Climate Change Is Already Affecting US Farms and Forests
October 21, 2013
David Pitt / Associated Press & Lansing State-Journal
More than 150 Iowa professors and climate researchers have released a statement warning that extreme weather caused by climate change is devastating farmlands. This year's weather has been extreme, with record drought followed by record flooding. Meanwhile, the National Park Service reports glaciers are receding, wildfires are burning longer and hotter, snowfalls are and floods are unpredictable, vegetation is growing at unprecedented altitudes and temperatures are steadily rising.
Iowa Scientists: Climate Change Affecting Farming
David Pitt / Associated Press
DES MOINES, Iowa (Oct 18, 2013) -- More than 150 Iowa professors and climate researchers have signed on to a statement released Friday that says extreme weather patterns caused by climate change are affecting farming, and updated practices are needed to prevent soil erosion and adjust to the new reality.
"Every year, evidence has been building in Iowa and around the world that there are consequences to the continued release of large quantities of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere," said David Courard-Hauri, chairman of the Environmental Science and Policy Program at Drake University, who helped write the statement.
This year's weather has been extreme.
Iowa started the year under widespread drought that began in 2012, but by spring the rain came in heavy downpours, making it the wettest spring in the 140 years of record-keeping. Some rivers in central Iowa posted record high nitrate levels caused by the influx of fertilizer and manure washing out of fields.
By mid-August, very dry conditions returned, and the state experienced the second-driest July through September ever behind only 1947. Farmers in Iowa and surrounding states found themselves dealing again with varying degrees of drought.
The scientists said at a press conference that farmers should update their practices to avoid further soil erosion and farmland damage.
"Practices that were installed 30 years ago just need to be updated for the current climate we're experiencing with these heavy rains," said Gene Takle, director of the Climate Science Program at Iowa State University, another of the statement's authors.
Takle said the first step is to work with the US Department of Agriculture to agree on new measures. The next step would be to evaluate whether public policy changes are needed to provide incentives for adoption, he said.
He said grass waterways built into farm fields may not be large enough to accommodate heavy water flowing through fields. Farmers may need to increase the area around streams and rivers planted with woody vegetation or perennials that hold soil and slow the escape of fertilizer and manure into waterways.
Farmers also may need to begin using cover crops on a wider scale. Cover crops are grasses planted on farm fields after harvest to hold the soil in place until the next year's crop begins to emerge. The grasses are then killed to allow the crop to flourish.
As with most climate change declarations, there is disagreement about the cause and the severity of impact.
Patrick Michaels, director of the Center for the Study of Science at the Washington-based conservative think tank Cato Institute, said the global climate is constantly changing. He said mankind may have contributed to it since 1975, but he doesn't believe the impact is as severe as the scientists in the paper say.
"Despite what I would call the warming pressure from increased atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, natural variability has been able to overcome it for decades," he said.
He said the paper is an insult to farmers because it assumes they can't figure out how to adapt.
"It is a tribute to what is known in the environmental sciences profession as the 'dumb farmer scenario,' assuming that they're too stupid to adapt to gradual change," Michaels said. "In fact, farmers adapt to very sudden changes in market value, and every year they make decisions based on that."
Here and Now at National Parks
(October 18, 2013) -- At Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state, one of the oldest national parks in the US, operations for more than a century were built upon a predictable weather pattern.
Heavy snows would begin to fall in autumn. The snow would grow thicker through winter until it packed 25 feet deep.
In the spring, rain would replace the snow, and the snow pack would act like a giant sponge, soaking up all the water until the warm summer months would melt them all and fuel the rivers below.
But by the time current National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis was appointed superintendent of Mount Rainier National Park in 1999, things had started to change.
The rain wouldn't wait its turn, falling early in autumn when the snow pack was only a few feet thick. The snow couldn't handle or hold the sudden soaking. Floods became a problem.
Then, in November 2006, devastation struck. A slow-moving weather system called the "Pineapple Express" hovered over the state. In less than 36 hours, 18 inches of rain fell on the mountain.
The resulting flood was devastating. It washed out roads, knocked out power, took out campgrounds. One campsite called Sunshine Point had been there for a century, but the flood scoured it down to the bedrock. The park closed to the public for seven months.
The National Park Service already was well aware that things were changing worldwide, not just in their parks. Glaciers were receding. Wildfires were burning longer and hotter. Vegetation was growing at altitudes unheard of before. And, yes, temperatures were getting warmer.
But the 2006 flood -- at least for Jarvis -- brought into frightening clarity that something dramatic, devastating and immediate was happening. The effects of climate change were not some far-off problem that could be think-tanked for decades, he said.
They were happening here and now.
"There had been this long tradition of people coming out to go to the ice caves," Jarvis recalled. "The ice caves are gone. Every one of the glaciers on Ranier is significantly receding. So, it began to dawn on me. Something is going on here."
Jarvis has made it clear as head of the federal agency there is no higher priority than climate change on his agenda.
Everything is different, he told his staff at a meeting on his first day. From now on, the single most important issue facing the National Park Service is, and will forever be in your lifetimes, climate change.
Jarvis commissioned some of the nation's top scientists to evaluate whether the National Park Service's policies were still relevant.
The group issued a report called, "Revisiting Leopold," a nod to 20th century environmental activist Aldo Leopold, who shaped much of our modern ideas about managing wildlife and nature.
The group acknowledged that we're in "a time of unrelenting change," but cautioned against any wholesale dismantling of the National Park Service's policies that call for restraint in managing nature.
Instead, it said the agency must make decisions based on "best available sound science, accurate fidelity to the law and long-term public interest."
Jarvis said the group's recommendations will be the foundation of a new set of policies for park stewardship in the National Park Service's second century.
"Climate change is not an easy concept for people to grasp," Jarvis said. "This is an opportunity for us to talk about the changes we're seeing. National parks are like those cousins you see every three years and you say, 'Oh, wow. You've grown so much.' Many of our visitors are repeats. When they come back, there is a marked change in the park as a result of climate change."
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