A week or so ago, we visited the St. Michaels area in Maryland. And the corn was bad.
I mean the corn in the fields,not all of which had been harvested yet. Have you seen corn growing? Are you familiar with it? When corn plants are stressed, the leaves, which usually have wavy edges and an arched, downward-pointing shape, instead become straight and point upward, like green swords. I’ve seen them like that often, but it’s usually temporary; eventually, rains come, and the plants relax. What I saw last week was different. The corn plants had stayed stressed right through to the end of their season, and the stood, dry and ready for harvest, leaves still pointing at the sky, the stems abnormally thin. The harvest was starting to come in, and we heard that in some places, the yield was a third of normal.
I see drought in Maryland often–usually mild, sometimes moderate, but it is often. And it’s part of climate change.
It’s not that climate change is making Maryland drier overall; in fact, Maryland’s annual precipitation is increasing slightly. But the increase is coming in the winter and the spring. Summer and Fall have about the same precipitation that they always have, but higher air temperatures have increased evaporation and transportation, leaving the soil drier during the growing season. And of course, as in other areas, more of the precipitation we do get is in large storms, leaving longer, drier, periods of no rain in between.
But, as I said, I’ve never seen the corn look so bad–which is why it surprised me to see that the area is not under a severe drought.
I took a look at the US Drought Monitor, a website that doesn’t archive its pages, meaning that the link won’t show the same information next week. My area is not listed as in drought at all; that’s correct, though we are borderline. It’s raining now, and we were starting to need it badly. About half the rest of the state is listed as “abnormally dry,” which, according to the key at the bottom of the page, is enough to stunt crops and increase fire danger. And the area immediately around the Chesapeake Bay, which includes St. Michaels, is in “moderate drought,” which is enough to reduce grain yields–and, curiously, honey production.
However, the actual conditions on the ground seem rather worse than that. Eyeballing drought severity is a pretty unreliable activity at best, but the Drought Monitor site does include a note that it “focuses on broad-scale conditions. Local conditions may vary.” Just as a picture made of pixels obscures detail smaller than a pixel, the scale Drought Monitor uses must reduce areas below a certain size to a kind of average. There may be patches of severe drought that are smaller than that.
In California, electricity is being shut off during periods of high fire danger because of the possibility of sparks from electrical cables causing wildfires. That certainly sounds dramatic, as though California’s drought must have entered new, unprecedented territory–but California’s famous megadrought is over. The US Drought Monitor shows only a few areas of “abnormally dry” on the edges of the state. But parts of California are fire-prone even when conditions are normal, and while this has been a very quiet year for fire (my husband is a fire fighter and keeps me informed) the terrible consequences of sparking power lines last year may have inspired an abundance of caution.
The reason I’ve brought all this up is to highlight the difficulty of assessing climate stories. Based on widely-available information, there is no extreme-weather emergency in Maryland at present, but since we know actual farmers, we know one is, indeed, in progress–and that there was one last year as well. Conversely, the stories about the electricity shut-offs in California suggest an unprecedented degree of fire risk, yet at least some evidence suggests that what we’re seeing is an unprecedented (but possibly quite correct) responses to typical fire risk. But what truth would someone on the ground reveal?
Climate change is real, and it is serious, and it is an emergency. And its symptoms can easily be different, or much worse, than the stories we hear on the news suggest.