Category Archives: Extreme weather

Plant Hardiness Zones Racing Toward the Poles

“Sweetheart, what hardiness zone are we in?” It’s getting late in the fall season, and Barbara is reading up on whether or not to bring her thyme plants indoors.

What plant hardiness zone are we in?

What hardiness zone are we in?

Like all growers, we care about plant hardiness zones. They guide us with regard to planting times and suitable plant varieties. They tell nurseries when to ship saplings to us, and when we ought to plant them. Just now, they’re going to settle for Barbara whether or not to dig up her thyme. But at the moment, I somehow can’t remember.

“I think we’re in seven. Or maybe six. Let me check.”

There are eight plant hardiness zones in the United States, as determined by the USDA. Zone 3 is a thin strip up along the Canadian border. Only the hardiest plants will survive the winter up there. Zone 10 is basically South Florida, where winter is always balmy.

It turns out I had a good reason for my confusion about our zone at Good Hand Farm. When we started farming here, almost all of New Jersey was Zone 6. Fifteen years later, it’s basically all Zone 7. The plant hardiness zone has moved about 200 miles north in sixteen years. That’s about twelve miles per year, around here.

But it’s happening just about everywhere. In 1990, virtually all of Kentucky was Zone 6. By 2006, the whole state was zone 7. In the Upper Midwest, the border between Zones 4 and 5 ran through Sioux City, Iowa. Now it runs through Minneapolis, more than 200 miles north. Virtually every state has experienced one zone change in less than twenty years. At this pace, in one century, New Jersey would be about four hardiness zones hotter, like Miami, or maybe South Texas.

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Notice the black zone (Zone 3): Almost all gone since 1990.

Repeat that: New Jersey would be like South Texas in one century.

So, how do you grow trees when you’re changing the climate this rapidly? Trees can live for hundreds of years. Two sugar maples out our front door are nearly two centuries old. What happens to them now, as every couple decades ushers in a whole new climatic zone? And what happens to our forests, brimming with cold-weather species, but now subject to increasing heat every decade?

We are performing a massive, uncontrolled experiment upon ourselves, and upon all the creatures who share our communities. When are we going to grasp how reckless it is to radically alter climate conditions within a single human generation?

Climate change is real. It’s high time our politicians own up to the fact, and begin to work on solutions. Why not contact your Congressional representatives, and ask them where they stand? Otherwise, you might have New Jersey feeling like South Texas or Miami. And if so, those places would feel like something straight out of your worst nightmares.

The time to do something is now. This world belongs to God, and we’ll surely have to account to him for what we’ve done to it — or for our silence while others did so.

Contact your Congressional Representatives.

NEWSFLASH: Earth Just Had a Not-Record-Hot Month!

It had to happen sooner or later. After sixteen consecutive months of record monthly global heat since record-keeping began, September 2016 fell short of the prior September’s heat by a scant 0.04 degrees Celsius, making it only the second hottest September in the last 137 years.

That is, if you believe the National Oceanic & Aeronautic Administration (NOAA). If you prefer NASA’s analysis, the record heat continues, with this September edging out last September’s record heat by a razor thin margin.

NASA's global temperature has been this color for many, many months

NASA’s global temperature map has been this color for many, many months

Of course, we still run into people who remind us that temperatures go up, and they also go down. So with all these record hot months recently, we looked for the most recent record low month, and found it! It was February 1929, eight months before the stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression.

Facts are stubborn things. It’s been a long time since the earth has been cool, and the string of record hot global temperatures is becoming downright terrifying. The politicians who control Congress may wish they could hide it, but they simply can’t cling to “I’m-not-sure” any longer, without condemning our children to a dismal future.

My own congressman (Scott Garrett, Republican NJ-5th) is one of these climate-science deniers. I beg him, as I hope you will beg yours: It’s not too late yet. God’s entire creation is in peril from our reckless carbon binge. You may hate the solutions that have been proposed to date. Fine. Propose your own. But we’re not the only ones who have children. When we are dead, and answerable to the Lord of Creation, all of our kids — yours included — will inherit whatever world we have left them.

Isn’t it time we decided to do something to spare them from the chaos we are leaving behind?

How Our Coasts Will Disappear

They say that doom and gloom is sure-fire method of driving away readers. But if sea levels are rising, as seven in ten Americans acknowledge, then it’s worth asking just how – and when – my favorite coastal spot might be gone. Believe me, I know you’d rather not wade into this swamp. But it’s important. Please, take a second to look.

Just this August, Louisiana suffered historic flooding, causing more than $10 billion in damage, 80 percent of it uninsured. It was dubbed the most destructive storm to hit the country since Super Storm Sandy.

Hardly a month later, another storm barely grazed the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, and left behind comparable damage, still being assessed in the range of $6-9 billion.

Big storms, no doubt. But here’s the thing: Neither one involved a hurricane making landfall on U.S. soil. Louisiana merely suffered from an intense rainstorm. And American Easterners nervously watched an advancing hurricane’s trail of destruction and death in Haiti, but breathed a sigh of relief as it sliced eastward into the open Atlantic.

Still, the storm wreaked many billions of dollars of damage, and more than fifty fatalities.

Of course, these storms produced the usual claims and denials about the connection to climate change, as always. But more instructive to me was the picture of what coastal inundation will look like in an age of climate chaos. Here’s why:

For the large majority of Americans who accept the findings of climate science, I suspect we tend to view sea-level rise as a linear phenomenon. Mapping websites abound where you can zoom in on your home, select a hypothetical level of ocean rise, and see whether you’re safe or not. For Louisiana, here’s what it looks like for two feet, well inside many estimates for the current century.capturelouisiana

Look! The blue incursions make New Orleans look pretty dicey, but Baton Rouge and Lafayette are still okay, right? And here’s a look at the Carolinas at two feet. Sure, the Outer Banks, Charleston and Wilmington are all gone, but Goldsboro, Wilmington and Raleigh are pretty good.capture

Okay, admittedly it’s bad, but we can find a way to manage, right?

Actually, no, we probably can’t. Here’s why: These maps may be accurate, for what they’re being asked to do. One a calm, sunny day, the communities shown in the green may be, in fact, above water. But take a look at what happened during the Louisiana non-hurricane – before any further sea-level rise at all:

picture1

Lafayette was inundated. Baton Rouge was a virtual island, with flooding on all sides. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way, was it? New Orleans would slip away first, and Mardi Gras would set up shop Baton Rouge. Except Baton Rouge was flooded out first. (And that’s with today’s sea levels, not an extra couple of feet.)

The Carolinas tell a similar story. After Tropical Storm Matthew slipped past, Goldsboro and Lumberton – each about 80 miles inland from the Atlantic beaches – were completely awash, together with hundreds of other inland communities.picture2

For nearly ten years now, we’ve been warning our fellow beach-lovers: Visit as often as you like, enjoy the sun and surf. But please, please, don’t invest the nest egg in sea-side property. Even now, that’s probably sound advice. But the picture is actually much worse. In a world of increasingly dire climate chaos, you’re hardly safe in low-lying inland communities either.

What should you do? Well, what if we started by living like people who understand that the future of our world, and especially our children’s, depends on lower carbon emissions. Cut our carbon footprint, and offset what we can’t cut.

But whatever our individual efforts, there are many things that we can only accomplish together — as a country, or as an entire world. We can each drive smarter, but most of us can’t develop our own electric car. We can insulate the house, but most of us can’t build our own wind farm. These things depend on concerted national action. So find out what your Congressional representative is doing about climate change. And look at where the Presidential candidates stand.

The consequences of ignoring climate change may seem to be a long way off. But for many on our lowland coasts, they’ve already arrived.

Reader’s Poll: What January’s Record NYC Snowstorm Tells Us

During the three days from January 22nd to the 24th, a mammoth blizzard paralyzed New York City with 27.5 inches of snowfall – the city’s biggest snowstorm since record-keeping began in 1869.1171676_630x354

Beloved Planet wants to know what you think about this. Please choose the answer that most closely reflects your response to this news:

  • Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe and his Congressional allies are right in dismissing climate change as “a massive hoax” perpetrated by greedy scientists getting richer and richer.
  • NASA, NOAA and the EPA are right in stating that “as temperatures rise and the air becomes warmer, more moisture evaporates  into the atmosphere. More moisture in the air means we can expect more rain and snow.”
  • Yet another example of President Obama’s feckless leadership. Thanks Obama!
  • The square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.
  • It’s mainly Elsa’s fault, with all that stuff about “I don’t care what they’re going to say. Let the storm rage on ….”

February Smashed Global Heat Records: But What Does That Mean?

You’ve already seen the news. February was a record month for global heat. It followed the hottest January on record. Which followed the hottest year (2015) on record. Which follow the previous hottest year (2014) on record. Etc. Etc. Etc.

So, maybe we think: A bunch of scientists are sifting through data from all over the world, and we’re supposed to be alarmed at a few more degrees of heat? Seriously, what does this mean to us? Well, let’s see if we can distill this down to a few key points.

First, these records are not flukes or outliers. Global data has been kept for 137 years. Of all the Februaries over that time, this one ranked #1, unseating last February, the former hot-weather champion.

Picture2Worse, it wasn’t just the hottest February. It was the hottest month ever, compared to 20th century averages. And the prior record had just been set only two months earlier, in December.

Worse yet, it continued a ten-month string of record-hot months. Yes, February was the hottest of all 137 Februaries. But January was also #1 for all Januaries. And they were preceded by #1 records in December, November, October, September – and all the way back to May 2015. Something like that has never happened before. Doubters will tell us “The climate always changes!” Not like this. Not always in one direction. Not in lockstep. We’re seeing something frighteningly new.

Second, did you notice the amount of warming? For all land and ocean surfaces, the earth was 1.21oC (or 2.18oF) above the 20th century averages. You may recall that the nations of the world just agreed in Paris on efforts to limit global warming this century to no more than 2.0oC, and to make every effort to keep it below 1.5oC, to spare our fellow humans from the Philippines, Bangladesh and island nations from being inundated by rising seas. Well, already, we’ve experienced a month within a whisker of breaking that 1.5oC threshold.

Worse, if we look at land surfaces alone (where most of us live) the average global temperature was 2.31°C above the 20th century average. Two-point-three degrees. That’s territory we’re not supposed to see in our lifetimes, or even our children’s. But it just happened.

Third, the heat was just about everywhere. Record heat took hold across much of South America and southern Africa, southern and eastern Europe, around the Urals of Russia, and most of Southeast Asia stretching to northern Australia. Here are some examples:

  • New Zealand had its second warmest February and second warmest month of any month since national records began in 1909, at 2.2°C above long-term averages.
  • In Venezuela and Colombia, the heat was about 3.0°C higher than average.
  • Germany ran 3.0°C above average and Austria was a whopping 4.1°C hotter than average.
  • Speaking of whopping, Alaska reported its warmest February in its 92-year period of record, at 6.9°C higher than the 20th century average. That’s not a typo. Six-point-nine degrees Celsius, or 12.4° Fahrenheit. That’s more than the difference between the last Ice Age and today’s world.

Fourth, all this heat is destabilizing the Polar regions dangerously. For starters, this winter marks the lowest sea ice coverage ever measured in the Arctic. It’s way less icy than 2012, the previous record year for summer Arctic ice melt. That means that this summer and fall there will be less ice to start with, and the seasonal warmth will have an easier time melting what remains there. Not only that, but less winter ice mean less bright, reflective snow surface, and more deep blue, heat-absorbing water to soak up the sun’s heat, which will warm the region even further.

Sea IceBut an even greater concern is now emerging in the southern Pole, with new warnings about the instability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. About the size of Mexico, the ice sheet could raise sea levels by 12 feet or more if it becomes destabilized. Many of us took some comfort in believing that while this will occur in a warmer world, humanity and the rest of creation would probably have hundreds of years to adapt. But new research from scientists at Penn State and UMass now projects that continued greenhouse gas emissions and the resulting heat could disintegrate the West Antarctic sheet in only decades. That would mean that coastal cities like New York, Boston, Miami and New Orleans would be largely inundated during the lifetimes of children born today, with further sea-level rises of one foot per decade thereafter.

But it’s not hotter EVERYWHERE. And that’s actually alarming. There’s one spot on earth where it’s not getting warmer. It’s Iceland, and the North Atlantic Ocean. See that spot of blue on the map? In a warming world, it was cooler there all last year, and in each of several years before that. That region has always been warmed by tropical ocean currents (called thermohaline, or the Gulf Stream) carrying equatorial waters northward along the US East Coast to Iceland, before they dive to the ocean depths and return southward. Scientists have long believed that fresh meltwater from Greenland could slow down the Gulf Stream, trapping hot water off the US coast, and chilling the northern seas.Picture1

So what’s the big deal? A little warmer here, and little cooler there? Actually, it’s a very big deal. Warm coastal waters off the American East Coast are what gave us Super-Storm Sandy, but that storm happened when the oceans were cooler than they are today. And warm Icelandic waters have given Northern Europe the benign climate it has enjoyed for millennia. Tinker with the Greenland Ice Sheet too much, and we’ve got something much worse than a few more feet of sea-water on our hands.

Final thoughts from a Christian thinker: So before we hand these climatic records off to the statisticians for filing, maybe we could take a minute to consider where we stand in history. Two centuries after the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, we’ve pumped eons’ worth of carbon – long hidden deep within the earth – back into the atmosphere. As a result, we’re seeing the early results of our planetary carbon experiment: a consistent record of global warming; heat growing at an ever-faster pace; not just here and there, but spread all over the map; and destabilizing the Polar ice sheets, which are raising sea levels and threatening coastal communities. And we’re even seeing signs of disruption in planet-regulating systems like the Gulf Stream.

“Where is God in all this?” asks Christian author Rev. Edward Brown, in his landmark book, Our Father’s World. “God would not allow us to destroy his creation, would he?”

Well, yes he might, concludes Brown, noting that within his sovereignty, God allows us humans a shocking amount of latitude in what we do with our lives – including what we do with his creation. “If we choose to destroy our home,” says Brown, “God will not stop us. Unless, that is, God were to step into history the way he usually does, through human beings who have aligned their lives with him and who are committed to accomplishing his purposes in their own small histories.”

Brown reminds us of God’s answer to Israelite prayers from the misery of slavery in Egypt: “I have heard them crying out…. So I have come down to rescue them” (Exodus 3:7-8).

Phew! So maybe God will rescue our injured planet, just like he did in Exodus! But Brown demands that we read on: “So now, go” he tells Moses, “I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

Go? Who, me? How? What can I do? “I will be with you,” says God to Moses, words taken up again by the resurrected Christ more than a thousand years later: “Go…. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

Do you think maybe it’s time for God’s people to hear that call once again?

ISIS, Assad and Syria’s Misery: Who’s to Blame?

The news today was grim – again. By the latest count, more than four million Syrians have now fled the chaos and killings in their homeland, and crowded into camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, or onto leaky boats headed for Europe’s distant shores. Worse, perhaps, another 7.6 million have fled the violence but cling to life within Syria’s perilous borders.

That’s a total of 11.6 million living souls, in desperate conditions far from home. In a country of 23 million people, fully half of Syrians can’t go home any more.

It’s hard to fathom what a country would look like with half of us fleeing for our lives. In the US, imagine all the residents of our 15 largest cities – from New York and LA down to Indianapolis and Columbus – living in camps or under overpasses on either side of our borders. That’s what it would be like, except for this: You’d need six times more people.

We struggle to translate this crisis into terms we can grasp. The UN Refugee Agency offers this simple graphic, with the searing reality that two more of Syria’s children are forced to flee their homes every minute of the day and night.UN Hig Commission refugee agency

And this is particularly galling for Christians and others who regard the Bible as God’s word. Throughout its pages, sacred scripture consistently identifies three classes of people as deserving our special care and protection: widows, orphans, and sojourners. Sojourners – or displaced migrants and refugees. Here’s a country where half of the people are sojourners.

And so, it’s understandable that we might be getting angry. Who’s to blame for all this suffering? Who turned all these people into homeless sojourners?

If you listen to the cable news, plenty of political aspirants have an easy answer: It’s President Obama, who wouldn’t listen to the hawks and send in American soldiers to set things right. On the other side, many blame Cheney and Bush, for destroying the comparatively benign social order imposed in neighboring Iraq by its former strongman, Saddam Hussein.

But increasingly, our researchers and military commanders are pointing to another, less obvious suspect. Changes in the climate of the Middle East have created a perfect storm of conditions for civil war. A killer drought has driven hunger and mass migration into Syria’s urban slums. Sectarian, tribal and political differences always threatened Syria’s stability, but the unprecedented drought lit the fire in this tinderbox.

A war caused by drought? It’s more likely than you may think. From 2006 to 2009, Syria suffered the worst multi-year drought since record-keeping began. The parched farmland produced nothing, and crop failures drove 1.5 million mostly-Sunni farmers off their dusty farms and crowded them among Alawite/Shiite urban dwellers. President Bashir al-Assad’s resulting social policies favored his sectarian Alawite base, leading to massive discontent among the majority Sunnis, and resulting in the 2011 uprising against his regime. And with many of Iraq’s former soldiers on the run from the newly Shiite-dominated Iraqi army, all the conditions for the rise of a powerful, radical Sunni Syrian movement were in place.

Syrian child in Lebanon camp. Credit: UNICEF

Syrian child in Lebanon camp. Credit: UNICEF

Start with a crushing drought destroying the breadbasket of the country; drive a flood of farmers into urban slums; throw in age-old sectarian distrust; upend the order of the largest neighbor; and add a heavy dose of presidential corruption and repression – and you’ve got the smoldering ruins of today’s Syria.

Earlier this year, researchers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences a study that concluded that the severity of Syria’s drought could only be explained against the backdrop of manmade climate change. In fact, they concluded that human factors made the odds of a drought this severe 2 to 3 times more likely than natural variability alone.

And this isn’t the first study linking manmade climate change to aggression, war and mass migration. In 2013, researchers published in the journal Science a study concluding that increasing temperatures raise the risk of all kinds of conflicts, from interpersonal spats to civil wars and societal collapse. Using results from over 60 studies covering 12,000 years, they found that climate disruptions have increased the likelihood of civil war by 14% in human history.

In recent history, the genocide in Darfur has been called the “the first climate change war,” as perpetual drought drove nomadic Sudanese herdsmen into conflict with settled agrarian communities, aggravating tribal and religious conflicts. But Scientific American cited a 22-year study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finding that long before Darfur, sub-Saharan Africa suffered from wars most often during unusually warm years. They concluded that one degree C warming will increase the chances of civil wars by 55 percent, causing almost 400,000 additional battlefield deaths over two decades.

The drying Sahel climate drove herdsmen and farmers into conflict. Credit: Georgina Cransto

The drying climate of Sudan drove herdsmen and Darfur farmers into conflict. Credit: Georgina Cransto

Of course, not everyone agrees that the causal linkage between climate disruption and war has been adequately proven, and that’s part of the normal discourse of science. But among the many that have been persuaded are the commanders of the US Armed Services. In the Quadrennial Defense Review in 2014, they warned that the impacts of climate change could “increase the frequency, scale, and complexity of future missions, including defense support to civil authorities, while at the same time undermining the capacity of our domestic installations to support training activities.”

These soldiers are really alarmed about climate-change and conflict, calling it a “threat multiplier” all over the world. “As greenhouse gas emissions increase,” they wrote, “sea levels are rising, average global temperatures are increasing, and severe weather patterns are accelerating…. The pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world. These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions – conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.”

Do these warnings remind us of anything we’re seeing today? In Syria, this sounds just like what we’re dealing with right now. So if we’re angry about the countless suffering refugees from the Syrian war, and if we’re worried about the horrors of ISIS, what if our best course is to take personal and national steps to counter the rise in planet-warming gases? Because with another one or two degrees of warming, we could be dealing with 20 or 30 Syria-level disasters.

Or has it even occurred to us that we could be among the homeless ourselves?

J. Elwood

California: Time to Stop Soaking the Rich?

Compton, CA is a working-class town midway between LA and Long Beach. Daily water use in Compton comes to 63.6 gallons per person. That’s a lot more than in Sudan, or even Uganda. But a 45-minute drive to the east brings you to the wealthy community of Cowan Heights, where daily water use is a whopping 572.4 gallons per person. That’s nine times higher than Compton. Water is getting expensive in California, and the folks in Compton are feeling the pinch. Median household income is $42,335, about one-third of Cowan Heights, which clocks in at $125,556.

sprinkler1So here’s the question: Should a wealthy community making three times as much as its neighbors be allocated nine times as much water? Or clean air? Are there any things that should be allocated as God-given rights, not subject to market pricing?

Drought-parched California is making both towns cut back. Water-guzzling Cowan Heights residents will have to reduce by 36%, down to 366 gallons per day. Compton must cut back by 8%, to 59 gallons. Wow. Then the wealthy Cowan Heights will have 6 times as much water as its poorer neighbors.

Market economics have undoubtedly done wonders for many people in our country. But there was a time when conservatives and progressives alike agreed that some things should be allocated equitably to our world, not based on what the richest could pay. With California’s drought beginning to look something like the “new normal” in the American West, I’m not sure that “soaking the rich” is the best way to allocate life-giving water.

California's 4-year drought is likely to subside over time, but it is consistent with climate warnings for the  American West.

California’s 4-year drought is likely to subside over time, but it is consistent with climate warnings for the American West.

Are you?

And have you spent much time asking and praying about what your sacred scriptures teach about such matters?

 J. Elwood