I put my shovel away for the season. It’s not coming back out. As I said to a friend only the other night over my third beer, “Climate change has been a bust, eh?”
Remember the polar vortex of 2014? Remember hoping like mad that this was one of those once-in-a-century anomalies? The weather people on TV are remarkably silent on this, but it wasn’t an anomaly. We’re back where we were then, victimized by this loopy jet stream that’s not going away.
According to Rutgers University climate scientist Jennifer Francis, the very thing that started all this weird weather, global warming, has caused the once-blazing white (reflective) surface of the North Pole to turn black and spongelike. So the polar region is absorbing sunlight, which itself accelerates melting and warming … but alas, not the sort of warming that Minnesotans get to enjoy.
Oh no, it won’t get hot here until July. Then we will find ourselves sweltering in a tropical rain forest.
We already have that, you say? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet, Minnesota. I’ll get to the moisture issue in a minute.
The old-school jet stream that delivered relatively consistent seasonal change was created by colliding hot and cold air. It had the same effect as a corset does on a person’s midriff. As you age, the abdominal muscles weaken. Alas, the jet stream, too, is getting flabby. As the Arctic warms, the tension between cold and hot air masses is reduced. Francis compares the effect to that of a table tilting first one way and then the next before settling into a slope that pulls the heavier warm air north, which in turn pushes cold air south.
Not as far south as Oklahoma, though, where a heat wave is promoting wildfires as I write, thanks to the same forces bringing us blizzard-like conditions. Our 21st-century weather can be wildly counterintuitive. New York City will enjoy a humid 80-degree weekend, while in New York state’s capital, Albany, temperatures are expected to drop to 32 degrees. This is owing to the jet stream’s other exciting new feature — swirling eddies that spin off the main jet stream and wreak regional havoc.
Other factors influence the jet stream, most notably the fact that our planet spins like a top. There is also topography — mountain ranges and prairies and the like.
If you look at computer models, you can see quite clearly how winter weather descends into our state and sits here for weeks on end, even as parts of Alaska that used to be consistently cold enjoy springlike temperatures. Why isn’t this front-page news under the headline “Polar Vortex Returns”? As I said earlier, your nightly-news meteorologist understands perfectly well that when the weather is discombobulated, all bets are off. Will spring return? Who knows? Anything can happen. Dolphins in the Arctic. Penguins in Eden Prairie.
So we’ve covered the persistent cold. On to moisture.
All this commotion in the atmosphere is caused by the fact that greenhouse grasses, mostly CO2, are trapped in the atmosphere and creating high humidity (imagine being in an actual greenhouse). As a result, rain and snow no longer fall in reasonable increments but in torrents. It’s all or nothing these days. Choose your poison: drought or monsoon. So not only is weather “getting stuck,” as Francis puts it, but it’s also getting more extreme.
When we unearth carbon, whether in liquid form (oil) or as vapors (natural gas) or squishy bogs (peat) or rock (coal), and light a match to it, we release (as CO2) what it took Mother Nature millions of years to make. Her intention was that, in effect, plants fertilize plants. If you break that cycle of life, or accelerate it, as we’ve done, it’s not just the weather that changes but also our ability to grow the food we need to survive as a species.
Ironically, by relying more and more on synthetic fertilizers to feed the world, we are making matters worse. Why? Because synthetic nitrogen is made by a process that is fossil-fuel intensive. Without petroleum there would be no chemical runoff into our waters; or huge combines, which run on fossil fuels, because farms would be smaller; or a soy-corn crop rotation; or animals raised in warehouses on a diet of soybeans and corn.
When soil can’t absorb all the rain that falls in a torrent, the excess water runs off into lakes and streams, taking both organic matter and synthetic chemicals with it. These in turn feed the soil in the wrong places — places like streambeds. Lake Pepin is literally filling itself in. Weeds thrive in this phosphate- and nitrogen-rich (and oxygen-poor) habitat, but other species don’t. Meanwhile, the Gulf of Mexico, where all these chemicals end up, is experiencing a similar problem. The so-called Dead Zone is now the size of the state of New Jersey.
I am a gardener. Gardening fanatics are by definition stewards, just as farmers are. Horticulturists and agriculturists used to belong to the same “tribe.” As industrial processes transformed farming from a natural to an industrial process, the two disciplines diverged because gardeners don’t grow plants for a living but for love. Thus, we are not dependent on a system but have the tremendous luxury of doing as we like in our own backyards.
Here’s a suggestion: Instead of gazing out the window in despair because winter seems to have gotten itself stuck, spend those idle hours starting seed under lights.
That’s what I plan to do, this very afternoon. The seeds I start will be for plants like pollinating natives and heirloom tomatoes, plants that grow best in the kind of soil I have thanks to decades of small-scale soil management — in other words, by not relying on man-made shortcuts but on nature’s cycle of life.
Bonnie Blodgett, of St. Paul, is a writer who specializes in environmental topics (firstname.lastname@example.org).