Climate Change Comes To American Heartland

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Parts of the American Midwest have been devastated by a wicked combination of frozen ground, accelerated snow melt, and 1 to 2 inches of rain. All can be attributed to some degree to changes in climatic conditions associated with a warming planet and climate change.

climate change and flooding
Credit: Nebraska National Guard

The Polar Vortex

Let’s begin with the polar vortex that brought unusually cold temperatures to the heartland in January and February. How can warmer average temperatures possibly lead to bitter cold? That’s a question that no less a personage than the alleged president of the United States asked on January 28 when he begged for some good old fashioned “global waming”  (no that is not a misprint) to counteract record low temperatures across the region. He thereby cemented his lifetime membership in the Zero Intelligence Club and revealed his utter inability to distinguish climate from weather.

In fact, climate scientists have been predicting just such an occurrence of colder weather in some regions brought on by higher average global temperatures for years. Warmer temperatures in the Arctic lead to a breakdown in the climactic conditions that usually keep frigid air bottled up over that region.

Instead, they leak down into unfamiliar territory — in the case the central American states — and bring historically low temperatures with them. It has been colder in the plains states such as Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wisconsin this winter than in the Arctic and that cold has frozen the ground solid to a depth of several feet.

Floods Today Began Last Fall

But to understand why the ground became so frozen, you have to go back to last year. Mindy Beerends, a senior meteorologist at the Des Moines office of the National Weather Service, told the New York Times, “A lot of it stems from the fall flooding in September and October. The soil was saturated in the fall.” The cold in the early part of 2019 turned the ground as hard as concrete and snow piled up on top of it.

Then “on Wednesday and Thursday, warm air moved in, and we got rain, and the snow melted,” Beerends said. “The higher-than-average precipitation, combined with warm temperatures, snowmelt and the frozen ground, was a perfect storm for flooding, The ingredients were in place.”

One of the things those climate scientists — who are often vilified by those living in the Midwest — have been saying for years is that warmer air temperatures mean the atmosphere can hold more moisture and that leads to greater rainfall. The rains last week were not especially heavy but they still brought about twice as much rain as is normal for the area at this time of year.

When that happened, the frozen ground was unable to absorb the moisture, which flowed directly into local rivers and streams instead. “The ground was like concrete,” said Kevin Low, a hydrologist at the service’s Missouri Basin River Forecast Center. “In January, temperatures took a nose dive and we’ve had deeply frozen ground all the way south into Missouri.” Nebraska, which has more miles of rivers than any other US state, has been especially hard hit but a state of emergency has also been declared in Wisconsin, Kansas, and Iowa.

So far, the White House has barely noticed the devastation or had any words of encouragement for the people who are suffering the worst from the flooding. It purports to be vitally concerned with national security, yet right now 1/3 of Offutt Air Force Base — home to the Strategic Air Command — is underwater. If that’s not a national emergency, it’s hard to imagine what is. Still, nothing but stony silence from Pennsylvania Avenue.

Axios science editor Andrew Freedman offers this analysis of the situation.  “These floods are, in parts of Nebraska in particular, worse than longtime residents have experienced and in many cases are downright unprecedented in historical records. This will be a slow rolling disaster unfolding for the next week as floodwaters move downstream to affect other states in the Mississippi River Valley.”

Are Attitudes Changing?

The question now is whether any of this will lead to changing attitudes in the area. These are parts of the country that typically side with climate deniers and are loathe to acknowledge that changes in the Earth’s atmosphere are in any way related to human activity. As one person named Al Newman commented on the New York Times website,

“When you see these annual events occur, you wonder why these states aren’t spending the money on infrastructure to either turn the water into a resource or divert it in ways that would avoid disaster. In waterlogged Netherlands, they’re turning climate change into an opportunity. Even the Romans could teach us something again about how to convey water. Yet Americans don’t seem to be interested in ingenuous ways to avoid calamity because they might have to pay for it.”

The misery and suffering being visited on the people of the Midwest are torments no American should have to live with. But many in the Midwest are complaining they are not getting enough attention from the news media. One would think that would be the least of their worries.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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