Friday, September 4, 2015

Of Earth, Wind, and Fire

Identity is a funny thing. Of course there is no doubt in my mind that I'm a Seattleite, born and raised less than 30 miles from the city. Despite not really having lived there in the last decade (we'll just ignore the nearly a year of underemployment spent at my parents' house), I still hold to very strong perceptions developed through the eyes of my childhood self. The emphasis on weather is particularly apparent, and perhaps explains the ease with which I have settled into a country with a decided preoccupation with commenting and speculating on the weather. These ingrained notions that a gray, gloomy, drizzle dominates for a solid ten months of the year, with a brief respite of brilliantly sunny and yet not-too-warm summer days, provide sufficient fodder for heated discussion when reality deviates from the norm. And yet, regardless of our green inclinations, this also makes it difficult sometimes to grasp that we may be facing a 'new normal'.
These days, when I read in the news about the droughts and fires taking place on the west coast of the US, this is exactly what comes to mind. It is temperate and humid in Seattle, and every now and then there is a slightly drier year in which we can't set off fireworks on the 4th of July. But this just demonstrates how removed and romantic I have become about the weather in Washington. Spring and summer have been dry, and likely to remain so. More record-breaking, wild fires this summer have made news (even in the Guardian) as the largest in State history. These are not your controlled burns to manage dead and dried understory brush. Winds have helped fires to spread, making them more dangerous and difficult to control. Even the wettest part of Washington, the rainforest on the Olympic Penninsula, the place of absolutely soaked childhood memories, felt the heat and burned this summer.

But it is not just about precipation, which many see as the defining feature of the Pacific Northwest. This year was the warmest winter on record in Washington State. Yes, it rained; but because of above-freezing temperatures, by April 1st snowpack in the Cascades and the Olympics was 25% and 3% its normal level, respectively. Timing is everything, as the western US relies on snowmelt to fill reservoirs and replenish streams. Combine unusually low stored water and a lack of spring and summer rainfall, and that makes for a dangerous situation. Fires, for one, destroying vast swaths of forest, threatening homes, and affecting air quality. But also, reduced stream flow hinders the spawning of salmon (the other PNW icon) and puts pressure on an already threatened group of fish. And of course, our agricultural systems need water. A $2.5 trillion irrigated agriculture industry at risk, in fact.

Stay tuned next week: how to make a vegan 'mud' pie
But let's take a small-scale example. Some farmer friends wrote a really telling blog post on what water shortages mean for farms in a State that takes abundant water for granted. Usually able to rely on a 'high water table' and the local rivers, farmers face elevated costs associated with more intensive irrigation. Water is also a limiting factor in good establishment of seedlings, particularly young tender vegetablets. What this post also alluded to were the extended economic implications - absence from markets and inability to meet demand for CSAs and restaurants during this usually bountiful period. It is in the nature of farming to require flexibility, versatility, and the capacity to shift from year to year to meet variability. But at some point, longer term and more drastic innovation is required to respond to what very much seems like a new normal. 

While we're stuck with some level of climate impacts, I think what people are currently experiencing is making the necessity of mitigating actions even clearer. Perhaps wishful thinking. So I will conclude this post with a dash of hope, as we start to see a bit more emphasis, a bit more urgency, placed on the serious challenge that climate change presents for our current and future ways of life.

Read More: 
Water Resources - Washington Department of Ecology

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

a good read... thanks!