Oliver Manufacturing sits on the outskirts of La Junta, Colorado, in what’s known as the Arkansas Valley. From our offices, one can watch the wind carry tumbleweeds across the dry plains or spot summer storms developing on the horizon. We always hope for those storms to drift our way, bearing with them refreshing rains, but they rarely do. It’s something that I long ago came to accept about the region I grew up in. And yet, every year seems to swelter more than the last.
Really, “seems to,” might not be strong enough language. On June 18, the Otero County Sheriff’s Office posted this in part of an online PSA:
“The lower 2/3 of the State of Colorado is currently under fire restrictions, and the Southeast Region of Colorado is under Stage 2 Fire Restrictions. Otero County is the last to go to restrictions, however, based on the extreme level of drought, extreme dry conditions, and serious lack of moisture, the safe and responsible thing to do is to enact these restrictions. It has been 10 years since conditions have been this dire, and a burn ban was put into effect.”
Looking at climate data, one can see that the sentiment that the world is consistently getting warmer is accurate. 2016 marked the third year in a row to beat global temperature highs. In the United States specifically, 2016 was the second hottest year in the country’s recorded history. The year’s annual average of 54.9 degrees Fahrenheit only barely lost to 2012, which keeps the title for Hottest Year in the United States with an average high of 55.3 degrees. Do you want to know the interesting part? 2017 had an average high of 54.6 degrees. Not far off from setting records itself.
Given that annual temperatures are trending hotter globally and domestically, one might think that precipitation would be trending in the polar opposite direction. So, imagine my surprise when I looked into Colorado’s annual precipitation records. Colorado (and the country at large) has experienced above average levels of precipitation for five years in a row.
But just because precipitation averages out at higher than normal doesn’t mean that drought cannot persist in between periods of more rainfall. 2017 featured record-breaking wetness and dryness levels, along with record regional temperatures high and low, across the country. As seen in Otero Fire Department’s PSA, a given state can see record-setting amounts of precipitation while a particular region of that state simultaneously suffers from extreme drought.
Droughts present an array of challenges to the communities they plague. Wildfires, strict caps on water resources and harsh growing conditions, all stem from it. A drought is characterized by an abnormally low amount of rainfall in a region over a prolonged period of time. This results in a water shortage, which leads to economic, environmental and public health issues in the affected regions. Each of these problems impacts farmers and manufacturers in big ways. So what allows for drought conditions to form in the first place?
It all goes back to what we pump into our atmosphere, and how those gases interact with the air over our oceans. Weather systems form over the sea and travel inland, bringing wind and precipitation with them. Dependent on an array of factors, weather systems can change direction and intensity on a dime. This dubious nature makes the task of predicting long-term weather patterns incredibly difficult. Because of how nuanced climate science is, it’s important to understand that weather phenomenon over the oceans can effect changes so far inland as Colorado, for example, and that humans can themselves effect weather phenomenon as far out as the middle of the ocean.
In 2009, 18 scientific organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Crop Science Society of America, addressed Congress with a letter stating, “Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver.”
The scientific community’s consensus on climate change is overwhelmingly in support of the theory that it is real and that humans are directly responsible for its most rapid developments. As temperatures veer further and further away from their precedents, climate change on a regional level is getting harder and harder to deny. In the future we can expect more dynamic change to take place — along with possibly more severe patterns of tropical storms, inland rainfall, snowfall and drought.
There is a lot of fervor over climate change, and I’m starting to suspect that those in opposition to the notion of it just don’t want to accept that we, humans, bear responsibility. How does one “oppose” climate change, anyway? One can ignore climate change the same way that one can ignore a drought — by pretending to not notice the brutal dry heat and the wilting crops. But one still feels sweaty and cotton-mouthed, and one does notice when the crops have died. Similarly, climate change will be noticed, as we can observe today through the data provided above and through other measurements such as regional snow-pack and glacial melting at the earth’s poles.
Adverse weather effects compound upon directly human-induced problems, too. Agricultural runoff pollutes lakes and rivers. When a drought occurs, the total amount of available potable water can be further diminished by the presence of pollutants. This is not only a problem for farmers of crops and livestock, but for people and communities as well.
Livestock is one of if not the greatest contributor to exorbitant levels of atmospheric methane gas. Cows, goats and sheep account for approximately 27 percent of all human-caused methane gas emissions. The methane is released into the atmosphere and traps heat from the sun that would otherwise reflect off the planet’s surface back into space, causing temperatures on the planet’s surface to rise.
It’s easy to get hung up on sets of statistics; if presented the right way, practically any data set can be used to back up any position. The point I’m making is that climate is complicated. Just because weather seems to be trending one way in a daily or weekly basis, does not mean that it’s indicative of the greater trends in motion. Despite record low temperatures in some regions, the global average temperature is still rising. Despite greater overall annual precipitation in Colorado and the United States, specific regions are slammed by worse and worse drought conditions. And thus, just because larger trends may sound more positive on the surface than under a microscope, does not mean that global warming bodes well for our future in terms of more annual rainfall.
Climate change is complex and nuanced. Although we don’t fully understand the underlying mechanisms that propel it, Earth’s leading scientists have a pretty solid idea of how it all works. But the only way we can come to understand it further is through proper research, something that many private and government entities try to stifle in search of personal gain. Especially in America.
The global environment is slowly but steadily changing. Scientists predict that water shortages will become much more prevalent in the United States in the coming decades. Storms and other weather systems are becoming more severe. This will present new challenges for farmers and the agriculture industry to face.
It’s impossible to know for sure what direction our climate is headed, or more precisely, where it will break landfall. But one thing is for certain: we aren’t yet prepared if harsh conditions are to worsen as predicted.