Sunday, October 6, 2019

Climate Change is Local

There are lots of places to look to see that global warming is happening: the average temperature of the earth has been higher and higher every year (graphics and charts at NASA); around the world glaciers are melting (National Geographic; NASA); pretty much everyone who keeps records has seen record highs recently, for example, France (link) and Alaska (link).
Fox Glacier, New Zealand 2009
Fox Glacier, New Zealand, 2009
But weather and climate are complicated.

Warming is and will be greater in some places than others. Precipitation is critical to how we experience warming and warming affects rainfall. The connections are the topic of a whole section in university Introductory Ecology courses because weather adds up to climate and climate critically limits where organisms can live. Temperature and water are the primary factors, then their impact is modified by geography, soils, and ultimately, a feedback loop from vegetation.

We read stories of flooding and heat waves elsewhere and are glad it isn't us. But in fact, it is us. It is one big world with lots of interlocking processes.
Amazon rainforest in Peru
Amazon rainforest in Peru, a big part of water cycling on earth.
The specific impacts of global warming are local. Water is finite: one place's flooding means drought somewhere else. Hotter-than-average days are lovely in May in Minnesota, horrid in August in Arizona. Each place's problems will be different. The good side is that you can do things at home to help. A Google search quickly brought up articles on how different areas are being impacted: New England ocean; Florida, Wisconsin...and a website that collected that for the US StatesatRisk.

Weather stations have tracked temperatures and precipitation for more than an century across the U.S. (and much longer in long-settled areas). That means they can compare changes and find, for example, that Fort Collins, Colorado is the 9th fastest warming city in the U.S. Well, we know a lot about heat in cities and can mitigate the gain in heat by reducing pavement and creating shade, especially from plants. Much landscape design is casual or even accidental, so there is lots that can be done to make it better.

Increased heat means that the drought that frequently stresses the Front Range--my backyard rain gauge had no measureable rain for most of September 2019--will be worse. Native plants have been selected to endure hot dry periods; my cute ornamentals and any seedlings were very stressed. Even if the same rainfall occurs, water doesn't go as far at higher temperatures. (At higher temperatures more evaporates and plants and animals release water to cool themselves.) With more heat our droughts will be worse.
unwatered grassland, Boulder County, Colorado
unwatered grassland and stressed small cottonwood tree,
October 5, 2018, Boulder County, Colorado
You can't stop a drought but you can plant water-efficient crops and garden plants that survive droughts. Northern Colorado's normal rainfall is a bad drought year in Illinois; I have plants that like those conditions to offer to Illinoians.
garden, Gardens at Spring Creek, Fort Collins, CO
Water-efficient plants, Gardens at Spring Creek, Fort Collins, CO
But there are more imaginative responses as well. The Denver Post on Sept. 22 had as its headline a story about people in southwestern Colorado building tiny dams: rows of rocks on a hillside to block the path of runoff rainwater. That reduces runoff and erosion because even a slight delay allows water to seep into the soil. The reason for doing it: with warmer temperatures their precipitation has been falling as rain not snow and running off, eroding the slopes. Much of melting snow sinks into the ground. Here's the link tiny dams.

Because the climate change from global warming is playing out everywhere, you do not have to despair because it is such a big problem but rather, find out what has changed where you live and help your town and neighbors adapt. When we understand the problem, we can see lots of things to do: coastal people faced with flooding can build sea walls or put their houses on stilts or create marshes as buffer zones. City people faced with heat emergencies can plant trees, reduce reflective surfaces, reduce heat loss to the outdoors by insulating, and of course there are even more innovative responses such as roof gardens (About urban heat link; suggestions link). And so on.
roof garden, Omni Hotel, Fort Worth, Texas
Roof garden over the first floor at Omni Hotel, Fort Worth, Texas
Learn what is changing in your area. The media like to tell it as disaster headlines, but it is not that simple. Find the information about changes in your region. Think through what it means for you specifically. Then take action--in self-defense or to help others, I don't think it matters which. Doing something, whether it is adapting to the change you cannot prevent or taking action to slow change, makes people much more hopeful. And of course, those actions make our world better suited for the "new normal."
wild phlox, New Mexico
Wild phlox growing in a field in New Mexico.
 I'd be happy to have this drought- and heat-tolerant plant in my yard.

Comments and corrections welcome.

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist

No comments:

Post a Comment