Displaying items by tag: drought
Spring arrived late this year, and with it came the weekend drone of lawnmowers. Many an otherwise perfect Sunday afternoon nap has been shattered by a neighbor’s noisy grass trimming machine.
And for what? To do it all over again in seven days.
Over the years, I have had neighbors who pay a service to come out and fertilize their lawns and treat them with an herbicide that kills everything save the grass. I’ve also heard people complain about their high water bills during the summer when without constant water, the lawn might turn brown.
One upside of last summer’s drought was that more people let their lawns go dormant, and went weeks at a time without mowing.
The grasses that comprise the typical American lawn – Kentucky bluegrass and various fescues – are referred to as “cool season” grasses for a reason. They prefer cool and moist conditions like one expects in the spring.
Most of the grasses in American lawns were imported from Europe. Early settlers found grasses native to the Colonies were less desirable for grazing by the livestock that were brought along from Europe.
Picture the British and northern European countryside with sheep grazing on lush green meadows. Now, imagine the weather – cool summers, mild winters and plenty of rain.
Then, think about a typical July day in McHenry County: sunny, hot, humid, dry. Hardly ideal conditions for plants that like it moist and cool!
So, the first problem with the typical lawn is that the grass species aren’t right for our climate, and require large amounts of water and fertilizer to stay lush and green during the summer. The next problem arises from over-fertilization of lawns in residential areas.
Applying too much fertilizer too often is not only bad for the health of one’s lawn, but it will also have a negative impact on the water quality of local rivers and streams. Excess fertilizer (that which is not needed by the plants) will run-off with the storm water, which eventually arrives in a local creek.
A third concern related to lawn maintenance is air pollution. A Swedish study conducted in 2001 concluded, “Air pollution from cutting grass for an hour with a gasoline powered lawn mower is about the same as that from a 100-mile automobile ride.” The small engine of a gas-powered lawn mower is very inefficient, and lawn mowing in the US has been estimated to account for up to five percent of air pollution in this country. New mowers are more efficient than older models, but a better alternative is to replace the gas mower with an electric model. Not only do they emit zero air pollution, they are quiet.
Quiet enough that they will not spoil a good nap!
There are alternatives to the lawn. Beds of native plants, for example, are not only beautiful, but also easy to maintain. Native species can be found for any growing condition.
Got shade? Try hazelnuts, wild ginger, Virginia bluebells and wild geraniums. Wet area? Nannyberry viburnum, river birch, sedges and Golden Alexanders are some species to consider. And for those hot, dry spots, I like New England aster, Compass plant, black-eyed Susan and Prairie coreopsis.
Before buying any new plants for one’s yard, check to make sure that the species chosen are not invasive in this area. The Chicago Botanic Garden maintains a handy guide to invasive plants that includes suggestions for alternatives.
I am fascinated by water.
Humans can only survive a few days without it, and our bodies are 65% water. Less than one percent of the water on planet earth is available for people to use because the vast majority of water is in the oceans (where it is too salty for humans to drink) or it is locked in the polar ice caps.
Water is so essential to life, yet so often taken for granted.
Here in McHenry County, all of the water people use comes from the ground. Municipal and private wells reach down into “groundwater aquifers” and pump water up to the surface.
Aquifers are not underground pools. In this area, aquifers are found where deposits of sand, gravel, or sandstone have water filling the spaces between sand particles (or filling cracks in the rock).
If the water in these aquifers is not replenished, they can run dry just like a river or pond can go dry. And the source of water to refill an aquifer is the same as that which fills our rivers and ponds – precipitation (rain-sleet-snow).
We had a severe drought last year. On average, our area receives about 37 inches of precipitation each year. In 2012 we received about 25 inches.
The drought of 2012 led many local rivers and streams to run dry (like the one on the left side of the accompanying photo). Many ponds are very low, and some have dried up altogether. Farmers are able to cultivate parts of fields that were too wet to farm just a year or two ago.
Groundwater aquifers face a double whammy during a drought. First off, people pull more water out of the ground to water their lawns, gardens and farm fields to compensate for the lack of rain. Additionally, with no precipitation, there is no new water to replenish the water we are pulling out of the ground.
There is one final challenge that aquifers face when there’s a drought. They take time to recover even when rain starts to fall again. After all, the precipitation must be able to soak into the ground is areas where the soil is permeable enough to allow the water to pass through 100 to 400 or more feet of material. It can take several years for water that hits the ground today to make it to the nearest aquifer where it becomes available for a well to pump to the surface.
So, if you are still looking for a resolution for 2013, how about “I won’t take water for granted”?
We worked with a group of 9 volunteers the other day to plant 120 oak trees. While taking a mid-morning donut break, folks were talking about whether or not we should be planting species other than native oaks because of climate change. The concern was that as the climate warms, the more northern species will not fare as well as species that are found further south.
I explained that the species of oak most commonly found in McHenry County – white, bur, red, black and scarlet (or Hill’s) – occur throughout the State of Illinois. That’s right, one can find these same species of trees in the southernmost part of the state with a climate more similar to southern Missouri than northern Illinois.
A couple of folks also mentioned the summer drought, wondering how we could possibly water the 2-4 year-old seedlings enough if there is a drought next year.
Frankly, we couldn’t, and we won’t. The oaks are on their own, as trees have been for millennia. I pointed to ten young oaks that were planted just two years ago, noting that they were all doing fine despite no additional water during the recent drought.
Just imagine, oaks were thriving on every continent except Antarctica long before humans were much more than food for larger animals. I’m guessing they have a few tricks up their genetic sleeves.
As we resumed digging and planting, I looked over at a nearby bur oak that was close to 300 years old. It grows on the fence line between the planting site and the adjoining farm field. That tree was growing in that same location before the Declaration of Independence was signed. That oak survived a series of droughts in the 1930s (known as the Dust Bowl years) and a severe drought from 1954-56.
We’ll keep planting oaks.
Drought. It's a serious problem this year, but I have been reluctant to write about it. Frankly, the images that come to my mind are not pretty.
I think of famine and pictures of small children with distended bellies and pencil-thin limbs.
I think of the Joad family in John Steinbeck's novel "The Grapes of Wrath." Families destroyed by the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. "Okies" moving to California - leaving home and property behind, hoping to find work somewhere, doing something, for someone. (If you never read the novel, I suggest adding it to your summer reading list).
I think of the shrinking amount of ice in the Arctic and Antarctic, and wonder about Global Warming. Looking at the maps showing the extent of the drought in just the United States, and reading the statistics of how many thousand "record" high temperatures have been broken in the US this year, I wonder if this is finally the moment when our country will acknowledge that this weather is far outside any statistical "norm."
I keep trying to think of the "bright side" of drought. No mosquitoes. That's good, right? Lots of sunshine! I have not had to mow the lawn since late May! Woo Hoo!
But then I think of the many birds and bats that count on the skeeters each summer for food. What are they doing? I guess the lack of insects explains why I've been seeing unusual birds at the bird feeders - like the Warbling Vireos. They are insect-eating birdsusually heard at the tops of trees, but with a lack of insects, they have to find food somewhere, so they visit the feeders.
Friends ask if they should be watering their oaks. I ask how large the tree is before answering.
If the oak is small, and was planted in the last few years, definitely water it - at least two gallons a week. And keep it mulched, but DO NOT pile mulch up around the trunk.
If the oak is mature, I remind folks that the tree has been through many droughts. The 2005 drought, the 1988 drought, the 1956 drought, the droughts in the 1930s, etc, etc. One of the reasons oaks are the signature tree of the prairie is because they were the tree species still standing after wildfires roared across the plains during the mid-summer droughts. Mulching at least out to the drip line of the tree is good - helps retain soil moisture, but otherwise, you just have to trust that mother nature will manage.
What about native plants like Purple Coneflowers, Milkweeds and Black-eyed Susans? Well, like the oaks, these flowering plants evolved in the open plains of the Grand Prairie. For thousands of years, they regularly were burned down to the ground, and re-grew from deep roots. It is their nature. They would not be native to this area if the occassional drought or devastating fire meant the species' demise.
Like the early European settlers who moved here looking for land to own and tend, the plants of the Grand Prairie are tough. Any plants that could not adapt to the harsh conditions (bitterly cold winters, summer heat and drought) did not make it.
How quickly will we - people, birds, insects, plants and animals - adapt if 2012 is in fact a preview of a "new normal"?
Two weeks ago, the weather experts were talking about how 2011 could turn out to be the driest July on record for the Chicago area. Well, driving to work today, I heard the news that July 2011 is now officially the wettest on record!
Would Mother Nature please make up her mind?
It's not like these have been "normal" rains either. They have been torrential rains, often accompanied by strong winds, wild lightning storms, fallen trees, electricity outages and flooding. Four or five inches of water falling in an hour. Nine inches in a 24 hour period. And not just one storm like that, but one storm after another, after another.
And, just like the "heat dome" I discussed earlier, this type of weather has been predicted as one of the by-products of global warming: more frequent, extreme weather events. Violent thunderstorms, massive, long-lived tornadoes, more Category 5 hurricanes.
Other predictions are coming to pass too. As reported by the BBC today, a 1,000 square mile area of Alaskan Arctic tundra burned in the summer of 2007. This was as much tundra as had burned cumulatively since 1950. So, for 57 years, an average of 18 acres of tundra burned each year. Then, in one year, 1,000 acres?
Remember, tundra rarely burns, because it is covered with ice and snow much of the year, and then kind of soggy during the very brief growing season. 2007 was a particularly dry year on the Arctic tundra, so, when a lightning strike ignited the fire in July, it was not extinguished until October when heavy snow snuffed it out.
Now, burning Arctic tundra isn't like a grass fire, or even a forest fire. The tundra is a type of habitat characterized by a layer of permafrost that can be as deep as 3 feet. Permafrost is an area of the soil that is always frozen. Only the top-most layer of the ground ever thaws - maybe 4-5 inches at the surface - just enough for small plants to grow in the very brief growing season.
Over millenia, this permafrost layer of perpetually frozen soil has served as a place where atmospheric carbon (CO2) was stored (sequestered). That is no longer the case, however. When permafrost actually dries out due to a combination of longer periods of time without snow cover and drier weather conditions, this previously stored carbon is released into the atmosphere again. Toss a fire on top of that, and the release of carbon is accelerated that much more.
In fact, while the tundra region was once considered a place where there was net storage of carbon each year, today it is a net releaser of carbon each year. Actually, release of carbon & methane, both so-called "greenhouse" gases because of the way they collect in the atmosphere and help to magnify the warming effects of the sun.
If you are like me at all, you are now thinking "Gee, thanks for that depressing bit of information that I can't do anything about!"
But that's when we need to pick ourselves up and change our thinking. We may not be able to directly stop the burning tundra, but each of us can surely start making decisions that will at least contribute in some small way to slowing the global forces that are accelerating around us.
My favorite quote ever is from Gandhi. It hangs on my wall. "Be the change you wish to see in the world." Do what you can. Lead by example. Do it now.