More Real Estate Passing Through . . .

On Tuesday, New Mexico and the Permian Basin blew in. Yesterday and today, Colorado rushed past.

Ah, ’tis the season for traveling property. Dust, tree branches, garbage cans, tumbleweeds, small children . . . When a tightly-wound low-pressure system passes to the north of the region, we get troughs and dry cold-fronts that blow in. Translated into English, a large vacuum travels west to east along the jet stream, sucking air into itself to try and balance the pressures. This pulls air (wind) across a relatively low-resistance landscape. That being my house.

Southwest wind – dust, brown haze, smells like feedlot. The sky gets a brass-like hue to it, brownish-blue with a faint sheen to it.

North wind – my pickup looks as if it is trying to hatch tumbleweeds. There were so many that I gave up trying to pull them loose and just backed veeeeery slowly, hoping to break them free before one ignited. I was successful. Oh, and my house howls. The guards on the skylights catch the wind and moan, then start howling in a north-northwesterly wind (300-320 degrees).

When the wind starts to blow, you cinch down your hat, and start considering if you need to move garbage cans. After a certain point, you chase your garbage can down the block and bring it home. Windage matters: don’t “park” a rolling can with the wheels on the upwind side. That seems to encourage departures. It’s also a good idea to collapse light-weight patio furniture, and fold the umbrella or retract the awning. When the wind gusts to forty-five miles in hour, in town, things are going to move. And billboards collapse if the gusts are just right.

Back in the days of the haboobs, before the 1970s*, you could tell wind direction by the color of the soil that came in with the wind. Now we get far, far fewer of those kinds of storms. South of here still has them, however.

The head-shaking part is when you look at the horizon and see that all the wind turbines are locked, not turning. High winds are not good for them.

We need rain, as usual. Even just to tamp down the dust that moves when the wind blows, as it does out here.

*In 2011 we had the first and last one that I could recall. The sky went red, as in blood red, and visibility dropped down to an eighth of a mile. The power went out, and so I sat by the front window and read from my e-reader. Then a thunderstorm roared through and we got an inch of rain.

Peach-Colored Sunrise and Skittering Leaves

Autumn arrived on Sunday week, by way of a two-round cold front. First came a wind shift, from southwest to northeast. Then colder, wet skies full of low-hanging clouds and rain. Autumn is fully here, at last.

I woke early Sunday morning and half-napped after taking care of the cat. I’d left the windows cracked open the night before, because the high had been in the low 90s F, and the wind wasn’t supposed to get too strong overnight. The more fresh air that gets into the house, the better it is, to an extent, and I prefer to be a little cool at night. So I heard a few traffic sounds, drying leaves rustling on the northerly breeze, and the burbling trill of sandhill cranes. That caught my ear and I sat up, listening hard. Cranes? Surely if I heard anything it would be geese. No, the sound came again, passing northwest to southeast. Cranes, calling with that distinctive ancient sound as they passed overhead in the pre-dawn hours. Which suggested that the front might be stronger, and closer, than forecast. I got up, petted the cat for the third time, and hurried out to stroll.

A few tiny spitters and drips of rain blew on the rising wind. Low clouds, shredded and torn by the wind and the mixing air, hurried overhead, red-tinged in the city light. I could see glimpses of higher clouds to the west and east, with clear skies retreating to the south. As I walked, the clouds thinned and changed color. Soon they glowed the warm peach-pink and old gold of sunrise. Color swept the sky, stronger to the southeast and west than in true east or north. Peach became pink, then white grey as the first round of clouds passed. The tiny drops and hints of rain didn’t grow any stronger, at least not for a while.

Big brown leaves hissed and clattered across the street and driveways, chased by the wind. The sweet gum trees had begun shedding earlier, first their bark, then their big curved leaves. Now they shapes danced away on the wind, bouncing as they traveled. The big crescents of locust seed pods clattered down to the ground. They didn’t need the wind’s help to fall, they weighed so much, laden with seeds. The neighbors would be out that afternoon, raking them into something like a pile. At least those that the squirrels or the rising wind didn’t send to visit neighbors or into the street.

That afternoon, the light strengthened and shifted. Hard light shone down through the first brown leaves. Only the sweet-gum and locusts had begun turning, although the Bradford pears and oaks hinted at the possibility. The hawthorns, berry-heavy and crimson, glowed, leaves long gone as is their wont. Blue skies full of autumn light arced over the world. The lingering sweet-gum leaves looked almost gilded, the sunlight turning them and everything else faintly gold. The autumn sun has a quality, I’m not sure how best to describe it. Gold, almost hard-edged, but beautiful and almost gentle. Even on warm days, something is missing. Summer’s ferocious lion is tamed, mellowed with the aging of the year, softer. Clear light, free for now of smoke and dust, angled more and more from the south, bathed the afternoon, bringing out the best in the day. Even the rising north wind could not ruin the sweet moments.

Come late afternoon, dark northern skies had flowed south. Heavy clouds covered the sky, rain-laden clouds, their burden wrung loose by the twisting wind. Darkness and rain came together, heavy with a few bursts of lightening and snarls of thunder. The “equinoctial storm,” perhaps, although it came later than usual. This entire year has been off-kilter, so why not the traditional storms as well? No heavy weather here, just the token flash and grumble of a cold-front driven storm line buried in stratus, a reminder of what had come before.

Monday morning, Orion and the Seven Sisters glittered down, fresh-washed and hard in the hours before sunrise. They hovered just past the zenith, winter’s heralds. The morning smelled clean, and crisp, with a tease of smoke in the air. Come Friday, the fatty-rich perfume of piñon would arise from chimneys to proclaim the first frost’s coming.

The year turns, the stars pass in silent order. All is well.

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.

Sources:

This paper goes into some detail about efficiencies.

http://www.waterencyclopedia.com/Oc-Po/Ogallala-Aquifer.html

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: https://civileats.com/2019/11/18/high-plains-farmers-race-to-save-the-ogallala-aquifer/

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.)

Nocturne or Matins?

There are days when you wake up earlier than you need to, and just know that returning to sleep is impossible. It was one of those nights/mornings. Two texts, both sent hours before they arrived, had kicked my fight/flight overreaction into gear, and midnight had passed before sleep arrived. At 0430 I woke from a rather odd dream – dreaming that I was dreaming about something – and after ten minutes gave up. At 0530 I tied my walking shoes and headed out, walking staff in hand.

A mild breeze stirred the cool, damp air. Not quite humid enough for dew, the morning still felt misty, enough that I could see the beams of headlights. Clouds, the remnants of storms overnight in New Mexico, hurried across the sky, hiding then revealing the waning moon and Orion. False dawn faded into true dawn, but sunrise would not come for another half hour or so. No colors save silver and dark, dark blue-black graced the sky. The air smelled of growing things now tired, of sweet flowers, a whiff of fresh asphalt, and moisture.

I had the sidewalks and roads to myself, more or less. The early-shift people had already departed, and the people who need daylight to labor were not yet on the road. I heard a few dogs, and a motorcycle or something else with a high-pitched engine racing along the straight stretch of road where people do that (much to the irritation of everyone else.) One bicycle commuter hurried past, his headlight flickering with each pedal stroke. A solitary jogger plodded along, thudding his way through the quiet morning.

Two or three birds chirped their opinion. The doves sleep in this time of year. A few cardinals are early risers, and anything that disturbs the grackles is greeted with loud, harsh dismay. The kites have begun moving south. I saw one toward the end of my stroll, warming up in a tree and waiting for heat and thermals. The cicadas stayed quiet. They favor afternoons and evenings for their conversations, harsh and whirring and loud, louder than lawn equipment, rising and falling in the heat, the droning sound of summer. A western kingbird perched on a road sign, waiting for cars to stir up the bugs in time for breakfast.

A bat fluttered past, darting and dodging ahead of my path. I see one or two bats a month during the summer, if I’m out early enough. The fox, another early riser or late-goer, crossed my trail last week. We avoid each other, after the little surprise as I was moving the neighbor’s newspaper. The fox was on the front stoop. I froze, he froze, I backed away, he departed. A bit like the Cooper’s hawk perched above the neighbor’s door two weeks ago. A younger hawk had found something in the chaos of ivy flowing down the front of the house. The senior hawk observed from the dormer peak. I opted to leave the paper on the windowsill and return later to put it in the basket.

Enough sunlight rounded the curve of the earth by 0630 that grey-white cloud towers appeared in the southern and western sky. Only a little paler than the fading night around them, they warned of another showery day in the offing. No one is complaining, not this year. The wheat is in, the cotton needs the rain, as do other crops, and the ranchers almost always want rain – at least until the first hard freeze. The southwest breeze, taking strength from the pending sunrise, teased my hair and face as I rounded the corner for home. As I unlocked the front door, I glanced over my shoulder. Orion had faded away, leaving the slender moon alone in the blue-grey sky.

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.

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.

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1623/hysj.51.5.784

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. https://joannenova.com.au/2021/07/a-world-protected-by-windmills-in-1717-christmas-floods-in-germany-killed-14000/

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.

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.

Flags in the Fog

A storm line rolled through Sunday night- Monday morning, washing my part of town with an inch and a quarter of rain in about two hours or so. It had passed well to the east by 0500 (when the cat woke me up the first time). The dewpoint and the air temperature were both at 54, so fog developed. Very thick fog. Visibility of one half block fog. Which did not stop the people setting out flags for Memorial Day.

I set out for a stroll at 0645. Visibility had improved to one block, with a north wind making the flags slap and flutter. That was all I heard, that and my own steps. The usual dull background rumble of traffic wasn’t audible. Birds fluttered, a very few, but they stayed silent. I had not heard that kind of quiet since the last heavy snow. Normally seven AM means a decent amount of traffic, especially in summer when people are going to work early so they can get done before the day’s heat builds in. Not on a holiday Monday with thick fog and water-logged ground.

The world faded in and out of grey. It was weather to cheer a goth’s heart – dim, misty, quiet, impossible to sunburn in, animals and houses appearing and then disappearing as I passed. I walked from flag to flag, watching them wave in the water-rich air, spots of color on a cloud-dark morning. The air smelled of wet wood and water, clean and rich. One or two cars rumbled past, but that was all. The world was mine, mine and the flags’.

Flags lined the main street through my neighborhood. They also lined side streets, what I could see through the fog. Flag flaps, footsteps, one sleepy bird, a distant dog . . . The rustling pitter of lingering raindrops knocked off of trees by the morning wind. Otherwise quiet, a rare quiet. An appropriate quiet for a dark, somber morning.

By eight, dog walkers had begun emerging, and a few more cars moved, but very few. The usual background noise remained so quiet that I wondered if some of the underpasses had a bit too much water in them, and the police and highway department were diverting traffic. The heavy storms might have kept some people from leaving early, as well, or led them to start long-distance travel later. It was not the morning to be on I-20 between Abilene and Ft. Worth, or I-40 or I-35 anywhere in Oklahoma. Too much red and yellow bloomed on the radar to make driving fun.

My part of the world? Quiet. Resting. In some cases easing out to check the damage and see what the previous two days hail and tornadoes had battered. The rain came hard enough that our roses got stripped of their petals, and many drooped, thin stems bent from water weight. A lot of pollen had washed off the roof, carried a yard and more away from the downspout. Snails crept along, fair game for DadRed and I to send flying into the street or alley. I checked a few plants, tossed a few snails, and observed no new damage to my pickup.