climate change

A Glimpse of the Climate Future?

It was time for the yearly drive down to the Bay Area in California to visit my family, and we made a few alarming observations.

1. Lake Shasta was as low as I've ever seen it in my life! An article written in May noted a 90-foot drop in the water level, and I can just add that June, July, and half of August have done nothing to improve matters. In fact, if I'd seen the water at the level pictured in the May article, it wouldn't have freaked me out as much. Let's just say that if a drought like this ever hit Loch Ness, Nessie would have to evolve into a land animal.

2. California was importing cherries from Washington State! What the heck? My mom brought out a bag of Bing cherries from glorious Washington. Back when I was growing up, you could visit Bing cherry farms in San Jose, and now the cherries had to come from Washington? Drought drought drought.

3. The San Jose Mercury ran this graph in an article over the weekend:

The tan-colored bars are bad news. I remember those wet years in the 80s, and they were no picnic either, but mostly because drizzle depresses Californians even more than Washingtonians because they've developed neither tolerance nor secret love for it.

What does this all mean? I think it means two things:

1. Food prices will continue to climb. Our wallets have taken a hit these past couple years, and it's going to get worse. Even if you're a farmers-marketgoer, buying local as much as possible--if the rest of the country starts buying up Washington-grown foods, that means higher prices for all of us.

2. You'll want to hang on to your house and consider retiring in the Pacific Northwest because there are going to be more articles like this. Meteorologist Cliff Mass predicts that the PNW will fare way better than the rest of the country as the world warms, in terms of rainfall, rising ocean levels, heat waves, and freak storms. And even if you believe global warming is so much hooey, droughts are facts, and so far Washington State has shown more drought resilience:

It's relative of course. I think, no matter where you live in the country, people are going to have to get creative about getting and retaining water, but at least the PNW still gets plenty in Western Washington (take the crazy showers of the past day)--we just have to get creative about capturing all that wetness.

In any case, be sure to load up on our in-demand fruits and vegetables and farm goods at the Market this Thursday and Saturday, before the rest of the country cottons on to how spoiled we are!

And I leave you with a picture of much water, to relieve your mind. This is Crater Lake. Granted, it took thousands of years of snowfall and rainfall for the lake to reach its present depth (and last year they only received half of normal snowfall), but doesn't it do your heart good to see it? It was clean enough to drink, and we drank it!

Crater Lake National Park

Get Out and Garden to Save the Planet!

I think I've mentioned before that I have the opposite of a green thumb. I kill everything. Herbs, houseplants, cacti(!). Even cut flowers don't last long around me. Maybe because I have three kids, it seems I cannot handle one more living thing that requires something from me. So pets are out of the question, and even plants suffer passive-aggressive neglect.

Which means it's up to the rest of you to save the planet.

The good news is, I'm reading a fascinating book about how easy it will be to do.

We knew plants were a good deal, global-warmingwise, locking away climate carbon dioxide as fast as they could grow, but who knew what an integral role healthy soil plays?

According to author Kristin Ohlson, a mere teaspoon of healthy soil contains 1-7 billion microorganisms--bacteria, fungi, protozoa, tiny worms called nematodes--all doing their microscopic part in "one of life's great biological partnerships." From the roots of the plant, "the microorganisms [receive] precious carbon sugars as well as protein and carbohydrates"; in return, they break down minerals in the soil and supply it to the plant. The minerals allow the plant to add mass (i.e., grow bigger and sock away more carbon for us). So long-evolved and specific is this system that 99% of soil organisms cannot be grown in a lab. Different ones come into play at different times, depending on temperature and moisture levels. Not only do the plants store carbon, but the soil does as well. Carbon richness gives healthy soil that black, crumbly appearance, like Oreo cookie crumbs after a soaking in butter, before you shape them into cheesecake crust...ahem--but I digress.

When healthy soil washes or blows away, due to plowing(!) or poor land management, all that carbon gets returned to the atmosphere. Ohlson writes that, "up until the 1950s most of the excess carbon dioxide in the air resulted from the ways humans used their land and forests." Certainly the Dust Bowl contributed mightily, when thousands of acres of soil blew away, after being plowed and exposed to merciless drought. Without the prairie grasses and their roots to tamp everything down, it all just took off in the next gust.

As much as 80% of the carbon has been depleted from soil, in places where people have farmed for millennia, but even more recent farmlands such as Ohio have lost 50% of their soil carbon in just a couple centuries. Alarming news, but not irreversible by any means. If we can replenish the carbon in depleted soils and preserve the rich soils that remain, Ohlson argues that we can dial back the thermostat on Planet Earth. Let the earth's natural systems regain the balance! It's enough to make me want to rip out the kids' play structure and let the blackberries take over.

How can we keep those precious organic systems in place, where soil is still healthy? Practice no-till farming. Don't overgraze. Leave organic mulch in place to hold soil down and feed it.

And what about the depleted soil? How can it be restored? Some of the solutions discussed in the book include controlled grazing (animals = poop and biomatter crunched into the soil); no-till farming; cover crops; and no artificial inputs. Let the multitudinous bugs come back, and a few weeds. One study found that, when a field was covered in a 2-3 species cover crop, sediment runoff decreased by 90% and fertilizer runoff by 50%!

Healthy soil filters water before it enters streams and aquifers. It mitigates flooding and wildfire. Its ability to store water, because it is not compacted, allows the plants it supports to resist drought. Good stuff.

The optimism of this book made me want to run out and start soil farming, but Ohlson points out that even we city-dwellers can contribute. American lawns constitute the largest irrigated crop in the country, occupying 3x the space of corn. We can build good soil right where we live. Let a little clover intermix--it's a nitrogen-fixing legume which makes added fertilizer unnecessary. (Made me wonder if our big patches of moss were also helping...) And, her second suggestion: compost compost compost.

In Bellevue we're fortunate that our city will compost for us, if we're too space-limited or lazy, but since I write this the day of the Mariners home opener, I will also mention Safeco Field's awesome composting efforts.

Last season at a game, local Cedar Grove handed out bags of soil made from yard waste. Since the Mariners had gone down in flames that day (or petered out with a whimper, more like), the bag of soil almost made up for it.

What could this year be like? A winning team and richer soil that might just save the world.