Drought, farms, and climate change

On the morning news, I heard the staggering statistics that California, which is in extreme drought, uses 80% of its water for agriculture, growing a third of the US supply of fruits and vegetables. It has already taken some farmland out of production or substituted crops that use less water. Meanwhile, it is in its fourth year of drought with snowpack under 5% of normal. As in over 95% of normally expected runoff water will not be there this year.

This should be setting off all kinds of alarm bells across the country. We need to shift our food production to more local areas and sustainable practices. Now, not in some distant future. We need to change our expectation of what foods we eat in which season of the year. When I was growing up, we ate fresh sweet corn in mid- to late-summer, when nearby farms were harvesting. We would prepare extra corn, cut it off the cob, and freeze it to eat at other times of year. We need to get back to this sense of eating fresh foods locally and preserving the extra produce to eat later rather than expecting California to send us strawberries in February. Certainly some crops, like citrus fruits, will not grow throughout the country, but others, like salad greens, can be grown close to where they are consumed, even in northern urban centers in winter where they can be grown indoors.

During the long slog fighting against shale gas development in New York State, I used many arguments against various aspects of this industrialization of our state. One of them was that, in this time of shifting climate, we needed to preserve our New York farms and forests for food production. Much of the farmland in the US is projected to have major droughts and heat waves as atmospheric carbon increases, including California and the Great Plains/Midwest farm belt. The Northeast, while expected to warm, is not expected to have severe issues with water supply. New York must assiduously protect its soils, water, and air from pollution in order to feed itself and other states as climate stressors increase.

Hawai’i and Climate Change

Hawai’i is the inhabited place that is most distant from any other inhabited place in the world. Because of its isolation, Hawai’i is home to more endemic species than anywhere else on earth. Endemic means that a species is found just in that one area and nowhere else on earth. In such a remote location in the middle of the Pacific, one is tempted to think that climate change won’t affect the islands, but that is a mistake. There is a reason that climate change often appears with the adjective “global” in front of it.

The ecosystems and microclimates of Hawai’i are already complicated, due to topography. There are dry leeward sides and wet windward sides. The height of some of the volcanoes creates an alpine ecosystem. The peak of Kaua’i is the wettest place on earth, averaging over 450 inches of rain a year, yet other areas are deserts. There are tropical, temperate, and dryland forests.

Yet, even here, the climate is changing noticeably. The trade winds are what keeps Hawai’i from being as hot and humid as one would expect at this latitude, yet more and more often the trade winds stop blowing. This creates longer periods of hot, humid weather, even when it isn’t summer. Most of our time in Honolulu, there was a heat wave, despite it being early May. The trades dying down exacerbates vog, which is smog caused by volcanic ash. Given that Kilauea has been erupting continuously, the airborne ash can travel to other islands and create air quality problems for them. When the trade winds die down, the ash levels build up and people with breathing difficulties suffer.

The native Hawaiians named only two seasons, the rainy season and the hot season. In our current terms, the rainy season was late fall through early spring, but, as we see in other parts of the world, weather tends to be more extreme, so the wet season tends to be wetter and longer, with more possibilities of thunderstorms, which had been very rare. Meanwhile, the hot season is hotter and can get much more humid when the trade winds die down, which is happening much more frequently than in the past.

The increased dryness of the dry ecosystems makes them more vulnerable to drought. When we were on the leeward side of the Big Island, there were many signs warning of extreme fire danger. Wildfire is especially dangerous in Hawai’i because the plants evolved there without that threat, so they are not adapted to survive or re-populate after it. The problem is made worse by invasive species, such as fountain grass which grows on relatively fresh lava flows, making them useless as natural fire breaks. When we visited Ka’upulehu , Wilds was telling us about some of the problems that climate change is causing for them in their mission to restore a native dryland forest, one of which was the need to maintain fire breaks around the perimeter to protect the native plants.

The people of Hawai’i are working to reduce their carbon footprint to help fight climate change. There are many more electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles here, along with public charging stations. Rooftop solar photovoltaics and hot water are common. There is a light rail system being built in Honolulu to alleviate wasted time and fuel on the highway. There is some utilization of geothermal power, as well.

I have already been trying to do my part to combat climate change and this trip makes those efforts seem that much more important. I hope you will join me in work toward energy efficiency and renewable energy for the sake of extraordinarily beautiful Hawai’i and the rest of the world.