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Monday, May 9, 2011

Why Hurricanes, Tornados, Floods, (and Terrorism) will get Worse


                                'Il faut cultiver notre jardin.' Voltaire

Man's hubris never ceases to amaze:

a) The very notion that the Mississippi basin can be 'tamed' by dikes, levees and our Army Corps of Engineers.

b) The idea that we can strip our planet of trees, and even our prairies of grasses, and not expect changes to our environment.

c) The vanity that we can take examples of fierce storms like Hurricane Katrina, and Hurricane Sandy, and justify the cost of rebuilding our vulnerable society without modification, because we statistically accept these events as "100 year storms".

The crisis is us, humanity, and how we think.. Our actions come from thoughts. For every action, there exists in nature, and in humanity, an equal and opposite reaction. It's all physics.

We as a people, and I include myself as one of the culpable, show little respect for the continent that we bought for fifteen million dollars and a basket of beads. We show as little respect for other peoples living at opposite ends of this earth as we throw the wealth of this continent, into war with both other peoples, and nature herself. Perhaps everything came just too easily for us to show humility to the earth, and to the planet that gives us all we have.

Other bits of hubris lead us down this path of destruction:

a) The idea that a population of human beings cannot live well without economic growth. The idea that economic growth is necessary.

b) The idea that we can't make significant and sizeable reductions to our energy consumption without a major technological breakthrough in either solar or battery technology.

c) The idea that health, of our populations, is somehow dependent upon high levels of government spending.

In this post I'd like to deal with only one of these arrogances, that leads us to ignore the threat of man-made global warming.

It is time to ask, 'Why is all this happening? Killer floods, killer tornados.

Consider for a moment the amount of rainfall on the continental United States. The Mississippi is the world's third largest river basin, second only to the Amazon and the Congo Rivers; it receives and drains more than 60% of all that rainfall hitting the continental US.

How did it ever occur to our feeble brains that we could mess with that?

The floods and storms, are all much much worse in recent years! Why?

To explain the flooding I offer a thought experiment:

Take a cookie sheet. Do this in your mind. Really do it if you doubt my results.

Tip it on a slight angle so that it can drain into the sink or bathtub. Now spray some water onto it. Notice how the water immediately moves off the sheet and down the drain. You'll notice that the water 'surges' first and then moves off the sheet at the rate it is sprayed on.

Now drape the cookie sheet with a towel. Spray on the same amount of water. Keep spraying. You will notice that the towel buffers or absorbs the surge of floodwater. Eventually if you spray enough the amount of water exiting the system will equal the amount that is sprayed on. But there will be no 'storm-surge'.

Now stop spraying. You will notice that water still drips from the edge of the towel. This is exactly what thick-soiled natural grasslands and forests do. They absorb water, and release it slowly and evenly to the rivers and seas, even during drought.

In the Adirondack mountains of Northern New York State, over-lumbering has brought on river surges that have eliminated much of the native fish populations. The Adirondacks region, like the Amazon basin, does not have thick soils. Areas of the land are becoming bald, gravel and rock,where once trees stood. The forests that remain are stunted, shorter, less diverse. And floods have become a problem.

Everywhere it is the same story, whether in forested mountain regions or flat prairies of the West.

A healthy ecosystem of deep tree roots and topsoil moderates the heat of summer, the cold of winter, and the wet of storms. Water levels in America's rivers when the colonists first came to this country were quite moderate.

The worst floods are yet to come. Indeed as Dylan has warned us, 'A hard rain's gonna fall.'

Throughout America, as in the South American Amazon basin, and Africa as well, all over the world, soil levels are declining through wasteful agricultural practices. Nearly all of the rivers of the American west, particularly in the Great Plains, were once lined with deep rooted cottonwood trees, that acted as natural dikes to the rivers. These have almost all been cut down. The natural soil levels in Kansas for instance which historically measured over 30 feet thick, are less than 15 feet thick on average; there's less then ten feet of soil now in many areas.

The towel is getting thin.

All of this means less absorption of rain water. The rain that falls flows more quickly to the edge of the cookie sheet.

A thin layer of soil means the land dries out fast, and then heats up. A hotter landmass creates stronger storms. This isn't advanced math.

We're turning the continent into a sheet of rock, and long before that happens the storm surges along rivers like the Mississippi will be powerful enough to wipe out entire cities.

Why?

Storms of all kinds, tornadoes, thunderstorms, and hurricanes particularly, are gaining strength from global warming. Tornados and hurricanes function as a 'land-cooling systems', they simply become more powerful as the land beneath becomes hotter. Temperature extremes have become worse due to misuse of prairie and forested lands, and the tarmacking of vast areas of the country.

As the heat rises, so does nature's attempts to deal with the excess heat.

Expect more beasts such as the mile-wide tornados that virtually destroyed Tuscaloosa Alabama in April 2011 and one month another eirie reminder of the same power of nature wiped out a third of Joplin, Missouri.

Expect more hurricanes like Katrina which waterlogged nearly all of New Orleans, and left thousands homeless. Expect more monster storms like Hurricane Sandy, with barely hurricane force winds, but a large enough system to lift storm surges to historic levels over a vast area, flooding homes, public transportation and businesses.

Just as tornados are a land-cooling system, hurricanes are an ocean-cooling system. As the world's oceans rise in temperature so do the strengths and wind velocities of hurricanes. These storms are symptomatic of global warming, a side-effect that even terrestrial scientists were unable to predict.

What can we expect in just a few years?

We will see hurricanes blow skyscrapers over and turn them into piles of rubble. I fully expect to see storms with 200 mile per hour winds within twenty years.

We will see hurricanes that wipe out almost all the residences of major cities, leaving only the best constructed buildings standing at all.

Forget terrorism! We should be worried about what we're doing to a planet that has way more power than we do!

So now let's examine what we are doing with our taxes:

We're firing missiles that cost a-quarter of a million dollars a pop at old men who can't read, and who are running around the poorest mountainous areas of the world trying to make Afghanistan, not the US, into something we don't like.

Think of all the cottonwoods and walnut trees that could be planted with just the cost of one cruise missile that's fired at Libya!

Think how subsidies of a petroleum fertilizer based agricultural pays farmers to keep land fallow allowing it to heat up makes for more heat.

Fallow land? Have you ever walked out onto a 'fallow' field in Kansas in the summer? It's as hot as a supermarket parking lot. Oh sure we were all taught in school that letting land go fallow is good. Crop rotation is better, especially when some of those crops are dedicated to soil preservation and enrichment. Permicultural solutions are best of all. It's time to use depression economics to our advantage. Try new solutions. Pay the unemployed to rebuild our country, instead of sit on their asses and surf the web.

I'm sure everyone here wonders what the hell I'm talking about. Fallow land is not nature's way. Neither are fallow human beings. It's time to question basics people - the petroleum boom is over. Cheap fertilizer's a thing of the past. The shame is while we now have knowledge of more advanced ways of treating our soils, and our land, we don't use them because of protectionist interests.

We should return the Great Plains to free-range Bison planted with energy-harnessing native grasses like Bluestem. Take a page from permiculture Mr. President! What's the point of knowledge gained by decades of biological research if we don't use it?

Plant Indiana and Illinois with a forest of Hickory and Walnuts, shading rich crops of berries and organic vegetables rather than subsidized corn for biogas, which is hopelessly expensive and destroys the land. Nut crops are a cheaper and healthier source of protein than the carcinogenic beef and pork we get instead.

The Ohio River wouldn't flood if we brought the forests back.

There would be more than enough grass-fed buffalo for our nation to enjoy. Healthy organic nut proteins. The cool shade of forests.

It is time we learned from nature which we view as a problem, rather than fighting nature. Our aggressive instincts show everywhere, domestically, and abroad. Quite simply, we're a species out of balance.

As de Tocqueville wrote, 'We're the people before whom forests fall.'

What he didn't write was the prophecy that we would fall as well.

Suppose we provided incentives to enrich our agricultural lands and farmed them in a sustainable manner.

Suppose we worked with knowledge that we have.

Suppose we stopped making two enemies for every friend.

Nature put forests where floodwaters could rise, and prairie grasslands where the land could otherwise become impossibly hot. It's time to work with these basics. Time to use the roots of native grasses and trees that have billions of years of evolution behind them. Get nature working for us, rather than against us, so she doesn't need mile-wide tornados to do the job of wiping us out!

How many storms like the ones we've had in recent months do we need to prove we're not on a sustainable course?

The similarity between the rise in 'terrorism' (which I'd define as resistance against cruel and senseless foreign policies), and the rise in floodwaters, are too similar to not notice.

The US has burst to world power in a scant one hundred and fifty years. We've enjoyed our number one spot for approximately sixty years. The next fifty will see us go the other way. While on the way 'down', should we not work with our neighbors, and with nature?

One day a monster storm will rip through a city like Chicago. When that happens we'll all have to look hard for someone to blame.

But mark my words this nation will continue to lead with a foolish hand. I'm betting on the shortsightedness of our elected leaders, and the complacency of everyone else. We will continue to cut forests and turn arable land into arid pieces of the earth's crust.

That daily dose of solar must be dealt with. It must either be transformed into cellulose (trees and grasses), or it will heat up the surface of the earth. In that case the only cooling will be provided by storms, of much higher energies than we've ever experienced.

Could we not turn our attention to our 'own garden', to quote Voltaire?

Tornados, not terrorists, will destroy cities. The hurricane that drowned New Orleans will look like a like mild summer rain compared to what we'll see. We will see winds of 200 miles per hour and towers the size of the Trade Centers fall, not from terrorism, but from nature's own fury, at how we are treating the land.

It's pure thermodynamics. Physics. If the earth can't store the sun's heat, then the atmosphere, oceans and soils will. Hotter, they will generate weather of greater violence.

The irony is that if America did turn its attention to it's own 'garden' and away from projects of foreign aggression, miraculously terrorism would stop. We would again be loved by other nations of the world. Our breadbasket would overflow. We would have food to share. We would be wealthy again.

So, President Obama, take a lead from Michelle. Put tree planting and soil conservation at the top of the national agenda. Let's not waste our nation's capital on inane drone attacks that kill ten times as many innocent civilians as armed militants, and definitely produce a heap of anti-American sentiment.

Yet we continue to invest more in terrorists abroad than life-giving plants at home. It is time to re-examine our attitudes, from the ground up, towards other peoples, other nations, and towards nature herself.

The problem is 'State of Mind', hostile nations that don't mind their gardens, will starve.

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