For the past week Karin and I have been travelling in the USA, starting in Denver, driving to Gunnison, then on to Grand Junction, Colorado, to catch the Amtrak California Zephyr train for a 36 hour trip to Chicago. Our final destination is a workshop on conservation of monarch butterflies and their milkweed host plants near Washington DC next week.
I’ll post something about the Gunnison leg of our journey at a later date, and of course the workshop. But as I write the first draft of this post, we are passing through flooded Iowa farmland and I wanted to get some thoughts down about a repeating theme of our travels so far: climate change.
Our original destination in Colorado was the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL), an almost legendary research venue for pollination ecologists. We were meeting up with my long-time friends and colleagues Nick Waser and Mary Price, with whom I’ve collaborated on various papers since the mid-90s. However we never made it to RMBL: unseasonably late snow had not yet been ploughed from the road up to the site and the only way in and out was with skis or snowshoes. Some hardy researchers were already there, but the limited time we had in Colorado made it impractical for us to make the journey:
Unseasonable snow does not, of course, climate change make; but that was our first hint that there’s something odd about the weather in North America at the moment.
Fast forward a few days and we picked up the Zephyr in Grand Junction, the start of an incredible journey through spectacular Rocky Mountain scenery and then down into the flat agricultural lands of Nebraska and Iowa. We had a sleeping cabin and, following a stop in Denver, we drifted off to the slow chug-a-chug of the Zephyr’s wheels and the occasional distant whistle from the front engine – it’s a loooong train!
The next morning we were still in Nebraska and it was then that things started to get both interesting and worrisome. One of the conductors gave us a running commentary about the heavy rainfall that had caused flooding in this region during May and June – see this recent account from NASA’s Earth Observatory. As you can see from the images below (snapped from the train as we passed, so excuse the quality), flooding is still an issue along the Platt and Missouri Rivers, both of which had over-topped their adjacent levees at various points. A conservation area, the Fontanelle Forest Preserve, had turned from woodland into wooded swamp:
This is not the river Missouri – it’s actually about quarter of a mile beyond those trees:
Adjacent farmland was completely flooded shortly after corn crops had been planted. Farm buildings were washed out and their occupants had been forced to leave with little notice. These are areas that do not normally flood and the impact of this heavy rain has been significant and will last long into the future:
Infrastructure such as roads and bridges were also damaged. The Union Pacific rail bridge across the Platt was partly washed away and has had to be rapidly rebuilt, but only after a new access road was established:
Everywhere we looked there was flooding:
A nearby industrial estate and trailer park had also been flooded, with a lock-up garage of classic American cars under seven feet of water, and the residents and businesses have been told to leave permanently. This area cannot be guaranteed flood-free in the future and will be leveled and allowed to return to nature:
A local portaloo company was also flooded out and we observed the plastic toilets washed up along a lakeside that used to be a field of corn. Superficially amusing, until you realise that this represents the loss of someone’s livelihood:
Along the train tracks ballast had been piled up to begin a programme of raising the track bed. Residents of the nearby town of Pacific Junction (population about 470) have been told to either sell their homes to the government, and move out, or face ever-rising costs of flood insurance – see this recent local newspaper article. Pacific Junction used to be an important rail terminus and some of the families have been there for generations. Let’s be clear what this means for these people – they are displaced from their homes, they are climate refugees in their own country.
After we had passed through this area I chatted with one of the train stewards who mentioned that his Louisiana home had been flooded out in August 2016. He was forced to pay $400 per year flood insurance to protect his belongings and home from future events, in a part of the state that had no prior history of flooding. “But your President says that climate change is not a problem” I probed. He gave me a look that said more than words could ever convey. “Don’t get me started on that” he replied. A nearby passenger, a young guy, chimed in: “We’d be here all day!” Trump’s rhetoric is changing slightly and, if anything, becoming less coherent and more deranged as he talked yesterday of “good climate” and “weather going both ways”.
All along the train route to Chicago we saw the same thing, over hundreds of miles and hour after hour – partially or completely flooded fields, crops washed away or submerged under water. Large ponds in otherwise pristine, planted fields of parallel lines where the first growth of wheat was showing:
Karin tells me that the flooding around the Mississippi was even worse, but I’m afraid that I slept through it; long train journeys are wonderful, but tiring!
This is just a snap shot of what climate change is doing to the USA at the moment; it’s creating climate refugees in a number of states – see this article for instance. Wildlife seems to be the only thing that’s benefiting as nature reclaims farmland and urban areas: the flooded fields we passed were full of herons, wildfowl, and other water birds. But in the longer term who knows what these changing weather patterns will bring for biodiversity and human society. The only certainty is that change is coming.