Wrath Of 2007: America's
By Andrew Gumbel
12 June, 2007
is facing its worst summer drought since the Dust Bowl years of the
Great Depression. Or perhaps worse still.
From the mountains and desert
of the West, now into an eighth consecutive dry year, to the wheat farms
of Alabama, where crops are failing because of rainfall levels 12 inches
lower than usual, to the vast soupy expanse of Lake Okeechobee in southern
Florida, which has become so dry it actually caught fire a couple of
weeks ago, a continent is crying out for water.
In the south-east, usually
a lush, humid region, it is the driest few months since records began
in 1895. California and Nevada, where burgeoning population centres
co-exist with an often harsh, barren landscape, have seen less rain
over the past year than at any time since 1924. The Sierra Nevada range,
which straddles the two states, received only 27 per cent of its usual
snowfall in winter, with immediate knock-on effects on water supplies
for the populations of Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
The human impact, for the
moment, has been limited, certainly nothing compared to the great westward
migration of Okies in the 1930 - the desperate march described by John
Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath.
Big farmers are now well
protected by government subsidies and emergency funds, and small farmers,
some of whom are indeed struggling, have been slowly moving off the
land for decades anyway. The most common inconvenience, for the moment,
are restrictions on hosepipes and garden sprinklers in eastern cities.
But the long-term implications
are escaping nobody. Climatologists see a growing volatility in the
south-east's weather - today's drought coming close on the heels of
devastating hurricanes two to three years ago. In the West, meanwhile,
a growing body of scientific evidence suggests a movement towards a
state of perpetual drought by the middle of this century. "The
1930s drought lasted less than a decade. This is something that could
remain for 100 years," said Richard Seager a climatologist at Columbia
University and lead researcher of a report published recently by the
government's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
While some of this year's
dry weather is cyclical - California actually had an unusually wet year
last year, so many of the state's farmers still have plenty of water
for their crops - some of it portends more permanent changes. In Arizona,
the tall mountains in the southern Sonoran desert known as "sky
islands" because they have been welcome refuges from the desert
heat for millennia, have already shown unmistakable signs of change.
Predatory insects have started
ravaging trees already weakened by record temperatures and fires over
the past few years. Animal species such as frogs and red squirrels have
been forced to move ever higher up the mountains in search of cooler
temperatures, and are in danger of dying out altogether. Mount Lemmon,
which rises above the city of Tucson, boasts the southernmost ski resort
in the US, but has barely attracted any snow these past few years.
"A lot of people think
climate change and the ecological repercussions are 50 years away,"
Thomas Swetnam, an environmental scientist at the University of Arizona
in Tucson, told The New York Times a few months ago. "But it's
happening now in the West. The data is telling us that we are in the
middle of one of the first big indicators of climate change impacts
in the continental United States." Across the West, farmers and
city water consumers are locked in a perennial battle over water rights
- one that the cities are slowly winning. Down the line, though, there
are serious questions about how to keep showers and lawn sprinklers
going in the retirement communities of Nevada and Arizona. Lake Powell,
the reservoir on the upper Colorado River that helps provide water across
a vast expanse of the West, has been less than half full for years,
with little prospect of filling up in the foreseeable future.
According to the NOAA's recent
report, the West can expect 10-20 per cent less rainfall by mid-century,
which will increase air pollution in the cities, kill off trees and
water-retaining giant cactus plants and shrink the available water supply
by as much as 25 per cent.
In the south-east, the crisis
is immediate - and may be alleviated at any moment by the arrival of
the tropical storm season. In Georgia, where the driest spring on record
followed closely on the heels of a devastating frost, farmers are afraid
they might lose anywhere from half to two-thirds of crops such as melons
and the state's celebrated peaches. Many cities are restricting lawn
sprinklers to one hour per day - and some places one hour only every
The most striking effect
of the dry weather has been to expose large parts of the bed of Lake
Okeechobee, the vast circular expanse of water east of Palm Beach, Florida,
which acts as a back-up water supply for five million Floridians. Archaeologists
have had a field day - dredging the soil for human bone fragments, tools,
bits of pottery and ceremonial jewellery thought to have belonged to
the natives who lived near the lake before the Spanish arrived in the
Environmentalists are not
entirely upset, because the lake is notoriously polluted with pesticides
and other farm products that then poison nearby rivers. River fish stocks
in the area are now booming.
Nothing, though, was so strange
as the fires that broke out over about 12,000 acres on the northern
edge of the lake at the end of May. They were eventually doused by Tropical
Storm Barry last weekend. State water managers, however, say it will
may take a whole summer of rainstorms, or longer, to restore the lake.
The great Dust Bowl disaster
The Dust Bowl was the result
of catastrophic dust storms causing major ecological and agricultural
damage to American prairies in the 1930s. The fertile soil of the Great
Plains had been exposed by removal of grass during ploughing over decades
of ill-conceived farming techniques. The First World War and immense
profits had driven farmers to push the land well beyond its natural
When drought hit, the soil
dried, became dust, and blew eastwards, mostly in large black clouds.
This caused an exodus from Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and the surrounding
Great Plains, with more than half a million Americans left homeless
in the Great Depression.
© 2007 Independent News
and Media Limited
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