Super Storm Sandy and the Dustbowl
By Cam Mather
Two weekends ago I vegged out and watched a whack of TV on Sunday night. Sometimes Sunday night TV sucks. That night it was awesome. Well at least it was on PBS!
It started out with Bill Moyers. He chatted with Naomi Klein about Hurricane Sandy and climate change. She has a really good grasp on how serious the issue has become and how important it is we take radical action, now. She has joined forces with Bill McKibben for a new “movement” called “Do the Math.” (http://math.350.org/)
Then NOVA had “Inside the Megastorm” about Hurricane Sandy. It was really well done, and it was amazing how quickly they had been able to put it together after the storm. You should be able to watch it on the PBS website (but it doesn’t seem to work for me in Canada, so I guess just our American readers can take advantage of this link;
I watched a lot of the news coverage of Sandy but it did not provide anywhere near the depth of this documentary. CNN had lots of people out in the wind and rain, but the next day there was so much footage of homes knocked off their foundations or destroyed and boardwalks gone, I never saw much coverage of how it had happened. The storm was far more ferocious that I had realized.
This documentary also emphasized how hard it is to maintain basic, critical services like electricity when you have events like this. Eight million people without power is a lot!
They spent a lot of time tracking the history of the storm and what caused it to be so severe. The scientists were careful not to say, “This was caused by climate change.” They said it was caused by the jet stream being where it was because the arctic is warmer than normal. And the water in the Atlantic was warmer than usual. And the storm surge was worse because sea levels in the Atlantic are higher than usual because hot water takes up more space and glaciers are melting. So they kind of explained how it was caused by climate change but then said you couldn’t connect the dots.
I think they really busted their butts to get this NOVA ready so they could air it before the Ken Burns’ documentary called “The Dust Bowl,” which aired right after the storm documentary. I didn’t know much about the Dust Bowl before watching this, other than those iconic photos we’ve all seen. I really should read or watch “The Grapes of Wrath” even though I know it’s going to be depressing. And Ken Burns didn’t fail to depress.
The series seemed to suggest that the conventional wisdom is that humans caused the Dust Bowl. We took a flat prairie where the soil was held in place by deep-rooted grasses and we ploughed it under to grow wheat. The traditional grasses held the soil in place and could withstand droughts with their deep roots. But mechanization allowed farmers to cultivate massive areas of these lands. When the drought hit the soil lost moisture and the wind blew the soil away.
It was just brutal to watch the effect on the farmers and their families. Burns provides quotes from people living through the Dust Bowl and I laughed at how much they sounded like my complaints from this past summer. Well I didn’t laugh, I was surprised by the similarities, and yet I was growing on a much smaller basis and could irrigate most of what I grew. And if I had failed miserably, there would still be a job for me to go and find whereas the Dust Bowl happened in the middle of the Depression and there really weren’t jobs to go to.
The farmers at the time didn’t realize their behavior could have lessened the impact. They could have left more land fallow. They could have planted cover crops. They could have rotated crops more. They had come through a number of reasonably wet years, so they just thought it would continue. And I guess the people on Easter Island thought the trees would just grow back as they kept cutting them down to roll their massive heads to the coast.
So here’s what I got from my night of high-def PBS documentary watching;
- The Dust Bowl was exacerbated by human activity. We didn’t cause the drought, we just did stuff that made it worse.
- Hurricane Sandy was exacerbated by human activity. We are putting too much carbon into the air. It’s making the sea levels rise and the seawater get hotter and the hurricanes get bigger.
A couple of times over the weekend Michelle or I were tempted to hop in our car to drive to Kingston (an hour away) to have a meal at our favourite Indian restaurant. We fought the urge and didn’t leave the house. Michelle made mushroom caps stuffed with onions and garlic that we had grown, along with mashed potatoes from the garden. Michelle made an apple pie with the apples we have left from our tree. We heated with zero-carbon wood heat. We used zero-carbon hot water to have a bath. We used zero-carbon electricity to watch PBS. Some carbon was produced to manufacture our solar panels and TV, but I think if I amortize this over their life span, it’s not too extreme.
Humans need to make some hard choices and jarring changes to our lifestyles to avoid having superstorms like Sandy become regular occurrences. When I saw how traumatic it was to the people who lived through it, I don’t understand why it is not the only topic of conversation on the planet today.
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