I'm a professor at U Michigan and lead a course on climate change problem solving. These articles often come from and contribute to the course.
By: Dr. Ricky Rood , 11:09 PM GMT on May 31, 2013
Local Conditions and Personal Reflections
I have disappeared for a while because of technological failures. Honestly, I embraced them for a couple of days, but it's hard for me to remain in denial for more than a day or two. So I have sought out the computer at the public library and remembered my WU login. Here is a personal reflection on how local weather conditions might impact how one thinks about climate change.
I am currently residing in Boulder, Colo., where I try to grow a pretty large garden. Last year, 2012, was exceedingly hot in the spring and very dry. The dryness continued into the winter of 2013.
Water is in short supply in the West. This is not news. In fact, when John Wesley Powell explored the West he was pessimistic about its habitability because of scarcity of water (an old NPR story). He laid out a vision of a West of small settlements anchored in reliable water sources. Earlier, when Stephen Long explored the Midwest and the Front Range of the Rockies, he labeled the area the "Great Desert." (some cool maps from University of Tulsa).
Of course, the Great Plains and the West have now been populated with large cities. Water is managed in a fragmented way on an enormous spatial scale. There is huge contention for water between cities, agricultural and conservation management, and energy production. This is one area of the country where there is concern shared amongst the governors about drought and climate change.
In March 2013 as the local drought persisted, I was downright depressed about the coming spring and summer. The snowpack in the mountains was low. In the previous year, the spring had been so warm that much of the snow melted well before the normal spring runoff. I remember in June 2012 putting pumpkins into soil that was well over 110 degrees F and dry down to the underlying clay bed. With the low humidity and heat, I could not water most of them enough to keep them alive. In March 2013, we seemed to be looking at even less water.
Spring 2013 was just plain odd in the U.S. Largely, it was cold, with many record cold temperatures. The cold waves were interspersed with sometimes record heat. The variability was enormous. In my part of Colorado during April, at just about exactly seven-day intervals, there was one record snow a week. On the flat lands east of the mountains, these snows were followed by extraordinary seasonal cold, then a rapid melt. Virtually all blossoming trees did not blossom; the bees are not happy. In the mountains, the snowpack built up to be higher than average. Some ski resorts reopened for Memorial Day because of fresh May snow.
Here at the end of May, I look at the mountains and there is a lot of snow. The farm irrigation ditches run full of water. The cities are reconsidering the water restrictions they imposed in February and March. The hay fields are green and tall. I look around, and I feel pretty good about the summer.
Those mountains that I see to the West supply the Platte River and the Colorado River. I look up to them and naively think of the Colorado River full of water. However, the truth is quite the contrary. 2013 is yet another year of the Colorado River being in extreme drought. Despite my seeing all of that snow in my little world 2013 is an intensification of the Southwest drought.
I remember when I was quite young there was a drought in my home state of North Carolina. I was only a bit more naive then, perhaps more prone to the mystical, and I worried about the weather being broken in some way. At that age, weather was itself a mystery. I had no idea how to describe the motion of air and how to turn humidity into rain. I imagined that there had been a divine intervention into how the weather worked--it was the opposite of the biblical flood. I was a young boy with a narrow view of the world, so I assumed the whole world was in drought. I am sure that a few hundred miles away, however, the weather was still working; it was raining. I probably even checked to make sure that was the case. As I now sit in a world with what looks like enough snow for a good season in the garden, that childhood comfort of the weather working comes back.
This little vision I have into the world, that my weather has been beneficent, really has little relevance to whether or not the climate is changing. My little vision is no different than that of all of the people who have looked at the cold U.S. spring of 2013 and stated that as evidence or proof that the Earth was not warming. You have to look at all of the Earth and look at what is happening in the oceans and look at all that is melting.
One of our best resources on drought and water is the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS). NIDIS followed from The 1998 National Drought Policy Act and The Western Governors' Association (some good policy history). This is climate policy; this is climate service. It is based on known vulnerabilities, ones that are expected to get worse because there is really nothing that suggests the vulnerabilities will lessen on their own. There is no looking at the facts and saying it will all be all right.
Rather than looking out your window and saying that the weather is working and that our climate is like it has always been, better to take a broader look--a global perspective. For a national perspective on drought, here is the outlook from NIDIS on May 15, 2013.
Hope to get my computer and files back early next week. Don't forget me.
The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.