending the drought. (I didn’t make that up. “It’s a double edge sword,” says Fort Worth meterologist Victor Murphy. “There’s no moisture in the soil to absorb the heat of the sun.”)

This drought has been serious. Louisiana, New Mexico, and Texas have all just recorded their driest six months on record.

The heat, too. It’s been delivered in part by La Nina, a weather pattern in the Pacific that typically brings warmer summers to the U.S., and by climate change, if you believe just about every expert, except the paid-for deniers and misguided lawmakers who refuse to see it.

How much is La Nina and how much is climate change? It cannot be known. That’s an excellent question, but it doesn’t refute that climate change is playing a role. Science suggests it is. (I’ll skip the regurgitation of how this past decade was warmer than the one before, which was warmer than the one before that, etc., to show once again how this year’s hot weather fits into a pattern.)

Whatever the contribution of climate change, summer 2011 will go down as a broiler and a record-breaker, according to the National Weather Service and a fascinating collection of weather statistics compiled by The Weather Channel. And it’s not even half over.

Let’s start in June. That’s when Houston, Texas hit 105 on June 5 and 6, breaking the record for the month of June set in 1889.

Better yet, let’s start in May, which presaged the nastiness:

  • Tanana, Alaska hit 89 on May 28;  hotter than any May day since 1902.
  • Wichita Falls (back in the Texas Panhandle) recorded 110, tying its 1923 record high for May.
  • San Angelo in Central Texas, also hit 110 on May 28, breaking a 1907 record.
  • Wichita, Kan., rang the bell at 100 on May 9, the hottest May day since 1888.

Looking ahead, well, let’s just guess that July and August will bring more heat, and to a very large portion of the country if this week’s forecast bears out. (The AP has more on the heat effects in the Midwest.)

Excessive heat will grip half the US this week.

Where’s the relief? The answer, and this will sound naïve to some, lies in green energy. Solar power, geothermal power, energy efficiency, better buildings, more compact cities, re-energized local food networks, organic farming and mass transit. All that and more will reduce our carbon emissions and help us find a better way. It sounds far out, long term, unachievable. I know.

On our vacation, we stupidly drove directly into the flooded Missouri River Valley – which if you like, you can take as a sort of metaphor for what’s happening today with climate change. We were unaware that the flooding there had continued to shut down bridges and curtail business and had actually breached the very Interstate we were planning to take on our drive to the Upper Midwest. The flooding became suddenly very real. There is was, right outside our window, and there it was, covering the interstate ahead.

The flooding, which had begun in May, had drifted out of the national news headlines, except for the perilously swamped nuclear power plant at Lincoln. So we’d proceeded with our plans, making no accommodations. (Is the metaphor too thick already?)
As we were re-routed in Northwest Missouri, I looked up to see a wind farm – a wind farm I recognized, actually, as the one just outside of Tarkio, Missouri, the “town that’s powered by wind.”

Here, in the heart of the breadbasket, the fork in the road offered three directions. There was a road to the west, flooded, with the waters creeping up a slope toward a roadside gas station; a road ahead, covered with water and barricaded off; and the detour, a county road up a steep hill that led away from the flood. This road, the detour, was lined with towering white wind turbines that turned in the breezes,  their red lights twinkling into the distance.

Too much metaphor?

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