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Weird Winter

By Barbara Kessler Green Right Now Visiting the Midwest last week, I took my winter coat but forgot my boots. It didn’t matter. My destination had only a smattering of...

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Visiting the Midwest last week, I took my winter coat but forgot my boots. It didn’t matter. My destination had only a smattering of old snow lingering in the shadows. The weather was wonderful, if you like sunny winter days in the 40s.

Most people do. A warm winter’s easier. It takes less time to get the frost off the windshield in the morning. The wind doesn’t seize your bare neck in a death grip when you step outside. The risk of falling on icy sidewalks evaporates and you’re less likely to skid into another car on your way to the Pancake House.

Winter 2012 has been dry in the Midwest and Southwest, with Texas and Oklahoma getting some much-needed make-up rain, though not enough to pull out of drought status.

And yet, it’s not right.

Looking around, I could see that everyone was noticing. Rather like those extras in The Birds, we collectively darted dark looks at the skies and landscape. And look! There were the ducks and geese gathering ominously, flocking into formation and gearing up for their Southward migration. On Feb. 3.

Farmers were also tuned in to this out-of-whack winter. One pointed out that the mild temperatures have so far come with a concurrent lack of precipitation. If the light snowfall, the equivalent of only an inch or so or rain, doesn’t increase, heavier spring rains would need to pick up the slack, he said.

Farmers always worry about the weather. But a look at the national map for January, shows he’s not talking cracked corn. Many states in the Breadbasket are falling  behind in precipitation.

Climate change models don’t predict drought for the Midwest, only for the Southwest. (And they’ve been deadly accurate on that, Texas and Oklahoma.) But who knows? Climate change patterns are still unfolding, and one pattern seems to be that there’s no pattern. The weather is becoming more erratic. This is related to shifting global wind patterns connected to the melting Arctic, combined with shifting degrees of moisture in the air from warming oceans. It gets complicated.

For now, let’s just say, the erratic weather is, well, noticeably erratic. Last year, winter walloped much of the Northern US with big snow events. This year, winter has gone on holiday.

Let’s move now to the temperature map for January. Ouch. The entire nation has been experiencing dramatically warmer temperatures. (Those weeds in my garden and the ticks on the dogs — not my imagination.)

Temperature Map for January 2012 shows most states were 2-8 degrees above normal. (Image: NOAA)

And let’s be clear, the ducks and geese heading South are not confused. They are taking the right cues. The cues are just ahead of schedule.

How will this new choreography play out? In dozens of predictable and unpredictable ways. What happens if winter makes a late appearance and the ducks have already moved? That cannot be good for them.

We’re already seeing many species edged toward extinction (or for the time being, toward Canada) as the result of the new warmer climate we humans are forcing on them. Wildlife can adapt over time, but not on an artificially accelerated schedule.

Here are two examples that will break the hearts of anglers: The walleye, a prized catch, is losing its food sources as lakes in Minnesota warm, and the brook trout, native to the Eastern US and plentiful in cold, remote streams in Pennsylvania and New York, faces “decimation” because of warming waters, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

Plants and crops also are affected in expected and unexpected ways. Maine Climate News has reported  that climate change has both expanded blueberry production with longer growing seasons, and made it riskier because Maine now experiences crop-killing high temperatures courtesy of global warming.

Flooding in the Midwest last year boosted corn prices, but that’s because there was a shortage of corn to harvest due to the record flooding. So the “good news” for farmers wasn’t a story of plenty so much as one of market economics. (FYI, recurrent flooding in the Midwest appears to be affected by farming techniques and the manipulation of rivers, as well as climate change.)

Add it all up and we’re living in challenging times, if we’re even remotely interested in living in harmony with nature and continuing agriculture as we’ve known it. Adaptation may not keep pace.

Call me a Debbie Downer, but I cannot throw my hat in the air over not having to wear a down jacket in February. Besides, what’s winter without at least one bitter cold weekend spent enjoying soup and good book before the fireplace while the men (or women) demonstrate their hardy nature with a snow shovel outside?

 


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