The paleoclimate record shouts to us that, far from being self-stabilizing, the Earth’s climate system is an ornery beast which overreacts even to small nudges.
― Wallace Smith Broecker (b. 1931), Newberry Professor, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Columbia University
Hold onto your hat and reach for your wallet
Summer thunderstorms, some with locally heavy rain falls, are part of life here in the North Country, but there is much evidence to suggest violent storms and torrential rains are becoming more frequent and more severe.
The climate change argument is over if you live in this part of the world, but the discussion of what to do about it is just beginning. It is beyond the power of any one rural community to reverse or even stabilize global warming and the severe weather events it is causing, but although we cannot control it we will be forced to deal with it. Looking over the ever-increasing damage caused by torrential rain falls over the past 10 years, my thought is “hold onto your hat and reach for your wallet.”
An old farmer who grew up in this county remembers one of the most dreaded chores of his childhood: after each rainfall his father made him walk the half mile to the rain gauge mounted on a corner post of a row crop field to record the amount of precipitation. Sixty years later he still lives on the home place and has continued to check that rain gauge after every shower. He said that during his boyhood, from about 1940 to 1950, the family’s weather records show only two storms that brought rainfalls of four inches or more in a 24-hour period. “Now we have four-inch rain storms all the time,” he said.
The rain gauge records on one farm do not constitute proof of climate change, but his observations and conclusions are supported both by official weather records and anecdotal comments from other folks who have lived their entire lives here. They talk about the increased severity of rain storms over the past 20-some years, and although any one person’s memory can be unreliable I believe there is validity in these recollections of a group of rural people who have been connected to the land for a half century or more.
I did some research. Over the course of 124 years of official weather records (1893-2016), total precipitation in the county has averaged 34.73 inches per year. In the past 10 years (2006-2015) the average has been 37.23. That 10-year average will be somewhat higher at the end of this record-setting rainfall year.
An additional 2.5 inches of precipitation does not seem much of an increase, only 7 percent, but instead of arriving in relatively small and evenly distributed amounts through the course of 12 months, it falls in deluge summer rains. During our 30 years on the farm we have noticed that recent winters are now more “open,” with much less accumulation of snow. Having less snow to shovel could be considered a good thing, but the other side of the coin is the higher amounts of rainfall during spring and summer months and the increasing severity of storms that hang over us for one to four days, drenching the already super-saturated land with cloudbursts of 3 inches or more.
The result is major flooding. In 1993, the county experienced what was termed a “once in 100 years flood.” There have been two more hundred-year floods since 1993, and two additional years when lesser but still serious flooding caused major damage in parts of the county.
County supervisors have surveyed this year’s flood damage to county roadways and estimate the cost of repairs will exceed $1.5 million. In a county of fewer than 8,000 households, that’s about $190 each in road repair costs alone. Damage to private property has been far greater; several millions of dollars will be spent to repair home and business foundations, flooded basements, water-damaged facilities, vehicles, equipment, and other devastation. Those costs will of course be reflected in higher insurance premiums.
A contributing factor to the damage caused by runoff from farm fields is the change in farming methods over the past 10 years as the “ethanol boom” in subsidized corn production has vastly decreased the number of acres of farmland enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (which tend to retain water) and increased the acreage in row crops (which tend to shed water). A drive around the county will also reveal to the critical eye that row crop fields are bigger, water control practices (grass waterways, terraces, catch ponds, riparian buffer strips) have been reduced or removed from many, and there has been a rush to tile out fields that once had marshy low spots.
The result has been much faster runoff that quickly fills roadside ditches, then floods waterways, then creeks, then rivers. A few thousand gallons of rainwater over-filling a marshland are a nuisance. Millions of gallons of rainwater overflowing the banks of rivers, flowing over roadways, washing out culverts and bridges and home foundations are a disaster. But instead of implementing farming practices that mitigate the damage caused by severe weather we have created incentives for industrial agriculture that exacerbate the problems.
We are probably past tipping point in the levels of CO2 we have pumped into the atmosphere, the major contributor to global warming and its attendant weather manifestations. The deluge is going to come, so we have to make some hard and expensive decisions on how we are going to deal with it. Flood prevention and control measures are perfectly feasible and easily within our current technological and engineering capabilities. What’s lacking is the political will and the financial commitment.
After our hats have been blown off another dozen times, and we have had to reach for our wallets more and more frequently to pay the direct and indirect costs of property damage and human suffering caused by global warming we will be motivated to take action.
Years of greatest precipitation in Winneshiek County, Iowa
Rank Year Precipitation
1 1993 49.11
2 2007 47.43
3 2004 46.27
4 1938 45.75
5 2013 45.71
6 1951 45.04
7 2016 44.58 (as of Sept. 20)
8 1942 44.25
9 1902 42.69
10 2008 42.30
Official weather records for Decorah, Iowa date back to 1893, a period of 124 years. By the end of 2016 six of the highest precipitation years will have occurred in the past 24 years. As of September 20 of this year, the National Weather Service has recorded 44.58 inches of precipitation in our county, which would place 2016 in the top 10 years of annual rainfall. NWS today issued flashflood warnings for our area, predicting 2 to 3 inches of rain in the next 48 hours.
Addendum: official total precipitation for Winneshiek County, Iowa for the calendar year 2016 was 56.59 inches, 7.48 inches more than the previous record of 49.11 inches, set in 1993. Years of greatest precipitation in Winneshiek County, Iowa. Note that five of the top 10 have occurred in the past 13 years.
Rank Year Precipitation
1 2016 56.59
2 1993 49.11
3 2007 47.43
4 2004 46.27
5 1938 45.75
6 2013 45.71
7 1951 45.04
8 1942 44.25
9 1902 42.69
10 2008 42.30
More stories about wildlife, outdoor adventures, hunting, fishing, and life in the North Country are published in my three collections of essays, Crazy Old Coot, Old Coots Never Forget, and Coot Stews , and my novel, Hunting Birds. All are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com, and in paperback edition throughIndieBoundindependent bookstores.