The Billings Outpost

Floods, fires sending us messages

By WILBUR WOOD - For The Outpost

The weather’s been sending us messages. Saskatchewan, for example, has been enduring serious cold most of this winter of 2012-2013, then enough snow and wind arrive to create whiteouts - and when the wind lies down, morning fog.

I know this because every morning I tune into the CBC — the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. AM radio station out of Regina — and listen to reports of automobile crashes and travelers phoning in to say stay off the highway, if you can.

Monster storms, humongous snows and hurricane-force winds have blasted sections of our continent south of the Canadian border as well, most of these occurring to the east of us here in south-central Montana. So far our winter has not been overly challenging. Most mornings the back-up oil furnace in our cellar does kick in, before I rekindle the fire in our woodstove, but the furnace doesn’t hum much during the day, and when I step outside, I’m happy that my stash of firewood is holding up so well.

Only a few mornings has our south wall thermometer dipped below zero, and then by only a few degrees. In Canada, our two degrees below zero, Fahrenheit, would be about 18 degrees below their zero, Celsius, but this winter 18-below is a relatively mild day on the Canadian prairie. Temperatures frequently fall to 40 degrees below zero — which, incidentally, is the point where Fahrenheit and Celsius thermometers coincide.

In my youth, in Montana, we could count on at least one plunge to 40 below zero nearly every winter, and this bone-chilling air would often hang around for days. That’s not true anymore. In the last 10 winters, though we have bundled up for a few 20-below moments, I can recall only one quick shot into the 40-below range.

The first decade of the 21st century, by the way, was the warmest decade on Earth since human beings began systematically keeping track of temperatures around the planet — so warm that the alarming melting of Arctic ice has accelerated drastically.

On Feb. 14, Joe Romm reported (see http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2013/02/14/1594211/death-spiral-bombshell-cryosat-2-confirms-arctic-sea-ice-volume-has-collapsed/) that a “sharp drop in the area of the Arctic sea covered by ice” has combined with “a harder to see, but equally sharp drop in sea ice thickness” to create “a collapse in total sea ice volume — to one fifth of its level in 1980.”

I’m not foolish enough to claim that all this means we’re beyond a surprise, a take-your-breath-away flash-freeze before spring equinox, but as I write this, mid-winter has passed and the sun’s moving north faster and faster.

Snow and rain needed

What we need here is moisture. While many mornings from December into February we have awakened to snow cover, this white blanket has been thin and often has melted off by noon. We need snow in the mountains to keep our rivers running. We need snows and rains over the prairie to feed the aquifers and fill up the reservoirs.

Two years ago in our valley we didn’t need moisture. We had it in excess. Floods in late May and June 2010 swelled the Musselshell River until it filled the valley. It set new records, rising as much as two feet above any previously recorded flood.

But later that summer our semi-arid climate reasserted itself. All that moisture had caused a lot of grass to grow and bushes and trees to prosper, but the moisture abruptly stopped, and a dry winter extended into summer so dry that it too set records. Fires erupted repeatedly in the Bull Mountains, across the river from our town – and in many parts of Montana. In late summer, for week after week in the Bitterroot Valley, the air was so thick with smoke from fires in Idaho that breathing was hazardous.

This huge fire season, one year after a huge flood season, could extend into more drought and more fires if the rains don’t come.

E-mails from the League of Conservation Voters arrive, urging me to join because “2012 was the hottest year in U.S. history” and “anyone without a head in the sand knows climate change is making extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy more frequent and more intense.” They warn that “if we don’t do something about it right now” it’s all going to get worse.

Reducing ‘fossil carbon’ burning

I don’t doubt it for an instant. One reason we heat our house mostly with cottonwood, pine, green ash, elm, silver poplar, Russian olive, or any other local tree I can scavenge, is that we are trying to lessen our contribution of “fossil carbon” (in our case, in the form of No. 2 diesel) to the atmosphere. (We feel OK, sort of, contributing “current carbon” - from plants: our firewood, left to decay, would eventually move into the atmosphere.)

Of course, the most effective and least costly thing any of us can do is to burn less carbon, either fossil or current carbon, to heat our buildings or run our vehicles down the road. Insulate the bejesus out of our houses. Minimize trips in internal combustion engine vehicles, car pool, use a bicycle, take a bus (if there is one), walk.

The next best thing we can do is to tap into clean renewable energy. Wind, small hydro, solar, geothermal, and energy from plants are all cheaper than fossil or radioactive fuels if we add in the “externalized” health and pollution costs of those conventional sources. Wind power has become cheaper than coal and natural gas, in many places, even if those costs are not added in.

One such place is Australia, where a recent analysis by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) asserts that even without a carbon tax, new wind energy is 14 percent cheaper than new coal and 18 percent cheaper than new natural gas plants. (Australia, by the way, unlike the United States, does impose a carbon tax on fossil fuel generators.)

Clean energy a game changer

Regarding Australia, BNEF chief executive Michael Liebreich says, “The fact that wind power is now cheaper than coal and gas in a country with some of the world’s best fossil fuel resources shows that clean energy is a game changer which promises to turn the economics of power systems on its head” (for details, go to http://reneweconomy.com.au/2013/renewables-now-cheaper-than-coal-and-gas-in-australia-62268).

The Legislature is in session in Montana, and a number of promising bills to promote energy conservation and renewable energy have arisen. Will they be beaten back?

Barack Obama has entered his second term as president and, after uttering scarcely a word about climate change during his second campaign, found himself forced back to the topic by Hurricane Sandy’s devastation of New York, New Jersey and New England. In his inaugural address and in his state of the union address he has signaled a willingness to treat the subject seriously. But will he be hobbled by legislators beholden to the fossil fuel industry?

Bill McKibben writes (“Why Climate Change Won’t Wait for the President,” Jan. 6, Tom Dispatch Op-Ed): “We’re talking about a fight between human beings and physics. And physics is entirely uninterested in human timetables … . It’s implacable. It takes the carbon dioxide we produce and translates it into heat, which means into melting ice and rising oceans and gathering storms … . And unlike other problems, the less you do, the worse it gets. Do nothing and you soon have a nightmare on your hands … . If we’re to slow it down, we need to be cutting emissions globally at a sensational rate, by something like 5 percent a year to make a real difference.”

Nature, and its messenger the weather, keeps sending us messages.

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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