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The New (Climate Change) Normal
Climate change is not only affecting temperature, but weather patterns, commercial farming, and is threatening to release diseases we thought long gone.
I had the chance to go to Lincoln, Nebraska recently to attend a wedding. I’ve never had much cause to go to Nebraska, save for the fact we now have family there. The news earlier this year covered the incredible devastation caused by heavy rains and flooding. Markets bounced as predictions for corn and soybean production did the same. But mostly, all I know about Nebraska has nothing to do with climate change.
Lincoln itself has changed a lot in the last few years as the city works to better itself by way of amenities such as hiking and biking trails. I was looking forward to walking through its zoo, and experiencing the fun nightlife over our brief weekend. When we flew into Omaha, I was not thinking about what I would see as we approached the landing strip.
The gasps from other passengers came as a relief, as my mouth hung open in the same surprise. In March of this year, the news site Vox claimed flooding resulted in over $1 billion worth of damage in Nebraska alone. With over 2,000 homes and 340 businesses lost. I was there four months later, and so was the water.
The sight was one I’d never witnessed before, and certainly not from a literal 10,000 foot view. I couldn’t distinguish between lakes and fields that should have been teeming with crops at this point in the year. It was a scene to be witnessed in person; the news had not done it justice. In fact, it had left the news cycle almost completely, despite heavy rains causing additional flooding in that area just a week before our visit.
Not Just Me
After we’d joined other family members in Lincoln I described the scene in Omaha. They shared their own experience, having driven from Indiana. Some grain bins they saw had burst because the corn stored in them had absorbed so much flood water. Not only could the farmers not sell their crop from this year, they couldn’t fall back on stored crops from the previous season. Many farmers will be ruined completely. It was a somber note going into what was supposed to be a celebratory weekend.
The flooding we saw in Nebraska, unfortunately, wasn’t a total shock to any of us. All the high-fives and congratulatory bottles of champagne on Wall Street can’t stop the inevitability of what will be one of the most trying times in American history due to climate change.
America is funny like that. We have short attention spans and even shorter memories when it comes to national challenges. I’ve never been the smartest person in the room, but I’m also not willing to pretend there are some ugly signs of repetition in current events. See, history isn’t about studying isolated events. It’s really about a series of occurrences that compound on one another. As our memories get shorter, those instances run into each other faster and faster until we find we’re repeating something we thought could never happen again.
In the case of climate change, it’s about to get medieval on our asses. In May of this year, while Nebraska was underwater, California was coming face to face with something most people wouldn’t be able to understand because they didn’t even know it existed in the first place. David Randall wrote an Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times about the threat of a resurgence of bubonic plague.
A Sleeping Giant
Quickly, for those who don’t know, bubonic plague, sometimes called the Black Death, wiped out one third of Europe’s population in the 1300s. In three years. It’s often referred to as “the plague” because it is the most devastating disease humanity has ever encountered. Climate change is threatening to give it a boost.
Randall cited warmer weather as a primary cause for the seemingly sudden risk of a plague outbreak. Warmer weather means longer breeding periods for rodents. Their populations are up between 15% to 20% in urban areas worldwide, affecting cities in the U.S. like New York, Houston and Los Angeles. Rodents, such as rats and squirrels, carry fleas, and the fleas are how the disease spreads. Randall went on to cite an instance in 1924 when a man in L.A. was bitten by an infected rat. The plague killed forty people in six weeks.
Also in early May of this year, Russia closed its border with Mongolia due to a bubonic plague scare. I reference this story because it demonstrates, I think, the apathy we’ve developed through complacency. It is much easier to declare “that can’t happen here” and move on with daily life than it is to face the reality that it has, and very well could happen here again. As if the attitude toward vaccinations hasn’t caused enough trouble with nation-wide measles outbreaks.
Climate Change at Home
Here in the midwest, we’ve not had severe flooding like other parts of the country, but we’ve had an interesting summer. At the end of June, local news in Terre Haute claimed the amount of rainfall that month was three inches more than average. If you’ve ever had a rain gauge in your yard, you know that’s a lot of water. I’ve noticed its effects in our back yard. None of our fruit trees bloomed this year. We have pepper plants in the garden that are only now starting to develop blossoms, and our cucumbers look more like stumpy yellow squash than the crisp green we’re used to.
A waterlogged cucumber
Comparing this year to last year, it’s the complete opposite. It took a while for vegetables to grow, but they all blossomed and our yard literally hummed with bees feeding off clover. We watered constantly to keep plants from wilting in the heat. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen bees in our yard this year. I’ve not had to water our garden once.
As isolated views, these growing seasons, just twelve months apart, appear anomalous. On a longer timeline, they’re alarming. When climate affects growing conditions, we have to adapt by choosing plants that can tolerate those changes. But when climate is changing so quickly, it’s nearly impossible to predict what will yield crops and what will not. That’s problematic. It doesn't matter if you’re trying to maintain a commercial farm or offset your grocery bill by having your own garden.
A Series of Occurrences
These dramatic weather swings are not normal. The wildfires in the west contribute significantly to rising and falling temperatures by emitting massive amounts of carbon into the air in a short period of time. There’s the heat from the fires themselves, plus the reflective properties of the carbon collected in the air above. We see more extreme storms develop as the brown carbon travels higher into the atmosphere. Common instances of upwelling in Lake Michigan become more frequent.
The pollution from the fires moves up to the arctic, carried by the altered jet stream, and warms the ice caps. The ice caps melt faster, releasing colder water out into the ocean, which affects weather along the coasts and creates hurricanes.
Hurricanes, interestingly enough, are the global system’s attempt to cool itself off. But they alter rain patterns and cause flooding in the farming states of the midwest. Predatory animals are declining in population due to the same climate change, compounded by shifting human populations. Smaller rodent populations are then able to thrive and we’re left to use poisons to try to control their growth. Poisons go back into the groundwater… well… I think you get the point.
A Time to Heal
I wonder what it is that motivates a population to eliminate straws from restaurants but not plastic spoons? Why we’re willing to put out a recycling bin every other Thursday, but not stop to pick up a bit of litter on the sidewalk. In an age where we have the capacity to eradicate disease, why can’t we come together to agree that our planet, and everything on it, is in trouble.
For reasons I’ll have to cover in another article, my wife has started telling people that I’m a “prepper” now. That is, someone who believes a cataclysm is on the near horizon and we have to prepare for it. Climate change being one of them. I strongly disagree with that categorization of my weird hobbies, but it does give me pause. Just in these few paragraphs, I’ve highlighted pestilence, famine, death and, don’t get me started on war.
Regardless of the fact I might technically be getting a little paranoid, if you take away the argument of whether or not the rising temperature of the planet is accelerated by humans, the temperature is still going up. The weird weather patterns aren’t going to stop. But they can be slowed. And if you enjoy your rat-free household, like your summer corn on the cob, and don’t want your cup of morning coffee to disappear, you might want to think about how you can help.
Christian Shuck is a Greencastle native and Hope College alumnus who works in higher education as a major gift officer. Besides his contributions here, he also writes for his own blog cmshuckstories.com. He currently lives in Terre Haute.