On storms, floods, food prices and foolish farm policies; Redistributing fertility from where it’s needed to where it’s not; Corn, gullies and the Gulf of Mexico dead zone
According to insurance industry consultancy EQECAT, the damage caused by the hundreds of tornadoes that exploded across the southern tier of the US in April rank right up there in Hurricane Katrina territory: $2 to $5 billion. That’s 2 to 5 times the average seasonal toll. Meanwhile, the death count—still not final at 340—is more than four times the seasonal average. And while the outbreak itself lasted several days, individual tornadoes shredded cities, tossed cars, stripped trees and pulverized farms in mere seconds, the strongest storms packing winds far more powerful than even a “Cat 5” hurricane.
The before-and-after photos are Hollywood blockbuster extreme: Landscapes scoured beyond recognition. Whole neighborhoods reduced to spiky plywood shards and lumps of fast-molding candy-pink insulation. With almost tornadic speed, a Facebook page was set up in the aftermath to reunite photographs and documents tossed from homes that no longer exist with their owners. The successes only underscore just how much is gone.
Heavy, steady rains and snow melt have combined to swell streams, rivers and lakes from Canada through the Deep South to the highest levels seen in decades. But it is the raging waters of the Mississippi and Ohio drowning America’s breadbasket that have grabbed most of the headlines.Gravid with topsoil-rich run-off, they are breaking all the wrong kinds of records. To save Cairo, Illinois, a small, historic, hardscrabble city at the southernmost tip of Illinois where the two rivers meet—and was once a critical stop on the Underground Railway—the US Army Corps of Engineers blew a two-mile hole in a levee, turning nearly 200 square miles of rich Missouri farmland flood-plain into an insti-lake.
It will be months before the land dries out. Even then, the legacy of chemical residues and storm debris will likely render the land unusable for some time. The situation is almost as dire throughout farm country. As of the last week of April, only 13% of the corn crop had been planted. Usually, 40 and 60% is in the ground by now. Prospects for the winter wheat crop are also bleak, with over 40% considered to be in “poor” or “very poor” condition. Predictably, commodity prices are soaring, with corn up 99% from a year ago and wheat up 55%. What began as a regional tragedy will become global catastrophe as food costs climb beyond the reach of millions.
At this point, even planting “fence row to fence row” will not be able to make up the losses. In fact, part of the problem has been this push—supported by government subsidies—to plant every-last-possible–square-inch. Spring rains carve out deep gullies, funneling run-off laced with chemical fertilizers into creeks and streams—hundreds of tons of topsoil literally washed away every season.
Well, not quite away. The Mighty Mississippi will be delivering a mighty mother lode to the Gulf of Mexico in the coming days, where it will fertilize a bumper crop of algae, which will suck so much oxygen out the water, fish will either flee or float. Many predict a record hypoxic “dead zone” this year.
Stormy weather, indeed.
Scientists won’t know for sure whether any of this can be chalked up to climate change—a warmer world is a juicier, rainier one—until, frankly, it is too late to matter. It will take years of wretched weather to establish a proof-positive pattern.
But while we wait, there actually are some fairly simple things that could be done to mitigate damage from future storms. According to “Losing Ground,” a new report by the Environmental Working Group, creating land-cover buffers around creaks, streams and rivers would reduce farm run-off significantly: “97% of soil loss is preventable by simple conservation means.”
Really, why wouldn’t we want to do that?
RELATED READING / VIEWING
- “Earth, Land and Ethics: The (still unlearned…) Lessons of Aldo Leopold” / J.A. Ginsburg, TrackerNews “Dot to Dot”
- “Tornadoes! Now coming to a city near you” / Richard Hooke, Living on the Real World
- “Fatal Flood: A Story of Greed, Power and Race “ / PBS American Experience documentary website
- Flood Water After a Disaster or Emergency / CDC tip sheet
- “Housing Issues Nagging at Tornado Victims” / Esmeralda Bermudez, Kate Linthicum and Richard Fausset / Los Angeles Times
- “Building Blocks: The Shape of Things to Come” / J.A. Ginsburg, TrackerNews “Dot to Dot”
- “Tornado Alley” / IMAX film website
- “Cry Me a River…and Pass Me a Shovel: On Rain, Snow, Sleet and Ice, Atmospheric Rivers and a World Gone Soggy” / J.A. Ginsburg, TrackerNews Editor’s Blog
Filed under: agriculture, climate change, floods, food, soil health, water, water pollution | Tagged: Aldo Leopold, Cairo IL, Environmental Working Group, Facebook, FEMA trailers, food prices, Gulf of Mexico, hypoxic dead zone, insurance, levees, Mississippi River, Ohio River, Qaudror, soil erosion, spring planting, Tornadoes, Tuscaloosa | Leave a comment »