Thursday, July 5, 2012

adapting to a changing climate

swimming in Minnehaha creek on the first of a stretch of 90+ degree days

A few years ago, maybe two years- I can't remember really- it felt like I couldn't read a weather blog's comment section- almost any blog for that matter, and not see a comment from someone denying climate change.  I'm a little bit of a geek about the weather, if you hadn't noticed, and I check into a few weather blogs every day if there happens to be anything interesting, or catastrophic, or both, going on weather-wise.

So I began to notice that even articles that couldn't even remotely have anything to do with climate change had angry comments to the tune of "how dare you claim that this had anything to do with global warming and blah blah blah".  When there was no such claim made.  Just a blurb about the chance of rain in Duluth that weekend or posting of someone's spring photos.

Maybe it was coincidence, but the noise seemed to be greatest around the last time various countries' governments tried to get together to discuss some sort of action toward slowing climate change (was it in Copenhagen?  I forget).  Of course, they predictably argued along the same lines that they argued along before, and of course achieved nothing, and of course, the climate continues to get weirder.

And the noise from climate change deniers seems to have stopped.  Maybe its because, as I've heard several people note lately- even the deniers are having a hard time denying it anymore.  Farmers, bloggers, and everyone else are looking at the patterns of flood and drought and earlier spring each year, and coming to their own conclusions.   And maybe its also because some of those folks randomly commenting on weather sites with excessive vitriol were being monetarily compensated by the big polluters to do so.  Maybe now that the threat of a global response to global climate change is over, the checks have stopped and the purveyors of vitriol have had to move on to other subjects.

Do I have proof?  Not a bit.  Just a hunch, and a lot of reading as well as noticing what is no longer there.

What I have noticed now is that the vitriol has moved toward denying the onset of peak oil and other resource peaks.   Maybe that's a more profitable line of work for vitriol providers these days.

I don't really a dog in the fight here, other than having to live on the planet that these people are degrading.  But I do wonder who is calling the shots.  Funny how the priorities of so many shift so quickly in response to perceived threats to someone's quarterly profits. 

The fact of peak oil, or peak natural gas extraction, or of the short-lived fracking bonanza will be obvious only in hindsight.  We'll pollute our waters and destroy our landscapes to get the last few drops in the meantime and question the patriotism and manhood of any who dare ask why.


Frankly, I'm not interested in exposing the polluters or their toadies.  There are plenty of others who are more able and have the time to do so.  I'm not particularly interested in placing blame even.  It is what it is and it will be what it will be.  What I'm interested in is adaptation to the changing circumstances.

In the last two weeks we've had floods in Duluth, with 9+ inches of rain falling in a day.   The previous record was 5.75 inches.  This follows one of the most serious droughts in Minnesota history, and took place at the same time as some of the worst fires in Colorado history.  It's one of two 500-year rainfall events to take place in the state in the last five years, the last taking place in the southeastern corner of the state where 14 inches fell in a day- an amount almost unheard of, outside of a coastal hurricane zone.

We're having the warmest year in Minnesota on record, but we're getting used to it, because so many records for high temperatures have been set in the last 10 or 12 years.

How to adapt? 

apricots on the tree- juicy and plump
Well- there has to be something good in this.  Yes, we are seeing more plant disease issues- but now we can grow apricots in Minnesota!  And peaches!

My Chinese apricots are thriving.  Gita ate one while I was sleeping yesterday afternoon, but there are two left- less orange, but getting there.  Last year I ate a Red Haven peach from the community garden near our house- a peach that isn't supposed to be hardy here- and it was delicious.  I have a sweet cherry tree that is supposed to be a zone 5 tree in my front yard and it's thriving.  I wonder how long it will be before we can grow mangoes?

But the hardest adaptation may be for people.  Enduring the 102 degree heat yesterday wasn't easy.

At our house, we have finally broken down and installed a window air conditioner on our main level- something we've managed not to do so far in 6 and a half years in this house.  This year is an exception- not just for the weather- but with Gita going through radiation therapy, and having hot flashes due to the estrogen-blocking drugs- it has been difficult justifying not doing what everyone else around us does.

In the past, we've used the basement as our summer getaway space.  So long as the weather didn't stay too hot for too long, it was a cool place to be.  Factor in the safety from thunderstorms, and the basement became the most useful part of the house for two or maybe three months of the year.

And the basement isn't just a basement.  When the house was built, over 100 years ago, refrigeration was pretty much unheard of- so most houses had what was called a 'root cellar'.  Ours still does- and holds our canned goods from last year, a chest freezer, and some dry goods that are better kept cool.  If we lost power for some time (and it's happening increasingly in the US) we'd still be able to keep cool, and keep most of our food edible.

this year's currant harvest
Some may say it's silly to bother with keeping a root cellar, or a cool basement room anymore- but I would guess that folks out of power on the East Coast right now aren't thinking that.

In Nepal right now, the power outages last from 16 to 18 hours each day, according to Gita's sister who recently visited.  They call it "load shedding"- and when we were there in 2009, the load shedding typically lasted for a few hours, and could last for up to 8 hours according to Gita's parents.  Now it's most of the day.  Some offices have closed, because there's no reliable power for the workers.

The reasons for the load shedding are unclear, but low power prices and a lack of generation capacity are usually blamed.  Also likely, as has been mentioned on many other blogs, is the fact that poorer countries lose access to fuel resources first- and Nepal is certainly not a rich country.  As oil and gas become more difficult to obtain, they'll go the highest bidder- until they become too scarce even to provide on a regular basis to them.

That's when adapting in advance matters.  Here we tend to think about solar panels and wind turbines.  In Nepal, it usually takes the form of deep cell batteries which charge while the power is on, coupled to an inverter which powers the house when the AC current goes off.

white currants- 3/8 of an inch across
That's not to say that I think that deep-cell batteries are the best way to adapt to limited power.  Learning to live with less is.  Not something that most people like to contemplate.  Not something I like to contemplate either while sitting in the comfort of our new (acquired for free from the neighbor lady) dishwasher-sized A/C unit.

Of course, knowing the neighbors may be the best adaptation to a world that is increasingly uncertain- when trees blow down or a basement floods- a community may be the best safety net there is.  Waiting for FEMA's help didn't work out so well for those who chose to ride out Hurricane Katrina, and I expect we'll see many more situations like that in my lifetime.

We had gone to a big-box store on Tuesday after a day of oppressive heat only to find that all the smaller air conditioners were sold out, and the remaining ones were being sold at extortionate prices.  We left, disheartened.  Sitting outside, in the shade, with the kids, I mentioned this to a neighbor walking her dog, and she offered us the unused A/C unit in her garage.  It's not hurricane Katrina, but that was a mini-disaster averted, particularly given the humid, 102 degree day that followed.

Of course, growing your own food is probably the single most important type of adaptation, since eating is pretty essential to anyone's continued existence.  That's what I've tried to outline so far in this blog, maybe successfully, maybe not.

Speaking of which, we've had a bumper currant crop this year.  I think it was only two years ago that I planted the bulk of our currant shrubs- and we got two or three pounds off them this year- even after subtracting those eaten by kids and squirrels.  The above photo is of what I was able to pick after work tonight.  The yield should multiply many times over in coming years if the shrubs stay healthy.

This batch is probably destined to become jelly, or maybe a pie if my daughter has her way, which she usually does.

Less can be more.  Less electricity, less processed food, less reliance on a global supply chain connected to a big box store can mean more life.  That's the moral of this story- or at least I hope it will be.   Climate change and peak oil may be doing us a big favor.  We will see, over the coming years, like it or not.


  1. yummmmmmmmm! Those currants looks beautiful. Weather for last week was unbearable, hope no more that kind of long hot and humid week for the rest of summer.

  2. basements are wonderful! fun places to hide, esp in old houses, and my cats oft take refuge there in the heat. it will be 95 F here today in lowell and my small south-facing garden plot in front the 2-family house i live in is limping greens (kale, swiss chard, tatsoi) seem to be doing ok, and the eggplant generally loves the heat, but the tomatoes don't have few flowers - not setting fruit despite being the heathy foliage wise. i've been been fertilzing with fish emulsions and compost tea every 10 days or so. the local garden center tomato guy suggested exfoliar watering (?) but that had the effect of burning (e.g. yellowing) some the leaves on the plant. might you have any suggestions? I've been watering less too. just have never seen my tomatoes grow *so* slowly!

  3. Thanks GZ- looks like there is a lot more heat coming unfortunately.

    Beej- it may be the heat that's causing it. My tomatoes are also growing like crazy, but not flowering yet. And it's been hot here- like over 100 for days in a row, which is unusual. Also- a surplus of nitrogen, and relative lack of potassium or phosphorus can cause that as well. Take a look at the label of any fertilizer you're using- even organic ones. There will be three numbers separated by a dash= the first is nitrogen, followed by phosphorus and potassium. You may have to balance them out a bit, or not fertilize for the rest of the season, possibly.