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Forget 'proving' climate change. Heartland farmers know it's begun, and it doesn’t look good.
STUART, Neb. — For lifelong rancher Susan Straka, 46, the most potent image of climate change isn’t a melting glacier or the rising sea.
It’s a burning cow.
At the height of a crippling drought last year, an errant spark touched off a vast wildfire near Straka’s ranch in the sand hills 200 miles west of Omaha. Fire consumed more than 300,000 acres of Nebraska’s plains in 2012, including one pasture where Straka and her neighbors failed to reach their cattle in time.
The mother-calf pairs were nearly dead when she found them, tails and ears scorched to stumps. Shooting the animals was an act of mercy.
“I used a rifle on the cows, a pistol on calves,” Straka said. Her voice caught and trailed off as she remembered, “To see things suffer like that … ”
She sat on the flatbed of her Chevy pickup, rubbing a calloused palm into her eye. A hardy soul who once rode out a tornado outdoors, on horseback, here she was, choking up in front of strangers.
Ranching has long been a trade for tough-minded gamblers, obliging producers to routinely bet their savings on future prices and patterns of rain. But in Straka’s view, Western Nebraska’s fiery dry spell in 2012 marked a shift to an entirely new game, where the weather has stopped following any recognizable pattern at all.
“We had two bad years of flooding and then got slapped in the face with two really bad years of drought,” Straka said. “We got people who never believed in climate change who are really scared right now.”
In the last five years, weather across the American heartland has whipsawed between extremes. Fires and downpours, 100-year floods and record-breaking dry spells have all seemed to hit harder and more frequently than before.
While not all farmers believe the mayhem represents evidence of a warming world, many climate scientists do. Their research increasingly suggests that violent weather will become the new normal in America’s breadbasket — a shift with potentially profound implications for our food supply.
The United States leads the world in staples like corn, beef and soybeans. Because the vast majority of these US foodstuffs are produced in the heartland, changes to climate here can affect dinner tables around the world.
“It’s one of the preeminent issues facing society today,” said Nebraska Farmer’s Union President John Hansen, who says his group’s public backing of climate science has found friendlier ears of late, even in a solidly conservative state.
“There’s still a lot of climate change deniers out there, but there’s not very many weather deniers,” Hansen said. “When it’s hot and dry, you don’t go out and give your corn ideology. You give it water, or it dies.”
Weirder, not just warmer
The hotter the world’s climate gets, the more energetic its weather tends to become.
But Jennifer Francis, a Rutgers University climate researcher, says the link between warmer global temperatures and wilder American weather may be even more direct.
To begin with, she says the warming trend is no longer a matter of debate.
“We’re at our 340th month in a row of above-average temperatures, in terms of the global mean, which is a pretty mind-boggling statistic,” Francis said. “Anybody who’s younger than 28 years old has never seen an average temperature month.”
These higher global temperatures are having all kinds of effects. One of the easiest to measure is the Arctic’s melting sea ice. In the summer of 2012, the ice dwindled to the smallest area recorded since satellite tracking began 35 years ago.
Ice reflects sunlight, so it helps keep the Arctic colder than the regions directly to the south. As anyone who’s felt the blast from an open window in winter knows, differences in temperature cause air to move.
Similarly, the temperature gap between the Arctic and the rest of the hemisphere gives rise to a band of steady winds called the jet stream that governs weather patterns across the region.
Your location relative to the jet stream “says everything about the weather conditions that you’re experiencing,” Francis said.
As the Arctic warms, the temperature gap between north and south narrows. Francis’ research suggests this causes jet stream winds to slow down, and the path of the jet stream to meander.
That prompts weather