Well, it’s no secret that it’s been hot. And very, very dry. Lawns are brown, gardens are parched. Farmers are steeling themselves for dismal yields, maybe even crop failure.
Bad as that is, the worst of it may be the scope of this drought. As represented by map graphics in this New York Times article, a majority (55%) of the U.S. is experiencing conditions ranging from moderate to extreme drought. The accompanying article is also gloomy about any short-term relief:
The latest outlook released by the National Weather Service on Thursday forecasts increasingly dry conditions over much of the nation’s breadbasket, a development that could lead to higher food prices and shipping costs as well as reduced revenues in areas that count on summer tourism. About the only relief in sight was tropical activity in the Gulf of Mexico and the Southeast that could bring rain to parts of the South.
According to the article, fully one third of counties across the U.S. have been declared drought disaster areas, permitting them to apply for federal aid programs.
When my family moved to the Ottawa area in 1999, one thing that amazed us was the lack of irrigation. We kept looking for agricultural ditches, sprinklers – something. Seeing none, we wondered how do people water around here? (What? They don’t? It rains in the summer?! Who knew?)
My husband was born in Arizona and grew up in California’s central valley. He can recall how his grandparents in Phoenix could open a sluice gate and flood their lawn on a scheduled basis. Stockton, where he went to high school, is surrounded by agriculture that requires irrigation.
On Maui, where I grew up, whole watersheds on the lush, windward side of the island were harnessed long ago into intricate irrigation systems that deliver water to sugar fields and (later) resort communities in sunny, dry areas. My high school was named after Henry Perrine Baldwin. The son of missionaries, he became an early sugar planter and supervised the construction of East Maui Irrigation System circa 1876 while still recovering from losing an arm in a mill accident.
These days, environmentalists and cultural advocates on several Hawaiian islands are trying to restore natural stream flows – which is a struggle as the dry sides have come to depend on the water that’s imported – or stolen, depending on one’s point of view.
Anywhere you go, water is always valuable – and often contentious.
How strange – how marvelous – it felt to live where abundant water was part of the natural cycle. Indeed, some of the last dozen summers in Ottawa have felt too wet!
Not this one, though. Statistically, the past 12 month stretch from July-June in Ottawa ranks as the hottest and driest on record.
Residents in the Rideau watershed are currently asked to suspend non-essential water use and reduce overall consumption levels by 20%. Lawns across the region are crackle brown. As you’d expect, growers who supply farmer’s markets are feeling stressed. Despite a burn ban, there have been a number of brush fires in, or around, the Ottawa region. The number of forest fires in Ontario is way up for 2012. As of Friday, there’s a new fire of some concern near Algonquin Park. (Also detailed here.)
Meanwhile, urban Ottawa draws its water from the Ottawa River, which is big enough that the city doesn’t seem overly concerned about running out. Residents supplied by that system are not under restrictions. It seems counter-intuitive, but Ottawa officials recently requested that homeowners do water their lawns, to alleviate fire risk.
But many medium-size communities surrounding Ottawa use well water for their municipal systems and some are concerned about reduced replenishment rates. CBC reports that the town of Almonte recently imposed a ban on outdoor watering which seems to be helping matters, somewhat.
Most rural residents in smaller communities hereabouts (like me) are on private wells and have to worry about the possibility of running dry.
That’s my region. How’s Canada as a whole doing? I can’t find current data in the same sort of percentages as cited above for the U.S.. But significant areas of Canada are experiencing drought conditions.
Here’s a link to a technical discussion of drought and trends from Environment Canada. The long-term outlook is not certain, but looks rather challenging:
All Global Climate Models are projecting future increases of summer continental interior drying and associated risk of droughts. The increased drought risk is ascribed to a combination of increased temperature and potential evaporation not being balanced by precipitation (Watson et al., 2001). However, considerable uncertainty exists with respect to future precipitation, particularly on a regional and intra-seasonal basis. Furthermore, relatively little is known regarding changes to large-scale circulation and, since these patterns have a significant impact on temperature and precipitation over Canada, the occurrence of future drought remains a huge knowledge gap.
There may be a few “winners” in all this disaster. As reported by the Toronto Star, a number of Canadian fertilizer companies expect to benefit overall:
This growing season is already a write-off, but for the next one, farmers will plant more seed and use more fertilizer and insecticide as they chase those higher corn prices.
That means bigger profits – and soaring stock prices – for companies such as Agrium Inc., Potash Corp., and Mosaic Co.
One need only think back to the Great Depression to know that hard times do happen. As if the collapse of the stock market wasn’t bad enough, terrible dust bowl conditions scoured the land, giving rise to the dour nickname of “dirty thirties”. The weather and the economy did get back to more normal conditions, eventually. But it was a grim stretch to endure.
A few years ago, the weather was sufficiently odd in Canada that the environment started to register near the top of people’s concerns. Then things settled down and economic issues climbed back to the top of the polls.
I predict a similar rise in environmental worry across the U.S. electorate. If you believe in global warming – and see these conditions as a wake-up call – then maybe that’s a silver lining. The trouble is, as soon as normal weather patterns resume, heightened concern tends to subside too.
How do you view this drought and how’s it affecting you?