guest post: “Rain, Rain Go Away?”

Here’s another brief note from Ancilla College campus minister Albert Escanilla, reflecting on the 2018 flooding in Northern Indiana (which I covered here and here with one more still to come). Followed by a couple photos.

It was late February morning, and the birds’ singing outside was a warm welcome from our eventful February month surrounding the topic of the weather.  The last several weeks of February was a time where we saw some of Mother Nature’s fury. We began with a blizzard in the second week of February, then followed by a thick fog and heavy rain, which then resulted in severe flooding all across the Marshall and Starke Counties. All these weather occurrences proved to be troublesome to the Center at Donaldson communities, especially to our coworkers and student commuters.

All these weather related happenings were burdensome to many, even though it has always been part of Mother Nature’s course. However, when looking at the contrasting views from that statement, “burdensome” and “always been”, it prompts the question of why it is so? Our struggles and frustrations surrounding the inevitable (weather), are often derived from our impressions of how Mother Nature “ought to be”, and how she “must conform to us”, instead of us needing to conform to her.

Therefore, if our mindsets were to shift, could we see Mother Nature’s “fury” be more so as a “friendly reminder”? Is it possible to view the blizzard, and the fog to be symbolic of our own clouded and worried mind; which many can agree the need for us to slow down in our self-imposed “busyness”? Can the heavy rains and current flooding, which forced many to take alternative routes to work, be seen as a metaphor of our lives needing a different route from what we are comfortable with?  After all, Marshall and Starke Counties’ swamp flooding are never a burden to Mother Nature, it is only so for us as we forget that our status quo does not equate to Mother Nature’s will.

Mother Nature can teach us vast amounts of knowledge, as she has unique ways of reminding us of our “human-ness”, and how Our Divine Creator works. As the great scientist, Albert Einstein had once said, “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” Thus, if we are to be more mindful and in harmony, our resistance (“ought to be”) should shift into acceptance (“is”); and that slight adjustment, does make an immense difference.

“Some people feel the rain. Others just gets wet.” -Bob Marley -Albert Peace.

I had posted this photo earlier. It was taken March 5, 12 days post-rainfall, looking East. You are looking at about a million gallons of water.

If you will please excuse my poor photography skills, below is a photo from yesterday morning, March 23. It is from the same side of the road, but looking Northeast. The surface water is finally almost gone, though there is plenty of left in the soil and just below the surface. This pasture stored water for over a month. There has been a little precipitation in the meantime, but not much… we’ve been pretty dry, and sunny (lots of evaporation and evapotranspiration). This was plenty of time for floodwaters to recede, and even enough time for certain small animals, insects, or microorganisms to complete critical portions of their life cycles (if the surrounding habitat were appropriate). It may have also provided a brief resting spot for the waterfowl that have been migrating northward.

some recent stories and research

Feeling a little busy now. Sunny days are here. Crocuses are blooming… and I’m scrambling to get the logistics lined up for spring burns.

Lots of news… below is a peak over my shoulder at what I’m reading these days. No time now to comment/blog on each of these stories individually (for what that’s worth!).

But first, a photo quiz. Any idea what we’re doing here? I spent several hours up at the Dunes Lakeshore last week…

Another (easy) quiz. What happened here? Can’t believe how lucky I was to find this scene… not staged, I promise!

 

Ok, now news…

1) The New York Times put together an amazing piece on Louisiana’s disappearing coastal lands: “Left to Louisiana’s Tides, A Village Fights for Time“. One quote in the story: “It is the largest ecological catastrophe in North America since the Dust Bowl.”

2) The Purdue University Climate Change Research Center just dropped the first installment of their Indiana Climate Change Impacts Assessment.

One particularly eyeball-popping projection is for Southern Indiana, where number of extreme heat days (>95 degrees F) is expected to rise from an average of 7 days per summer to 38-51 days.

3) The Indianapolis Star did a piece on the status of Indiana forests. I feel they covered several important ecological points quite well, although I’m not crazy with the somewhat misanthropic headline.

4) “Indiana DNR proposes to allow hunting and trapping of bobcats.” (IndyStar)

4) “Spring is running 20 days early. It’s exactly what we expect, but it’s not good.” (Washington Post)

 

5) Climate change events plotted against your personal life timeline.

6) “Notre Dame encouraging kids to combat climate change.” (ABC 57)

7) New data is in on overwintering monarchs. What we might do about it.

8) “Welcome to the Age of Climate Migration” (Rolling Stone). Haven’t read yet, but an eye-catching title.

2018 flood revisited (part 1): implications of land use

Ok, I promised to follow up coverage of the historic northern Indiana flood with a little science. We’ll start first with hydrology, then move to climate in part 2. Human economies and cultures intersect with both of these.

Six inches or more of rain came down from Feb 19-21. This is more than we might typically get over the entire months of January and February. This also occurred after a large snow melt off, so the soils were already completely saturated.

Where does the water go? Temperatures were cool, so there was almost no evaporation happening. A small amount of water percolated down into the water table, but this is typically a slow process and doesn’t happen everywhere. The rest had to go somewhere. A large amount of water flows horizontally through the soil and can re-emerge at ditches and streams, where the water table meets the surface. The rest of the water flows over land.

There is a lag time between the rain event and the peak crest of a large stream or river, as water takes some time to make its way to the central channel. Through land use changes, we have shortened up this lag time and our waterways are now “flashier” than they would be in a more vegetated state; that is, they reach peak quicker and at a higher altitude (flood).

Image by Recon Media / Josh Walker, Feb 21, 2018. Just before peak crest.

What changes have we made? Esteemed Indiana botantist Paul Rothrock writes,

Since the early nineteenth century the Indiana landscape has undergone a massive transformation. In the pre-settlement period, Indiana was an almost unbroken blanket of forests, prairies, and wetlands. Much of the land was cleared, plowed, or drained for lumber, the raising of crops, and a range of urban and industrial activities.

In the 1904 Marshall County soil survey, the authors notes:

The greater part of the county was originally covered with a heavy growth of timber, consisting principally of walnut, oak, and poplar. This timber, except that little that was used for building material, was either burned or destroyed in any possibly way to clear the land. As the country because more thickly settled and transportation facilities improved, the lumber business became an important industry in the development of the county. The period from 1860 to 1870 was the most prosperous for this industry.

These changes meant less vegetated cover in the “headwaters” (upper reaches) of our watershed. Each branch, leaf, and stem can absorb moisture. It also caused a massive drop in the soil organic carbon (SOC) which was released into the atmosphere. SOC is the principal determinant of a soil’s water-holding capacity. Wetlands that used to hold large amounts of water on the surface for weeks after a storm released water immediately. Instead of being held upstream and slowly released downward and outward, water now flows straight through or over the soils.

A network of open ditches were dug when Europeans colonized the area. They are maintained on a regular basis by county taxpayers to keep wetlands in agricultural production and low-lying roads open. The county maintains rights to these easements through public property. This ditch on our property was just “cleaned” last month. However, there do not appear to be any provisions for erosion control, re-vegetation, or advanced engineering like two-staged ditches. Sediment inevitably is re-deposited and taxpayers will pay to have this excavated again in a few years.

Lastly, impervious surfaces – like roofs and parking lots – move water even faster than agricultural lands. There is almost no infiltration and water is quickly moved to waterways (along with spilled oil, grime, chemicals, fertilizers, and salt).

Below is a 2016 land cover map of Marshall County (complements of IndianaMAP). Yellow is corn, green is soybeans. 75% of the county is in farmland, just as it was 114 years ago. The light/teal-green color is forest, which is more prominent in the Western half (water from here does not flow through the City of Plymouth). Dark blue is open water, pink is grasslands and pastures.

Gray is urban/industrial. Plymouth is clearly visible in the center. Much of the gray area has impervious surfaces, where water is quickly sent to communities downstream. Water flowed off of these surfaces, into ditches, and eventually to the city of Knox, where large flooding damage also occurred. Ripple effects.

The image below is a hydrograph of the Yellow River during this flood event. I drew a hypothetical green line over top of it to illustrate what a reference (natural) watershed would look like. The river rises slower, peaking at a later date and at a lower elevation. Hypothetically, flood damage is reduced and water quantity and quality is improved. (Caveat: the actual scale of this change, or the peak crest, is completely unknown and not necessarily even useful, other than for illustration).

It can be tempting for a largely urban population to point fingers at the shrinking number of farmers raising our food. But we have all inherited the industrial/European model of living on the land, and of course most of our families can trace our routes back to farmers. The economic/agricultural system we created rewards drained soils. Indeed, they are some of the most productive in the country when it comes to producing annual grains, and investment in drainage usually pays back quite handsomely. As I drove to work after the flood, I saw still more drain tile being installed.

Private drainage does not account for the very real downstream costs of water pollution and flood damage. This is similar to us non-farmers commuting great distances to our workplaces. We are imposing very real and sizable air pollution costs on others (what economists call “externalized costs”) while we privately benefit from the transportation. Additionally, many of us suburbanites and urbanites have ourselves inherited farmland and rent it out to farmers growing annual grains on drained land. How to we humans behave? Very often in our own narrow and short-term economic self-interest.

Even with all the land modification, it has been remarkable to see how long some of the water has been ponded up. I drove west on US 30 towards Valparaiso yesterday (March 6), 13 days post-rainfall. There were still huge fields full of water, one was lined by hundreds (maybe thousands) of Sandhill Cranes probing the mud for kernels of grains or perhaps some invertebrates. This, of course, was the old Kankakee wetland, the everglades of the north.

The photo below was taken March 5, 12 days post-rainfall. You are looking at about 4 acres of water. Let’s presume the average depth is about one foot. That’d be 4 acre-feet of water, or 1.3 million gallons of water. We currently use it as pasture, letting the cows convert the solar-powered grass into beef.

With a big outlay of cash, I suppose it could be drained (It has been farmed in the past). If so, that 1 million+ gallons of water would not be sitting in this field, but would be in the basements and living rooms of the residents of Knox, IN, or anywhere else downstream. That is ultimately the choice we have to all make. We can’t stop floods, and we don’t get to choose when the rains come, but we do get to decide how we raise food and use the land.

the current state of climate science

Last November, the Climate Science Special Report (CSSR) was published. The CSSR “is designed to be an authoritative assessment of the science of climate change, with a focus on the United States, to serve as the foundation for efforts to assess climate-related risks and inform decision-making about responses.”

If you can navigate Twitter, click here to read this thread from scientist Katharine Hayhoe (when it pops up, just keep scrolling down the screen). Ms. Hayhoe provides very brief highlight of this 477 page report on what the science is telling us. The brevity and images really bring the message home.

(As an aside: Katharine Hayhoe is a climate scientist and Evangelical Christian.  She’s a tireless advocate for making climate science accessible via her YouTube channel, “Global Weirding.” She also travels around giving talks about how to talk about climate solutions without alienating folks in sub-populations that reject the prevailing science on anthropogenic global warming).

The conclusions are:

*”the past 115 years are now the warmest in the history of modern civilization… the last three years have been the warmest years on record for the globe

*”The global atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration has now passed 400 parts per million (ppm), a level that last occurred about 3 million years ago

*”it is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century. For the warming over the last century, there is no convincing alternative explanation supported by the extent of the observational evidence
*”thousands of studies… have documented changes in surface, atmospheric, and oceanic temperatures; melting glaciers; diminishing snow cover; shrinking sea ice; rising sea levels; ocean acidification; and increasing atmospheric water vapor
*”A rise of as much as 8 feet by 2100 cannot be ruled out
*”There is broad consensus that the further and the faster the Earth system is pushed towards warming, the greater the risk of unanticipated changes and impacts, some of which are potentially large and irreversible.”

I highly recommend taking time to read the Executive Summary. The text is only 22 pages and takes about 40 minutes to read.

So, what does this mean?

The report very specifically avoided making policy prescriptions:

In accordance with this purpose, it does not include an assessment of literature on climate change mitigation, adaptation, economic valuation, or societal responses, nor does it include policy recommendations.”
In my mind, it means thus:

It means that we need to evaluate our institutions, behaviors, politicians, and organizations based on whether or not they help or hinder our transition to a low/zero-carbon human economy.

Alex Steffen has made some interesting prognostications around climate and energy policy, I’ll leave you with his piece (after, of course, you’ve read the executive summary from thousands of our top scientists).

The Smokestacks Come Tumbling Down: why momentum is building towards a snap forward in climate action

 

Maria Center Bird Count

“Maria Center completed its 4th year participation in the Great Backyard Bird Count from the MoonTree lodge.

Despite the heavy rainfall, we saw 14 tree sparrows,  1 dove, 10 geese and 4 house finches.” (Jennifer Weinert, 2/19/18)

We discussed birds, climate change, and citizen science. We also looked at several bird occurrence maps on eBird. A good way to beat the cold drizzle!

Flood!

I was going to end my ecology lecture today by looking at climate projections for the Midwest, which looks like will be shifting to more intense rainstorms in shorter periods of time, exacerbating flood risks.

A bit ironic that we had to cancel due to a historic flood, eh?

The Yellow River is now at 16.2 ft, which is major flood stage. It is expected to crest at 18.0 ft by tomorrow morning, exceeding the previous flood record of 17.1 ft in 1954.

Flooding, of course, is a natural phenomenon. It is a regular ecological force of disturbance that is necessary for certain species to exist. It can change the entire course of a stream or river in a single event. It uproots trees, creating log jams (which lots of critters call “habitat”). It exposes soil, giving space for seeds to germinate. It deposits new sediment and nutrients on the floodplain. It connects sub-populations of species (a friend of mine has researched some frogs who relying on “rafting” on debris during flood events to exchange genetic material across isolated wet spots).

Of course, floods are also damaging for humans. We rely on water bodies for many reasons, and we place our houses, roads, crops and infrastructure nearby. We build and pave straight roads across the landscape to get here and there. Floods are disruptive. When they don’t happen for awhile, its easy to get lulled into complacency (see: Houston, New Orleans, Miami, the Mississippi River, etc).

Flooding is not just a function of precipitation. It is exacerbated by impervious surfaces like parking lots and buildings, which accelerate water towards the river instead of allowing it to slowly seep into the ground. Agricultural watersheds, especially those with artificial drainage, also increase flooding relative to natural cover like grasslands or forests.

In our circumstance, we first had a lot of snow, which melted very fast, followed by 6-8 inches of rain over the last few days. We normally average about 2.3 inches for the entire month of February.

The image below shows rainfall over the last 7 days across northern Indiana (via NOAA).

The rainfall and land use to the Northwest of Plymouth – in the headwaters – determines what how high the Yellow River rises in downtown Plymouth.

Map via Marshall County Soil and Water Conservation District

 

When the rain started, the land was already water logged from melting snow. The land use is primarily agricultural, so artificial drainage accelerates the water away from the fields and towards the main course of the river.

Here are a few photos I took of the Yellow River in Plymouth today:

Videos

2:30 PM today…

~10:30 AM today…

More tomorrow, or soon, on climate change.

iNaturalist helps ID our neighbors

“What’s that fungus?”

I recently downloaded the latest version of the “iNaturalist” app. Armed with nothing but a smartphone, it allows users to identify everything from mushrooms to macaws to maples. This species-identification app available for iPhone or Android, as well as a traditional website.

So far, 553,981 users have submitted 7,356,302 observations, identifying 128,202 species.

I was going to write a blog post about it, but I found a very well-written and concise review/recommendation in the New York Times Magazine, so I’ll send you there instead! Click here or below…

reflection on Fossil Free Fast by Albert Escanilla, campus minister at Ancilla College

My colleague Albert Escanilla, Campus Minister of Ancilla College, joined us for our Fossil Free Fast watch party. It’s been a pleasure working with him and learning from his work and reflections. He wanted to share this with the readers of this blog:

It is nearing a week since I joined the Center at Donaldson Fossil Fuel Fast Watch Party, and yet the messages mentioned still strongly resonates within me. I am unsure where exactly it has taken its roots, as I pondered: was the feeling of wanting to stay longer, but needed to attend to family responsibilities, or that I already filled up my Honda Fit twice full tank this week after selectively looking for the cheapest gas station, or was it the failed attempt again to walk to the grocery store this week because of the single digit temperature? I am certain it was the combination, but at the very essence, it is the inability to accept that I cannot escape our fossil fuel hungry society, and “living off the grid” is not an option at the moment.

Therefore, with such acceptance, I have alleviated these internal uneasiness and desire to escape, by altering my perspectives in our mass fossil fuel consumption issue. One’s mindfulness and diligence in daily choices when pertaining to the ecosystem should be practiced. These entails simple choices with noticeable results, and even more so monumental with time and when practiced as a community. Some of these daily things are bringing ones’ own water bottle, inflating car tires to the appreciate PSI in accordance to weather (increase fuel efficiency) and proper disposals of hazardous household materials (batteries and paint). There are ample things that are within our control, and the more we can share these practices with others, the more our eco-minded communities will flourish.

Thus, as the article concludes with the quote, “Rome wasn’t built in a day…but they were laying bricks every hour”, and our future will be dependent on “how quickly we decided to lay these bricks”; I would like to contribute to our endeavors with the idea of increasing our “eco-likeminded bricklaying communities”, beginning with ourselves to  further hastening the paving of our 21st century eco-friendly Pax Romana.

”It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers’ not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”

-excerpt from Bishop Ken Untener of Sagnaiw’s Archebishop Oscar Romero Prayer: A Step Along the Way

SpaceX launch

On Tuesday, SpaceX executed a test flight of their new (and enormous) Falcon Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral.

The rocket boosters are reusable. You read that right.

If you want to see how they get them back (or if they even did!), I highly recommend setting aside 34 minutes of time and watching the entire launch.

If you don’t have the time, here’s the story, but I highly recommend the video.

You’ll also figure out what is going on in the photo below (seriously, it’s not fake).


(Here’s the official SpaceX page).

Fossil Free Fast watch party

Last night we all got to stay up past our bedtime to watch “Fossil Free Fast”, a live watch party where we heard from a variety of speakers who are working for a just and rapid transition away from fossil fuels. Despite the late hour, we had a turn out of about 30 folks: Sisters, community leaders, retirees, and a student.

(As most are aware, climate change is well-documented within the scientific community, where it has been accepted for many years across many disciplines. The consequences for human communities and ecological systems vary, but from what we are now seeing, they are overwhelmingly negative with the potential to become quite catastrophic. I would encourage everyone to find time to read the executive summary from the 2017 Climate Science Special Report).

The full Fossil Free Fast video presentation can be found here.

The initiative was hosted by 350.org, but we heard from a wide-array of speakers. I was particularly impressed by the diversity of the lineup. For a long time, the environmental movement was overwhelming a white, upper-middle class concern. But as we’ve seen in NW Indiana and elsewhere, environmental racism is real.

Any movement towards justice is inevitably going to “intersect” with these other fractures in our society. A speaker from Puerto Rico detailed how the 2017 hurricanes compounded their long history of disinvestment and colonialism. A young women from Houston described how being undocumented made looking for aid after the hurricane that much more difficult.

The challenge to grassroots communities was simple and three-fold:

  1. Transform the energy system to 100% renewables
  2. Stop all new fossil fuel projects
  3. Divest our financial institutions from fossil fuel investment

In other words, Sun (solar energy), Sit (in the way of new fossil fuel projects), and Sell (divest our portfolios).

I’ll admit that’s a pretty clever little phrase.

These three points have been considered for many years as a hopeless pipe dream and the cause of many eye-rolls. There simply was no economic, technological, or cultural way to fulfill such an ambitious dream.

All that has changed in just the last couple years.

People are no longer discussing “If…” they are discussing “When…”. It’s now becoming abundantly clear that this transition will happen this century. The long and short of it is that you can’t beat free fuel. (See this article: Utility CEO: new renewables will be cheaper than existing coal plants by the early 2020s)

So the question is: will this transition happen rapidly? Or will the fossil fuel companies be successful in delaying the inevitable long enough to extract even more short-term profits at the expense of the health of the planet? It seems now that that is the question we are forced to ask.

After the presentation, our conversations turned local.

We reflected on the challenges we have in Indiana. We have some of the dirtiest air in the state, but it’s not really visible and not connected in people’s minds to the acute health issues like asthma, heart disease, and low birth weights. We produce a lot of food and manufactured goods, but these also have significantly impacts on our water quality and soil health. Our electricity is cheap, but it’s still mostly fueled by coal and the utility companies have no problem finding legislators willing to pass preferred legislation in the statehouse.

One local leader described her frustration at trying to access important environmental data on the EPA’s website. Lots of information had been simply removed during the recent change in Presidential administrations (more on the story broke recently). Just this morning I read about the administration’s desire to slash research into renewable energy, this at a time when it needs to be scaled up.

But I was also reminded of the wisdom, experience, and work that was present with us as well. And the hope and the energy we received from the event that evening.

In the end, I took a breath considered the deep history of the Poor Handmaids, who are celebrating their 150th year in the United States. I was reminded of the adage, “Rome wasn’t build in a day.”

I found online a clever addition to that phrase: “…but they were laying bricks every hour.”

How the 21st century looks may depend on how quickly we decide to lay these bricks.