Saturday, August 11, 2012

Drought Cycles

In January 2012 our mid-west region was experiencing a relatively mild and snow free winter. We reported on the “Arctic Oscillation,” supposedly responsible for the abnormal warmth and lack of normal winter precipitation. Lower polar air pressure was responsible, we were told, with the “AO” bearing the onus of giving the phenomenon a name and justifying it. In addition, our desire for a cause/effect explanation was satisfied. But having grown up in the Snow Belt around Syracuse, NY I felt vaguely sentimental recalling memories of the “old-fashioned” winters of my childhood.

Over the next few months there was more significant meteorological news to report. Our nation is now in the midst one of the worst droughts in memory, perhaps since the horrific drought years of the 1930s. There were serious regional droughts in the 1950s and again in 1988. The latter is still acknowledged to be the second most expensive natural US disaster next to Hurricane Katrina. Droughts may have more wide ranging effects than any other form of natural disaster. The impact of an extended drought is economic, environmental, and social. A reading of the literature makes obvious that lack of rainfall over a region is merely the beginning of troubles.

One irony in our northwest Illinois neighborhood is freshly embedded in local residents’ memory. Last summer on July 27-28 this area had thirteen inches of rain in less than 24 hours, a local meteorological event known as “training” where repeated storms strike the same area in a short time. More rain fell in that storm than our region has received this entire calendar year thus far, and it would replenish our 2012 rainfall deficit by approximately 150% if it were to occur now. The broader mid west region of our country has experienced several incidents of major flooding in the past two decades. It is less well known that flooding and drought incidents have alternated for many hundreds of years as recorded in meteorological history.

Historic droughts in Brazil in 2005 and 2010 were followed by horrific flooding in January 2011. These events in the southern hemisphere elicited far less interest among those suffering through the 2012 drought in the United States. Current local news is more widely reported and of greater concern. The 2012 sudden onset event in the US has been reported as the worst drought since the multi-year drought event of the 1930s. Clearly the 2012 drought is one of the ten largest of the last century, but its severity is still growing. This year’s sudden onset drought is in danger of becoming worse, but its impact may not rival the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s.

Commodity and food prices may not be impacted during the current drought as they were decades ago. Plant scientists have utilized erosion control practices and developed drought resistant hybrids. There are many deleterious effects of localized overpopulation and unwise agricultural practices exacerbated during cycles of drought and flood. Some of these have little impact during normal years. But the agricultural consequences are felt more seriously in times of crisis. Knowledge of plant hybridization reminds us indirectly of God’s mandate to “subdue the earth” given to man in Genesis 1:28.

Earth’s drought cycles have come and gone for thousands of years. Some idealists would prefer that there were no droughts, no floods, no earthquakes, no hurricanes, no thunderstorms, or similar violent meteorological events. When they read the words of Job 37 they may wish for gentle rains rather than mighty downpours. Had we been commissioned to write Holy Scripture, perhaps we would have wished to delete the record of drought-caused famines experienced by Abraham, Isaac, Joseph and many other Old Testament giants. The God of creation has chosen to provide humanity with a world which may be characterized as “a place to thrive” notwithstanding some very powerful cyclical events which generate considerable human suffering. We choose to link to our post of 3/10/2012. Our country’s 2012 weather was becoming established as “topsy-turvy” even then:

Even as the sudden onset drought of the summer of 2012 continues to worsen, further drying up our soil moisture reserves, causing fears of rising food prices, and stoking the suspicion that global warming is worsening, we understand that there are multiple short term and long term factors controlling the weather. Even a small portion of these factors is beyond the ordinary understanding of laypersons. The knowledge store of professional climatologists is still a work in progress. Many truths stand tall: God has provided our planet’s climate for the long term benefit of humanity all through earth history. God’s providence now sustains the lives of seven billion people, a seven-fold increase in the last two centuries. One overwhelming truth stands out from all the rest: God is still in control.