Writing a good book about global warming is a little bit like trying to catch a whale in a butterfly net. Not only is the beast vast almost beyond human comprehension, but will it stay still? No it won't. Captain Ahab himself at least had a harpoon — a writer has nothing but a few facts in his or her arsenal.
With that said, let me now pay my respects again to veteran science reporter Linda Marsa and her tightly focused Fevered (with its less-tightly-focused subhead: Why a Hotter Planet Will Hurt Our Health — And How We Can Save Ourselves). In her introduction, Marsa brings up a singular fact about the infamous Dust Bowl that I have never encountered before, despite years of reading about climate:
One degree. When I talked to meteorologist Siegfried Schubert, I was astonished to find that's all it took to cause the 1930's Dust Bowl. Just a 1 degree F change in the surface temperatures cut off the pipeline of moisture that normally travels north from the Gulf of Mexico and triggered the long dry spell, according to a study he did more than 60 years later, in 2004, at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center….Granted [she qualifies] agricultural techniques, such as deep plowing that removed the top layer of fertile dirt and garsses that achored the soil, and a failure to rotate crops, which depleted vital nutrients, made the fields more vulnerable to wind erosion and created the conditions for the dust storms.)…[but] "The 1930's drought was a major climactic event on such a great, grand scale," Schubert told me […], "It's something that has to be explained, especially if we are to make progress in understanding future droughts in relation to global warming."
Here's a brief explanation of what happened from Schubert. For a primer on his research, try here:
The model showed cooler than normal tropical Pacific Ocean temperatures and warmer than normal tropical Atlantic Ocean temperatures contributed to a weakened low-level jet stream and changed its course. The jet stream, a ribbon of fast moving air near the Earth's surface, normally flows westward over the Gulf of Mexico and then turns northward pulling up moisture and dumping rain onto the Great Plains. As the low level jet stream weakened, it traveled farther south than normal. The Great Plains dried up and dust storms formed.
The research shed light on how tropical sea surface temperatures can have a remote response and control over weather and climate. It also confirmed droughts can become localized based on soil moisture levels, especially during summer. When rain is scarce and soil dries, there is less evaporation, which leads to even less precipitation, creating a feedback process that reinforces lack of rainfall.
Given that estimates that temperatures will rise 1 degree Celsius (about 1.8F) by the 2030's, according to consensus IPCC projections from the last report, this means that Dust Bowl II is a real possibility.
In fact, observers on the ground express fears about this possibility, for simpler reasons, according to an All Things Considered story aired this Thursday.
In the 1930s, the Dust Bowl ravaged crops and helped plunge the U.S. into an environmental and economic depression. Farmland in parts of Texas, Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas disappeared.
After the howling winds passed and the dust settled, federal foresters planted 100 million trees across the Great Plains, forming a giant windbreak — known as a shelterbelt — that stretched from Texas to Canada.
Now, those trees are dying from drought, leaving some to worry whether another Dust Bowl might swirl up again.
The report by Joe Wertz doesn't get too detailed, but will (one hopes) help spur more more research, by journalists and scientists alike, into this alarming possibility…or likelihood.
Here's a pic of what the Dust Bowl looked like to Stratford, Texas, back in the day.
The most famous artist to come out of the Dust Bowl was Woody Guthrie, and it's good to hear he's getting long-overdue attention, both from his home town of Okemah, which used to hate him, and with the publication of a long-lost novel about the Dust Bowl, House of Earth.