Today, I am doing my part to be a responsible North Texas community member. I’m indoors, wrapped in a blanket with a knit beanie and fisherman’s sweater on (I’d put on the pea coat to complete the look if it didn’t restrict my movement so) and keeping the thermostat down to create the most negligibly smaller demand on the region’s infrastructure as we endure a bizarre winter storm. I noted on social media this morning that I did not move all the way to Texas just to be in South Dakota. The windchill is already sub-zero. The actual temperature itself may reach the same by tomorrow. Snowfall accumulations combined with high winds are expected to leave 8″ snow drifts in their wake.
What, in South Dakota, folks might refer to as “just last Tuesday,” in Dallas is a major event, and not a pleasant one. Many businesses have shut down because it’s not safe for their workers to get in. Grocery store shelves have been stripped bare over the past few days. We suffered a catastrophic pileup on the expressway in the early hours of this event. And now the governor warns that because of the cold’s staying power over many days, there may not be enough energy available to meet demand for heat across the region. The upside, I suppose, is that it’s now too cold for any more freezing rain.
It would be misleading for me to blame this uncomfortable weekend on climate change. I’m not well enough read to be able to make any such assertion. I know that weather aberrations have taken place over the millennia, so one bitter cold event in Texas does not a scientific case make. It’s just cold here, and unpleasant, for a few days. A week from today it’s forecast to be 60 degrees and sunny and we’ll be back outdoors in droves ready to brag to our grandchildren about the Winter of 2021 (but still thinking it’s a bit brisk and wearing our puffer coats and beanies).
But what about those weather patterns that can be traced to changes in climate, and particularly those changes driven by human activity? In the final chapter of The Reindeer Chronicles, author Judith Schwartz recounts her research with Dr. Millán Millán, who had been studying the potential connection between use of land and the drop in precipitation in the summers in the Western Mediterranean (yes, we’re talking about the rain in Spain and what’s happened to it).
So, there’s a pretty substantial cause and effect that Dr. Millán has observed: “What we do to the land alters the water cycle, and this has an influence on climate.” Dr. Millán’s research demonstrated that the occurrence of intense storms and prolonged droughts had direct correlation to what we were doing with the land. But the good news is that understanding this meant that we could also make changes to reverse course. “That research,” Schwartz writes, “also gave him the conviction that once we understand the dynamics that lead to these negative scenarios, we can implement land management approaches to recover previous rainfall regimes. That is, water cycle disruptions are reversible.”
Essentially, what the region was experiencing was a disruption in the “soil-plant-precipitation interactions.” Moisture coming off the Mediterranean used to be able to pass over vegetative land, and up mountain slopes, returning back as precipitation. As development along the coast has increased, as well as cutting in the forested areas of the mountain slopes, the evapotranspiration process has been disrupted, meaning both less precipitation in the season where it is most needed and more severe storms, mudslides and erosion in others. “The missing rain isn’t the only effect of land degradation, says Millán. With less vegetation transpiring moisture, the land surface heats up. Warm, barren land repels clouds, which retreat and cause precipitation over the water. Says Millán, ‘If you accumulate enough water vapor, you get a storm. If not, the moisture goes back toward the sea.'”
That moisture that doesn’t develop into precipitation “has to go somewhere,” he notes, and Dr. Millán has found that it most often moves through advection, or horizontal transfer, to somewhere else that it can create condensation. The “fugitive moisture” as he calls it, has been found in connection to weather events in Central Europe, some distance from the Western Mediterranean, such that he associates these events very closely: “Basically, you’re cutting a tree in Almería and getting a storm in Dusseldorf.”
But what if we could change all that? Can we, as Dr. Millán believes, “cultivate summer storms”? He believes it’s possible to “stabilize the hydrological cycle on the local-to-regional scale.” This could be accomplished through a variety of interventions, such as painting homes in a reflective white (to reduce heat absorption) and reforestation and taking steps to ensure no loss of soil. Schwartz writes that based on Dr. Millán’s projections, “Judiciously reinstating vegetation and permeable, non-heated surfaces in an area, one could induce precipitation sixty or eighty kilometers (thirty-five to fifty miles) upslope or downwind, depending on the natural course of moisture. This is a remarkable prospect: the possibility of undoing ecological disruption, of reconnecting what has been severed—in this instance the flow of water vapor.”
This weekend, with the bitter wind whistling outside my window almost drowning out the train as it rushes by, I’m asking myself if, perhaps, someone cut down a tree in Dusseldorf.
Photo by Paul van de Velde, Creative Commons via Flickr. Post by Will Willingham.
We invite you to join us, and the reindeer, for this challenging exploration of possibility as the first of our winter book club selections. Our reading schedule is below:
Buy The Reindeer Chronicles by Judith D. Schwartz