Groundwater Users and the Future of the Ogallala

Short version – there are a lot of claims on the water under the plains, and a lot of ideas for what to do in the future. Some are more realistic than others.

Ted Turner – the Atlanta media and baseball team dude – talked about returning the High Plains (western area over the Ogallala Aquifer) to quasi-Ice Age status by seeding it with elephants, lions, and other African fauna sort of, kinda, like the Pleistocene megafauna. We will skip over the lack of ground water-fed springs and streams, the totally different precipitation patterns as compared to the last Ice Age, and a few other minor details. Let’s just say that his idea died the death it deserved. At least for now.

Another proposal, this from two professors at Rutgers, looked back to some of the New Deal programs and involved removing domestic livestock and crops from the region. Instead, a “Buffalo Commons” would allow bison to roam as they once had, and tourism and bison management would support the economy of the region, minus a lot of the current human residents. Again, the lack of surface water leaped to mind as a problem, along with the human tendency to dig in and hold when someone from Outside says, “I have a great idea. Let’s you leave and then we can . . .” There’s some value to some of the Poppers’ proposals, but also some big problems.

The Ogallala still has water. Some parts of the aquifer are getting thicker and gaining water. On average, among all the states on the Ogallala, 85% of the water taken out each year is used for irrigated agriculture. A good rule of thumb for an average year in southern Kansas, the Oklahoma Panhandle, and Texas is that one and a quarter acre-feet of water are needed per year per acre of water. An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons, more or less. This will cover one acre of land in one foot of water. The Oklahoma Panhandle, per the USDA (Ag department) has 230,000 acres of irrigated crop land. Those crops require, on average 290,000 a/f/y. Three-quarters of that is wheat and field corn, with another fifteen percent or so grain sorghum. In a wet year, irrigators use less. Dry year, more water, unless it is so bad that there’s no point in irrigating any longer. I’ve seen that. Even with super-efficient center-pivot systems, the blast-furnace wind evaporates the water before it touches the plants’ leaves, let alone the ground. You watch plants die before your eyes. Kiss lawns good-bye. Those years are rare, thanks be.

Flood-furrow irrigation uses the most water per acre in an average year, because it is less efficient.* It also requires a lot more attention by the farmer, and a lot fewer acres can be sloped the proper way for good flood-furrow watering. Water flows through pipes with holes in them, and flows out of the holes, down the furrows, and into a ditch or “tailwater” pit where it soaks into the ground. Each length of pipe runs for X time, and then the farmer turns off the water, moves the pipe by hand, and starts again. There’s a pretty high evaporative loss.

Center-pivot systems can be much more efficient if the newer technology is used. These are the giant sprinkler systems with nozzles that hang down below a central pipe on legs. The pipe rolls along, around and around a circle, and water sprays out. The ground doesn’t have to be as level. One farmer used 222 a/f/y on 245 acres in Kansas. When he switched to center pivot, that dropped to 155 a/f/y. You still lose water to evaporation, especially if it is windy or the nozzles are set too high in the air. A different Kanasas farmer switched from flood to sub-surface drip irrigation and went from between 10″ – 15″ of water per year to between three and a half and five inches per year. That’s a lot of water.

In some places, like western Kansas and parts of Texas, the depth to water has grown so deep that the cost of pumping it exceeds the value of the crops produced. Those acres are taken out of production for irrigated grain and turned into dry-land grain, or pasture. Yes, it uses far less water. You are also less likely to get a large grain crop, and the farms are larger, so fewer people live in the area. Small towns fade away along with the irrigated acreage. What is good for the individual is not always so good for the community.

However, irrigation tech and how people use the water are both far more efficient than they were twenty years ago. Better breeds of grain and other crops use less water, or are more salt tolerant, or both, so irrigation takes less water. Almost all the groundwater districts in all the states focus on best use for the water, and really encourage people to be as careful as possible. Ninety percent of farmers and ranchers are mindful of their water use, and try not to overdo it. Water is expensive! Fuel for pumps costs a lot, whether you use diesel or natural gas. Yes, there are people who don’t give a fig and pump as much as they can, devil take the hindmost. The water management districts have teeth (outside of Texas), and will take steps when legally possible to rein in the abuse.

Fifty years ago the Ogallala only had fifty years left at most. Today, well, it is still producing water. Water conservation is normal. Urban areas that depend on the aquifer try to encourage water conservation, although . . . It’s about as successful in some places as you’d fear. That’s one of my high-horses, so I will try to stay on the ground. Turf grass that’s not bred for your area, cities that demand lots of green and non-xeriscape plants around commercial properties, places that require close-clipped lawns (which use a lot more water in summer), swimming pools that are not covered when not in use, so evaporation goes on 24/7, all these things steal a lot more water than people think.

If people are careful, the aquifer still has a lot of life in it. If we are stupid, well, we can kiss the region’s economy bye-bye, and with it a bunch of food crops, and fiber as well.

*In some places, when done properly, flood-furrow is more efficient than center-pivot in terms of water use. A lot depends on the farmer, the humidity in the area, and what is being grown.


This paper goes into some detail about efficiencies.

This is a contrarian view, arguing that federal policies are killing the aquifer and doom awaits. It is possible, true.

Just basic info, from Oklahoma State University.

Groundwater Woes? Well, Where are You?

“The Ogallala Aquifer will be gone in fifty years!

“In twenty years!”

“The Ogallala recharges and has gained thickness over the past two years.”

Which of these is true? The answer is yes, depending on where you are, and what uses you are talking about. Because the Ogallala is very large, and exceedingly variable in thickness, surface-water access, and usage over the length and width of the formation. The climate shifts from north to south and east to west, adding further complications.

Original image from the USGS. Accessed at:

The Ogallala is a layer of sand and gravel that was deposited between two and six million years ago. Enormous rivers flowed off of the then-young Rocky Mountains, eroding the fast-rising peaks and dumping thick layers of sediment all over the plains to the east. this sediment remained loosely-packed and porous, even after it was covered in tens to hundreds of feet of soil and dust and sand. Because of water-resistant layers of stone underneath it, the Ogallala catches incoming surface water and acts as an aquifer. You can drill a well into it and bring up good, if somewhat mineral-laden, water that has been filtered by the sand and by time.

If you are up in the Nebraska Sandhills, on the northern end of the aquifer (the indigo-blue blob), rainfall and snowmelt sink into the formation, helping to recharge it. In some wet years, and some parts of the Sandhills, the aquifer will gain water and the water table rises to the surface. In dry years, when people have to pump a lot for their cattle and to irrigate fodder crops, the level drops.

Farther south, the thickness of the aquifer tapers off, and the climate is drier and warmer. Here, the use of the aquifer, especially since the invention of center-pivot irrigation in the 1950s, has dropped the level ten, fifty, hundreds of feet. Some counties in Kansas have reached a point where it is no longer cost effective to pump from the aquifer (depth to water of 600′ in a few places) and have reverted to pasture and to dryland crops. At the far tail end of the formation, near La Mesa, Texas, the aquifer was never thick to start with, and it hit close to bottom in the 1960s just from private and municipal wells.

Most of the area now has Groundwater Protection Districts that regulate consumption, either through voluntary mutual agreement, or force of law. It depends on the state, the state’s water-laws, and when the District came into being. Some Districts focus on keeping water in the ground for perpetuity, others are trying to slow draw-down so the water will run out no sooner than, oh, 2100 or so. Everyone agrees that conservation is needed, and is good, and that the more efficient use we can make of the water, the better off all of us on the aquifer are. It’s just how to do that, and what the best use of the water might be that we politely disagree over. OK, loudly disagree, with the occasional shoving match, especially when outsiders pop up and announce that they are going to drain the water and send it: downstate, out-of-the-state, or to The Big City. Nothing unifies people like a common enemy.

The main use for the water is farming. Watering crops, watering livestock, and processing livestock are major uses. A pork-packing plant was proposed for part of southwest Kansas back in the 1990s. It was denied permits because pork processing takes at least three times the water per carcass as does beef packing. Irrigation has come a long way in terms of efficiency, from the old flood-furrow system where farmers moved lengths of pipe by hand, poured water onto the soil and then moved the pipes again, to modern low-flow, low-height nozzle center-pivot systems, to in-ground drip irrigation with built in moisture meters that only release water when and where it is needed by the plants. The cost has risen with the complexity, but water use per acre has decreased markedly. The development of low-moisture hybrid wheats and other grains, plus some experimentation with arid-region grains such as teff, has further reduced the need for irrigation water per acre, at least in average to moist years.

People also drink the water, enjoy swimming in reservoirs, and complain about the flavor and what the mineral-rich water does to your teeth. (They are stronger, and slightly brown from the fluoride.) Lots of people, millions of people, who brush, and flush, and shower, and water lawns not designed for the climate, and wash cars, and build pools and . . .

Ahem. Sorry. The wandering soapbox jumped me. I have some personal beefs with open pools and blue-grass lawns in semi-arid places.

Since this is already getting long, on Friday I’ll continue and we’ll look at hard numbers, playa lakes and springs, and different thoughts about the future of the region.

(Edited to change date of part two. I wrote 5000+ words on Monday and my brain is numb.)

I Don’t Think She Noticed

A hummingbird was checking out a female Mississippi kite after the rain last Monday evening. Well, pestering and trying to intimidate looked more like it. I chuckled. The hummingbird finally settled on a not-to-near bare branch tip and kept an eye on the kite as the kite preened and dried out a little bit while waiting for the cicadas to emerge from hiding.

It was remarkably quiet out, actually. Quite nice. We’ve been getting about one good to decent rain a week, more or less, for a few weeks now. It’s not the average pattern for August, but rain is rain, and this part of the world almost always wants more. This rain came with a very strong cold front that dropped the temps into the low 60s as well as bucketing down rain. Low clouds hugged the tops of the trees. In other words, good weather for a natural redhead who wanted to take a walk before sunset.

As I returned from my stroll, I saw the hawk first. She was hard to miss, perched on the tip of a bare branch on the top of one of the tallest trees on the block, black against the slivery-grey sky like a bird-book illustration. The kites like this branch, so she wasn’t a surprise. I stopped, waiting for a car to creep through the intersection, and saw a dot of motion. The dot stopped and hung in mid-air, then backed away at the same elevation, advanced again, and darted around to the other side of the kite. She started working on one wing. The dot returned to its earlier spot in the middle of the air, then settled onto a lower branch tip.

The dot, a hummingbird, lifted off two or three more times as I watched, then settled in to stare at the kite, or do whatever he was doing. I smiled, laughed a little at the show, and finished my walk.

Cool and Early: The Grey Norther Arrives?

The blocking ridge of high pressure drifted back to the west on Friday and Saturday, shifting the flow of moisture and wind as it moved. Instead of southwest winds and mid-90s, the forecast called for the 80s and northeasterly breezes. And 80% chance of rain, which means 0%. It’s a regional rule of thumb that the higher the forecasters’ confidence, the lower the actual odds.

It sounded like the typical cool front that has been visiting the region for the past month, more or less, in other words. The High to the west steers Canadian air down and allows Gulf of Mexico moisture to come up. The combination means not as warm as average, and not as dry as average. We’re actually east of the true drought region, for a change. [taps wood]

Saturday was warm and muggy. You know, mid 90sF and dewpoints in the 60s. Not Houston or Mobile humid, but plenty sticky for this part of the world. Red spots began appearing on the radar in late afternoon, and the wind seemed to be switching from south to north-ish. The front was oozing through. The sky grew overcast, and sort of grey looking, but nothing really to write home about. And then the rain started around seven thirty that night.

It pounded, bucketed, gooshed, and drenched everything. The usual places had high water, as they usually do. I suspect the ball game got called a wee bit early, but I didn’t check. The storms had some thunder and lightning, but not as much as the spring monsters did. One or two went severe, then weakened to “frog strangler.” The house ended up getting 1.4″. The airport, which is the official reporting site for statistical purposes, got half an inch. A quick survey the next morning showed that it ranged from a two inch rain (drops two inches apart) to .58″ to 1.9″. If you were under a storm, you got a rain, in other words. That’s how this summer has been in general. We have not gotten a lot of the huge rain-shields that cover tens or hundreds of square miles. Instead we got smaller, mostly stationary storms that dumped water over a limited area. Or we got “trains,” long chains of storms that covered the same area as they moved through, sort of like the path of the tornado outbreak in the early spring.

Sunday the sky got brighter but never really cleared. A very misty tropical rain started just after one, as I sat on the floor in the front room, surrounded by papers, shoeboxes, a garbage bag, and other evidence of sorting in progress. No wind moved the rain or the trees. That ended after an hour or so and left almost another .10″ in the rain gauge. The midnight temperature on Sunday was 73F, and had dropped to 71 by 0700. After the rain, a strong northeast wind began blowing, and the temperature continued to fall to 64F by 1600. I went walking and greatly enjoyed the refreshing change.

Sunday-Monday the low dropped to 62F with the north wind, so I aired out the house for the first time in weeks. The dewpoint also dropped. On Tuesday, I woke at 0530 to light westerly winds, a dewpoint of 40, and a temperature of 60. Wheeeeee! That’s the driest this area has been since May. You bet I was out and about enjoying the pre-dawn chill. I also opened all the windows and screen-doors to let as much cool, dry into the place as possible.

Heat will return, and humidity. But this is the warning shot across summer’s bow. Slowly, more and stronger cold fronts will race down from Canada, then from Siberia. The days grow shorter, the sycamore trees are dropping bark, the sun moves south. Summer is not over, no. But it is starting to stagger and weaken. Orion dominates the pre-dawn sky. We’re entering the fat season, harvest and canning season.

High Pressure Low Pressure

You’ve been researching an area’s weather and climate too long . . . when you can reconstruct the weather systems (highs, lows, frontal passage) by reading the complaints about wind and lack there of in ranch records from the late 1800s early 1900s.

High pressure, low presure, or fixin' to blow up a storm. Photo by Michael Lapoint.

High pressure, low pressure, or fixin’ to blow up a storm. Photo by Michael Lapoint.

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Climate Change, Government Policy, or a Bad Combination of Weather and Topography?

Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands suffered very bad floods last week due to a series of intense storms that dumped a lot of water in a small area. The region had been damp to begin with, so the water-logged soils couldn’t hold any more. Two dams broke, a third overflowed but did not fail, and people died. Homes collapsed, roads and railroads disappeared into twisted masses of paving and tracks. Now people are trying to asses the damage and find the missing. It’s a horrible situation for the people of the Eifel region, Cologne, and areas downstream. The people flooded in North America can sympathize. Lots of water, very fast, on ground that can’t absorb more water . . . Flash flooding follows. It’s terrible for the people and animals caught in the water and mud.

The German and EU governments, and others, are blaming climate change for the intense storms that led to the flooding and deaths. If only we used non-CO2 producing sources of energy, this would never have happened, say the politicians and activists. Except . . .

The article is “Don’t blame climate change for Germany’s Flooding.”

I remember driving along the Rhine in 2012 and being flabbergasted by the height of the river. High rainfall had filled it to brim full. The Rhone and other tributaries also ran high. In 2002, the Elbe River in eastern Germany and the Czech Republic flooded, inundating Prague, Leipzig, Dresden, and other cities. In 1965, Hamburg went under water, and it still does. The parking garage near the maritime museum in the old part of the city has big signs on the doors saying not to open them if the water is X deep. The ground floors of buildings in that area are semi-sacrificial. In that case, it was a North Sea storm that backed water up the river and into the city. You know, like the horrible floods that killed tens of thousands of people at a go in the 1300s, 1500s, and 1700s, and probably earlier? Back before the internal combustion engine, during the Little Ice Age and before? Those floods. Inland also flooded as well in the past.

The above link goes to a paper looking at floods on the Lech and Isar Rivers, tributaries of the Danube that flow through Augsburg and Munich respectively. Floods happen. Lots of floods. When conditions are right, the rivers rise. Between 1300-1900, each river flooded over 85 times. The high waters ranged from “it flooded, that’s what it does” to huge inundations that wiped out large swaths of crop land and homes. (The part you want starts on page 790, or page 8 of the PDF).

Jo Nova has a post as well, about flood histories in the lower Rhineland, and elsewhere in the German-speaking world.

If you dig carefully enough, there are reports of floods during the warm period of the High Middle Ages (800s-1200s), and probably archaeological evidence of flooding during the Roman Warm Period. My point being that “rivers flood. That’s what they do,” as a farmer in Flat State observed as we discussed the local stream’s recent overflow. This does not make it any easier on people who find themselves caught in the waters. A poor lady on the news last night said that the municipality sent out a flood warning on Facebook™, but if people had no computers or were not on FB at the time, they didn’t know about the waters about to engulf the village. The national government did what it could, but local authorities dropped the ball. Or power had already gone out, and that wiped out cell service and other things. That’s not climate change, that’s a failure to have back-up plans.

It’s terrible that people were hurt or killed, and that more people lost homes, businesses, crops, and animals. Floods leave stinky, filth-ridden, disease-promoting muck and mire behind. The sun emerges, the mud steams, and miasmas fill the air as people start cleaning up. As has always happened since humans moved into floodplains and coastal plains.

If I could get a point across to politicians and activists around the world, it would be this: don’t blame anthropogenic climate change. Blame physics, hydrology, and gravity. Read about the Little Ice Age and the Great Drownings of the North Sea. Read Dagomar DeGroot’s Frigid Golden Age about the Dutch and the Little Ice Age. Solar panels and wind turbines can’t stop flooding, or intense storms. Coal and natural-gas powered generators don’t cause storms, neither do internal combustion engines.

Weather happens, no matter how badly people wish it didn’t. Pester your local politicians about bad land-use policies, donate to your local volunteer fire-and-rescue, and to groups that help with clean-up and rebuilding. Think about what you can do to help mitigate runoff and reduce hardscapes that contribute to urban flash-flooding. Those are things that can affect flood damage and loss of life. Sometimes. And sometimes, hell and high-water come together because of forces far beyond human control.

Stability, Stasis, and Comfort Levels

A comment on another blog got me thinking about stability and comfort in society. The discussion had drifted to “why do to people, and some governments, want to lock things into a certain level of economics/cultural norms/seasonal patterns forever and ever?” Part of it is the comfort of familiarity – we want the sun to rise in the east, the seasons to change when they are supposed to, cinnamon to taste like cinnamon, and our pay-check to arrive on time. Among other things. For most of human history, major changes to the routine generally meant Not Good Things – natural disasters, wars, plagues both human and livestock . . . Stability was safe. Predictable change was good. Children were supposed to grow up and marry and either move out or start working in the family business or farm. The old overlord died and his son or widow took over and did things just like he had. The occasional trader or traveler from a few villages over, or from a different part of the region, added a little variety but not too much.

Then you also have the “things were better back then.” It could be “when the old lord ran things, taxes stayed reasonable.” Or “in the golden age, when Numa Pompilius was king of Rome,” or “before Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil . . .” or what have you. For peasants it was the ideal time before overlords started taking over the “traditional rights” of free commoners. For the nobles it might have been when [kingdom name] was the greatest power in the region. Or back when peasants knew their place, and everyone stayed contentedly in their station of birth and no one challenged those who were born to rule. Or the wonderful era when wise women and subordinate men lived in harmony with Nature and farmed and all was at peace. Or when you were twelve, and old enough to ride your bike unsupervised and go to the candy store and stay out until the fireflies swarmed on long summer evenings, but didn’t have to pay bills.

Three of those scenarios are about control. ‘When we were in control, things were better. So if we stay in control/go back to those days, things will be better and we can lock things into place and Paradise.” If you look at some the Great Reset ideas, or some of the ideals of groups like Extinction Rebellion, you see a lot of both control and “going back to when everyone was poor (but dignified) peasants farming the land and doing folk-crafts with native materials.” Not that they phrase it like that, but “a less consumptive lifestyle that makes fewer demands on the environment” translates to poorer, when you measure standards of living. Experts and the self-appointed elite should be in control, because they are the experts and elites. Switch “nobles” for “experts and elites” and we’re back to the Renaissance and Middle Ages. Use “Confucian scholars” and you have the mandarins of imperial China. Again, control.

Chaos is the default state of the universe, according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Most people don’t do well in chaos. I don’t. I like a theme with variations, variations of my choosing for the most part. That’s not how the world works. Chaos created on a temporary basis, for a reason, can be a little scary even for the creators, because chaos doesn’t always behave. Fire behavior is predictable on a macro scale, for certain terrains, fuel loads, and weather patterns. On the micro scale? You can’t predict which embers will be picked up and tossed over the fire-line to land in just the right materials and start an explosive blaze. You can’t predict which person will cut the wrong wire and take out a municipal water system.

Totalitarian systems are about control. Certain pyschologic conditions are also about control, often control over how others see the individual or react to the individual. When those combine with a Cause, trouble for society really ensues. “I’m doing this for your own good,” ranks down there with “True [philosophy] has never been tried. We’ll get it right this time!” as far as words that should strike terror in the hearts of the sane.

I want to be in control of my particular slice of reality, such as it is. I game out situations in my head so that if X happens, I can control my response and (ideally) limit the damage and chaos. But I know darn well I can’t control other people. I can’t even control the characters I put onto the page! [Yes, Joschka von Hohen Drachenburg, I am looking right at you as example #1.] The idea of me trying to micromanage a world full of other people should scare the socks off of everyone, especially me.

The technocrats and fans of a neo-feudal order don’t see that. The totalitarians have always believed that they really can have total control over what is in people’s heads, as well as what the environment does and how society should respond to that. It doesn’t matter what flavor of totalitarian – theocracy, Communist, NSDAP, Fascist, Eco – control, order, and stasis are their end goals.

They missed the lesson of Greek tragedy and the tower of Babel. Hubris begets nemesis. Control begets collapse and chaos.

Trees or Scrub, Forest or Damaged Grassland?

What happened to the grass? That’s an odd question, or perhaps Odd*, to ask while driving on the Edwards Plateau. Most people ask about “missing” trees on the Great Plains and High Plains, but grass in the Hill Country? Hasn’t it always had trees, even if many of them are a little short and twisty? Mesquite, lots of shinnery oak and other oaks, some cedar, elm, cottonwood, and a few other trees cover the land. The shade is nice, but not the stands so thick they block the wind and mosquitoes wait to gang up on you. This year, there were also a lot of broken trees and deadfalls laying around thanks to the ice and snow from Snowvid 21. I kept muttering “My kingdom for a chainsaw. And bulldozer. And burn permit. And firewood sale stand. And . . .” You get the picture.

If you don’t know the history of the region, it looks a bit overgrown but not bad. Trees are good, right? The National Arbor Day Foundation and others are strong encouragers of tree-planting. Trees soak CO2 out of the atmosphere, they produce shade (most of the time, mesquite and some oaks aside), some produce things people can eat, birds like them . . . More trees are good, right? Especially native species, because those fit the landscape and climate better than do exotics, and don’t harm the ecosystem.

Um, well, sort of. The problem for me is that I’ve read about the pre-Anglo environment of Texas, and . . . Grass. Grass covered large swaths of what is now Texas, far more so than today. Much of the brushy land was grassy land because of pyro-management by the Indians, and by lightning, and intensive grazing by bison. Trees tended to be confined to stream and river courses, where they were protected from fire and heavy grazing until they grew big enough to tolerate creeping fires and the occasional nibble. When the German settlers moved into the area, they found more grass than trees, although trees certainly existed, enough for a sawmill or two.

The problem was thin soil and drought. And no one understood the need for fire management. European forests are 1) very different from North American, and 2) have not been fire managed since, um, well, I have yet to find anything in the archaeology records about controlled or otherwise burns. The grasslands were steppe or wetland, or both (Hungary), and trees tended to be managed, either by property owners or the state. So the new arrivals plowed, planted, grazed heavily, didn’t burn, and farmed as they best knew how. Some techniques worked, others didn’t. In wet years, all was well.

Then there’s the rest of the time. Overgrazing of the grass allowed brush to move in. Drought favors brush, as does fire suppression. As early as the 1890s, extension agents reported problems with good pasture land becoming brush choked and weedy. Toss in the dry years of the 1917-18, then the 1930s, and especially the 1950s, and grass retreats ahead of brush and then scrub forest. Deer, wild hogs, and some other game species do well to OK in brush, so ranchers shifted to farming game as well as cattle and horses. Even so, you can have too much of a brushy thing.

Given my personal preferences, if I won the lottery and could buy property, I’d do what I could to bring back the native grasses. But that’s just me, and I’d have to buy lottery tickets first. It takes a LOT of work and on-the-ground knowledge to do a good job of clearing out enough trees and brush for grass to return, and then manage things properly after that. Large infusions of cash are also required in the beginning. The benefits can be great, including increased stream flow and ground water, greater species diversity, fewer weeds and noxious plants, and healthier livestock and crops. All it takes is cash, sweat equity, knowledge, and labor.

For a few academic generations, we thought that ecosystems had a “climax state,” an end-goal that once reached, was the ideal final equilibrium point for any given ecosystem. Turns out that’s not true. Land use, climate fluctuations, geologic and weather events (think back to the enormous storm that leveled huge swaths of trees in England) . . . They all cause changes. Fire as a land management tool goes way back in human history, and is partly responsible for the savanah’s in Africa and is very responsible for the grasslands of North America, as well as for some of the forests of North America. The brushy Hill Country is just one possibility, brought about by climate shifts (end of the Little Ice Age) and human land management. A grassy Hill Country is another possibility, with large meadows and pastures ringed by fringes of trees, and tree-lined watercourses.

*Over at AtH, it has become common to use Odd to describe those of us who are eccentric in eccentric ways, inclined toward individualism (“just leave me alone to do my thing, please,”) often bookish, and frequently very knowledgable about unusual and fascinating fields, even if they are not our every-day vocation.

Patterns vs. Models

Humans are very good at seeing patterns. We even find patterns where they don’t really exist, thus reminders such as “Correlation is not causation” and “post hoc ergo propter hoc.” We also build mental and mathematical models. We create structures to help us organize and predict what the world will do. Some of these are very durable and have stood the test of time and experience. Others . . . don’t do as well. And a few are so far out there that a lot of people enjoy listening to them but don’t believe them. [I.e. “I’m not saying that it was necessarily aliens, but . . .”]

One thing historians, archaeologists, and other people who live in the past do is look for patterns. Sometimes literally, so that we can identify the culture that created [thing], or for hints of written communication. We study aerial photos and satellite images searching for traces of missing or long-gone dwellings, forts, fields, and roads. We read accounts of events and goings on, hunting for hints about the bigger picture. A lot of environmental history, especially once you get to the centuries before modern thermometers, barometers, and the like, is combing through diaries, tax reports, inventories of foodstuffs and fiber, and government or corporate forms, trying to suss out what was going on in the background that no one bothered to write about because everyone knew what was happening. Like Dagomar Degroot pouring over ships’ logs and harbor reports to determine what the weather was in and around the Dutch Republic in the 1600s-1700s.

Our patterns are based on the past. We track recorded events and happenstances and compare them to modern, or make note of how people responded to storms, floods, freezes, and droughts. As Degroot points out, emperical data don’t tell us about how storms affected people’s lives, and how people adapted. The Dutch developed a number of adaptations that allowed them to survive the Little Ice Age in much better shape than did other places, but they still suffered. (The Wars of Independence [80-Years War and Anglo-Dutch Wars, and Louis XIV’s wars] didn’t help.) We’re looking at weather and climate events that already happened.

Weather forecasting tries to sort out, based on physics, chemistry, geology, and past events, what will happen in the near future. Anyone who puts their faith in a long-term weather forecast to, oh, plan a hiking trip, or an outdoor wedding, needs to have a back-up plan, unless he lives in one of those places with certain climates. No one in Jerusalem, for example, will plan an outdoor-only event for December that requires warm weather and sun, because winter is the rainy season. Likewise people who live in the Rocky Mountains know that thunderstorms form around two in the afternoon. Minnesotans assume that February will be cold and March-April will have mud. But to foretell on January 18 what will transpire on March 7th? Not likely. Even a week or 10 days from today is . . . fraught. If you are in Texas, it will be warm, possibly dry or not, perhaps windy or not, maybe humid or not. How warm? Above 60 F is as far as I’m willing to go, and I won’t put money on that.

Climate forecasting? Relies on models. Models are mathematical constructs of a very simplified world, with certain variables that can be adjusted. Emphasis on constructs and simplified. There is no climate prediction model yet that can deal with all the variables. Carbon Dioxide changes? Humidity changes? Heat islands? Effects of wind turbines? The occasional random equatorial volcano coughing sulfur dioxide and ash into the atmosphere? All at once? Splat! That was the model collapsing. Most of the most common models used by the IPCC and others can’t even retrocast accurately – that is, you can’t feed in the data for a date and location in the past and get the actual weather or climate for that time and place.

Models are very useful, so long as the user observes the limits in the model. The local weather guys and gals, especially the ones with several years of local experience, temper the models with “I’m just not entirely sure about this because of X, but here’s the National Weather Service/National Severe Storm Center Forecast/ European Model prediction.” Those of us with a lot of on-the-ground knowledge and regional research are not surprised when the models are off, or gee, winter can be very cold and still, or summer can be very hot and still, or that Texas gets freezes as far as Corpus Christi.

I’ve read through the diaries and reports of ranch managers and farmers from this region, going back as far as they exist, along with US Army documents and Indian Bureau reports. There were months where [due to a high pressure dome] the wind didn’t blow and windmills didn’t work. Cowboys had to wind ropes around the shaft and ride away from the thing, repeating that over and over to get the pump to bring up water for the cattle. Or there would be spells of miserable heat in an otherwise cold year. Or a hard, cold and wet winter in a decade of heat and drought. Snowvid 21 wasn’t all that unusual, really. High pressure building in and baking the Southwest, or Texas, or the Great Plains, isn’t too rare in the long-term. Even during the Little Ice Age.

Patterns and models. I work with patterns. I’m good at seeing patterns. I try not to make predictions, unless they are based on long experience and human nature. (Teenagers are going to be emotional. Toddlers will melt down. Someone’s going to tap the electric fence, because it might not really be live.) Models, especially models that claim they can determine what is going to happen and why a hundred years from now, or ten years from now? I fold my money and put it back in my pocket, as the gamblers say.

Book Review: The Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean

Ellenblum, Ronnie. The Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean: Climate Change and the Decline of the East, 950-1072. (Cambridge University Press, 2012) Kindle.

Everyone knows that the 900s-1200s were a great time to be in Europe – warm, good weather in general, leading to a period of cultural and economic development that is often called the High Middle Ages, when the great cathedrals were built and chivalry flourished and the Hansa cities were at their peak. That’s true, but only if you were in western or central Europe. The Levant, Mesopotamia, the Balkans, the Pontic Steppes and Egypt? Endured bitter cold, drought, plague, and economic collapse. Invasion came with the cold and drought, and pushed the Byzantine Empire into rapid decline. North Africa went from semi-bread-basket to desert with pockets of irrigation, and Jerusalem was almost abandoned. When the warriors of the First Crusade breached the gates of the holy city, they found very few people compared to the population in the year 1000 or so.

The weather patterns that warmed and moistened western and northern Europe froze and desiccated Southwest Asia.

The book’s origins stem from Ellenblum’s curiosity about the lack of water in Jerusalem vs. the population it was supposed to have supported during Roman and early Byzantine times. This led to studying the hydrology of the city, and the discovery that most of the springs had dried up by the time of the First Crusade. Why? Bad land management? Climate shifts that caused the springs to lose groundwater and fail? As it turns out, the answer is a series of cold, dry years that caused the local water table to drop. This dried the springs, many of which never returned even after the rains came back. Jerusalem had to shift to relying on rainwater caught in cistern during the winters, meaning it could no longer support even half the population it had boasted at the time of Jesus.

When the author looked farther, it proved that Egypt, the rest of the Levant, Mesopotamia, and the Pontic Steppes (area north of the Black Sea) also suffered severe cold and drought during the period of roughly AD 950-1100. The lack of rain, and the bitter cold (snow on the ground in Baghdad for 40 days!) caused already tense relations between settled peoples, Bedouin nomads, and steppe nomads to collapse. The governments could not feed the people in some cases, nor could they keep the Turkic nomads out of the river valleys. When the Turks arrived, they burned, looted, carried off people to sell or ransom, interrupted trade, and eventually took over swaths of the area. The great centers of Islamic and Jewish learning in Baghdad disappeared, and Islam (Sunni) took on a different intellectual focus, one less interested in preserving the Classical philosophies and more on Islam’s own philosophy.

This is one of the books that I read and slap myself on the forehead and go “Duh.” I’d always wondered why the Seljuk Turks suddenly appeared in Southwest Asia. We went from Byzantine vs. Arab to “Turks in Charge” in the 1050s and later. Why? Where had the Seljuks come from? Why had they left the steppes? Well, they were pushed by the need for fodder and food, because the terrible weather drove them south and west. This also caused the Magyars (Hungary) and Bulgars to raid the edges of the European part of the Byzantine Empire just as Constantinople was cut off from major sources of food and military personnel. Toss in the plagues that always break out in cold, undernourished populations, and you can see why the empire started devaluing its currency and could no longer hold onto the edges of its territory, especially in Asia Minor.

Elllenblum is tightly focused on the region, so there are no cross-comparisons with western Europe or Russia (Kievan Rus). I do know from other reading that China experienced cold and drought in the 1000s, with floods and the disaster of the Yellow River floods following (1090s-1140s). The author alludes to the push to the east, and into South Asia, leading to shifts in Muslim control over northern India (the Lodi Sultanate). The book is also somewhat episodic, and focuses on weather and its direct effects, rather than on telling human stories. If you are looking for the tales of people, or a seamless, flowing narrative, you will be disappointed.

The book also lacks a bibliography. This is inexcusable on the part of Cambridge University Press. The notes are extensive, but readers are forced to comb through them at the end of each chapter to find material and primary sources if a reader wants to follow up on a topic.

I highly recommend this book for students of medieval Middle Eastern history, for those interested in the environmental history of all of Europe, and scholars wanting to fill in gaps about the causes of movements, migrations, and the shifting attitude of local Muslim rulers to Christians and Jews. A basic background in the overall history of the region is good, but not really necessary depending on the reader’s focus. I found the book easy to read, but this is my baliwick. Non-specialists might not be as enthralled.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book for my own use and received no compensation from the author or the publisher for this review.