20 Years of Climate Change in At My House

By December 16, 2012 March 13th, 2013 Austin, Uncategorized

Welcome to climate change. It gets weirder every day. 

An old old friend saw a white-tail hawk in Manvel last week. Manvel is just south of Houston and is an uncommon sighting on the far northern edge of this Mexican bird’s normal territory. We have red bud trees blooming in Austin on the first day of December–with their old crop of last summer’s leaves still hanging on. The red bud tree is a spring bloomer that puts on spectacular display—in the spring.  I have been a native plant nut for thirty years in Austin and never seen a single one bloom before spring. The cardinals have been signing their spring song for two or three weeks now. I have heard them singing in December before though it’s not common. The Spanish oaks seemed to have changed color about three or four weeks early. They normally peak about Christmas Day or the week before and over Thanksgiving, driving around the region looking for turkey of course, some places looked as if they were beginning to peak in the Hill Country.

Several big limbs started to change on my big Shumard oak in my back yard. These are first cousin to the Spanish oaks. Big limbs turning color by themselves are not common for the fall leaf turn, but big limbs browning by themselves are an indicator of extreme water stress. The drought continues here in Austin, so I gave that big old tree a good long drink. It stopped changing color. I called up my favorite local meteorologists friend of two decades to tell him these oddities (we both belong to the same weather geek club) and he told me a bout a pecan he saw leafing out don along the river.  A PECAN!  Pecans are the single species that leaves out last every spring—in late March most years for goodness sakes. This is Central Texas remember. We are farther south than Baton Rouge and Tallahassee Florida and all of California, Arizona and New Mexico.

Dayflower has started blooming in my backyard, another thing I have ever, ever seen before spring arrived true and proper. Yesterday I discovered a healthy crop of young blister beetles on my tomato bush that’s almost as big as a VW beetle and I have cabbage loopers for goodness sakes! Cabbage loopers are those moth caterpillars that eat up your brassicas—that include broccoli, mustard and kale as well as cabbage and Brussels sprouts. They are common in the spring, but rare to unheard of in December. 

Diligence in the veggie garden will get you a tomato bush the size of a Central American settlement in Central Texas in December, it’s not that difficult if one has been practice gardening for 20 years. Covering up the plants with blankets extends their growing season, sheltering them from the first freezes of the season and allowing the fruit put on since summer’s heat subsided to ripen on the vine. Since the turn of the century, it has been easier and easier to have tomatoes in the garden on Christmas Day and once, three or four years ago, I had them in the garden on New Year’s day. Tomatoes also don’t set fruit all summer long in Austin either. It’s just too hot. When the nighttime temp goes above 70 and or the daytime temp goes above 90, they just quit setting fruit. Most gardeners ‘round here simply give up and let their vines die. But us diehards nurse their plants though until October when the flowers start setting again.

Yes I said October. It’s hot down here folks. Our summers are brutal. We had 90 days of 100 degree plus heat during the great drought in 2011. Normally we only have eleven days above 100 degrees. OUr summers are just as brutal as Northern Minnesota’s winters, only in reverse. Most folks just don’t go outside during the summer except to get to the cars.

As of December 10 I have not had a good freeze yet for the umpteenth year in a row. The average first freeze in Austin is right before Thanksgiving and on the western edge of town down in the valleys out in the Hill Country proper, maybe mid November or a few days earlier.

It rained three times this year at my house so that one would notice. Each time the rainy spell lasted a week or two and we got 6 to 10 inches of rain. Other than that we have had very few intermediate and small sized rain events and the woods look like hell.  They are not as bad as the unprecedented drought in 2011, but it’s like the end of a hotter than normal summer.

I have been gardening in this same spot for 22 years. That’s just about long enough to claim scientific validity with statistical evaluation of weather records. But, I don’t have continuous records.  I did religiously keep daily highs and lows for four or five years right after I moved in, but that’s really not enough to make hay over so this story—scientifically—is baseless. Realistically is another story.

We don’t get the big cold snaps any longer. Ask any gardener around here, it rarely gets as cold as it once did in winter. Without doing the stats, it’s hard to say for certain what the change has been, but the absence of multiple events in the teens every year is obvious to anyone who grows a winter garden. Winter garden? Texas remember, south of Baton Rogue. You should see our winter lettuce, beets, spinach, brocolli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, onions, mustard and collards-oooooweeee!

Rainfall events have been getting larger and spaced farther apart. We have been talking about this since the turn of the century. This is one of those things that many of us have heard the climate scientists warn us of for twenty years. In their published works they have actually been warning us since the mid 1970s. Remember that myth about the coming ice age in the 1970s? All myths are based on some shred of fact—or at least many are and this is no exception. There was a couple of papers that did indeed talk of the coming of the next ice age back then, but more importantly, there were several more papers that talked about global warming. Those works told us that climate variability was large and the decades-long cooling trend after World War II was likely just a natural cooling period.  We later came to understand that that post-war cooling was caused by war itself (fires, smoke), the industrial war machine, and post-war economic recovery made possible by the rapid industrialization of the war machine.

Climate scientists have been actively telling us for about four decades that rainfall events would shift towards the extreme, drought and insect infestations would become more prominent and this is exactly what has been happening in my garden in Oak Hill, just southwest of Austin. They also told us in the 1980s that it would be twenty years before there would be enough data to know if what was happening. Sure-nuf, the stats are in and that was climate change happening way back then. There has been enough time for data to be collected and it has been shown to be statistically valid. That was climate change back then and it has become more extreme since.

Impacts are large enough that they can be seen by the unaided eye now. Me and my fellow gardeners around Austin noticed the third or fourth year after it began that something was up. If I had to nail a date when the trend started it would be the year of the big Super El Nino, 1998.It was already on our minds during Y2k. We were speculating then, but heeding the words of the climate scientists’ statistical rules.

Shifts like these are becoming the norm, not the rarity they once were. The reason for this post was an email from a friend concerning a recent uncommon bird sighting. This sighting was of a white-tailed hawk in Manvel, just south of Houston. This sighting was at the very northern limits of the birds range and is uncommon, but not unheard of. I saw a white-tail hawk in Big Bend about 20 years ago. Big Bend is not in its range either. These things do happen, especially if one looks hard enough for a long enough period. But those were rules for the 20th century. Today, we have been warned for 20 years that this sort of thing would happen on a warming world. We have been warned of superstorms like Sandy and Irene and Ike. These were Category 1 and 2 hurricanes with the power and depth of damage of a full blown major Cat 4 or Cat 5 hurricane. Sandy is poised to become the most costly hurricane in United States history at over $100 billion-exceeding Katrina. Sandy was a Cat 1 hurricane at landfall. The snowmeggedons over the last five to seven years have all been blamed on a warming Arctic and a hyper-active jet stream because of all of the extra energy in the Arctic.

In 2007 Arctic sea ice shattered its old maximum melt record and scientists said it was a fluke. they said that if it happens again anytime soon, maybe it would be important. last summer, Arctic sea ice beat it’s 2007 melt record by nearly as much at it shattered the previous record—get this—that  was set in just 2005. We have had string of extreme droughts and heat waves across the planet, all unprecedented. 55,000 were killed in the Moscow heat wave of 2010. Over 1,600 (sixteen hundred) homes were destroyed by wildfire in the 2011 drought in Texas in Central Texas alone. The most homes ever burned in Central Texas in any single wildfire fire year before can be counted on one hand.

Two droughts in the Amazon, one in 2005 and the other in 2010 have created a carbon source from what should be a tropical forest soaking up carbon, not emitting it. The switch was caused by two droughts that killed over two billion trees. The first in 2005 was a 100-year drought. The second in 2010 was four times more extreme. The Amazon is emitting greenhouse gases every year—not absorbing like forests are supposed to do—nearly as many greenhouse gases (75 percent) as the entire population of the United States does every year.

Many climate scientists are still telling us that natural variability of these things could be blamed, that we still do not have enough data to finger climate change. The media picks up on this like the perceived controversy that it is and dumps their “reporting” on us without reflecting on the fundamental principles they have been reporting on for decades. Some of this talk about “knowing for certain”  is valid, but some is not. An increasing body of statistical evidence is mounting that shows that we do have enough data to know now—we were certainly told that we would have enough data to know by now. We have been warned that this would happen. Now that it has, our society balks at identifying responsibility. Or maybe I should say, our society balks irresponsibly at claiming the obvious.