Soggy Spring, Silent Seas (link suite overview)

Bookmark and Share

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

TrackerNews link suite on the record storms and floods in the US. Links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.

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?




Trees for Trees: How Saving the Urban Forest Could Help Save the Rain Forest and Save Us All

Bookmark and Share

The Central Park Conservancy faces months of clean-up and hundreds of thousands of dollars in clean-up costs to repair the damage caused by an unusually fierce storm on August 18. Donations welcome. (photo: Tony Yang)

The Central Park Conservancy faces months of clean-up and hundreds of thousands of dollars in clean-up costs to repair the damage caused by an unusually fierce storm on August 18. Donations welcome. (photo: Tony Yang)

Making a right from two wrongs; For the love of a park; Inspiration from Aldo Leopold, MLB-branded grass & Neopets; Cyber-seedlings & fundraising; “You had me at orangutan”

By all accounts the storm that hit New York’s Central Park last week didn’t last very long, but the devastation was breathtaking. In a matter of minutes, winds approaching hurricane-strength flattened hundreds of old beloved trees and damaged hundreds more. With roots in the air and limbs askew, and the dead and wounded strewn everywhere, the soft green heart of this hard gray city had taken a direct hit. The days that followed were filled with the cracking of ripped timber, the whine of power saws and the relentless buzz of wood-chippers. Grass will grow where giants once stood. Sunlight will filter down to the urban forest floor for the first time in years. New trees will be planted. And in a few decades, incredibly, no one will be the wiser.

Central Park, after all, was never the forest primeval. Still, there is something sacred about old trees – even if their age is measured in decades rather than centuries, and their arrangement determined by a landscape architect. They grew up with us, or we with them. In a place of constant change they are, simply, constant. If trees can be so easily uprooted, what chance have we? It is unnerving to see how shallow and vulnerable a tall tree’s roots really are.


Although I live in Chicago, I visit New York several times a year and have come to know the Park well enough to have my favorite places. I know Spring has finally arrived when flocks of birders at the Ramble start comparing notes on who’s returned and set up nests, while flocks of Japanese brides/grooms/photographers start flitting to scenic spots to set up Wedding Pictures. In  summer, it’s bicycles, drumming circles, reading on a shady rock, serenaded by an old man playing un-hummable but delicious melodies on a one-stringed Chinese instrument. Fall is filled with the smell and crunch of leaves, walking down the promenade near the statue of Christopher Columbus. And Winter – if I am lucky enough to be marooned by a LaGuardia-closing blizzard – is a trip to the Museum of Natural History for some fossils and stars, followed by a few quick snow angels in the Park.

Always, there are the trees. Budding, shady, raining seeds, etched with a white filigree sparkle.

According to the Central Park Conservancy, the tab for clean up and replanting will easily run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars (donations welcome). The true cost —  lost views, lost homes (nests & burrows) and lost familiarity — is incalculable.