Each year, the weather seems to be getting more and more intense throughout Middle America and the south. Not only are we seeing huge amounts of rainfall, but a parallel increased risk of flooding. However, while the two seem directly related, there is more to this picture than meets the eye. Canvassing some of the major causes of this severe weather will help us understand how to prepare and prevent these disasters in the future.
First, let’s look at what’s been happening:
- Deadly storm systems have developed across the Southern Plains of the United States: a cold front moving across the Deep South, combined with upper levels of the atmosphere that were “conducive for severe storms.”
- Soil is eroding quickly along the banks of streams and most notably, the Mississippi river. The river is actually altering its natural course, due to soil deposits in the northern portion.
- In sum, we are seeing golf ball sized hail pounding parts of Florida, hundreds of tornadoes tearing apart other parts of the South, and now flooding is a major issue along the Mississippi.
So what explains these events?
Tornadoes and Severe Weather Systems: Is Climate Change to Blame?
According to Ian Yarett with Yahoo News, more than 300 people have died due to the outbreak of tornadoes across the South. Countless more have had their lives forever altered, with homes, loved ones, and possessions being taken away in a matter of minutes.
Some argue that climate change is contributing to this phenomenon.
As the theory goes, we see a major correlation between increasing global temperature and an increased number of storms systems, as well as increased severity of those storm systems. As the South and the rest of the world warms, humidity increases, as well as sea surface temperatures. This means an increased number of severe storms across the South, including massive rainfall and hurricanes.
At the same time, historical data also suggests that the warming of global temperatures corresponds to the frequency and intensity of tornadoes. These tornadoes requires warm, moist air low in the atmosphere coupled with changes in wind direction and speed, or wind shear.
Despite the connection, some still wonder if there is direct causation between the warming of the planet and the increase in severe storm system.
As reported by Yarett, “A warming planet means more moisture in the air and less wind shear, favoring more thunderstorms, but not necessarily the kind that give birth to tornadoes, says Harold Brooks, a meteorologist at the National Severe Storms Laboratory.”
However, some scientists – namely Kerry Emanuel, a professor of atmospheric science in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences – have developed climate models that lend themselves to independent validation to the link between warming temperatures and severe storms.
Soil Erosion around the Mississippi
While the cause behind increase storms is still debated, one thing is becoming very clear: soil erosion around the Mississippi and other rivers is directly connected to poor farming practices. Industrial meat farming packs thousands of livestock into small areas, producing tons of waste, and big agriculture continuously tills the same soil without focus on natural balance.
Unlike organic farming, which uses natural fertilizers, cover crops, and nature’s own pesticides, industrial farming uses chemical fertilizers that only rejuvenate the soil enough to grow the next yield. The result is weak top soil with continued long term depletion of organic matter and soil compaction. Pesticides only exacerbate this problem by killing both the bad and good insects that live in the soil. Essentially, industrial farming creates a toxic soup of soil where only their genetically engineered crops can survive.
So what does this mean for the Mississippi and other rivers?
The chemical pollutants that weaken the soil on farms naturally make their way into streams and rivers, having the same effect. Looking at a soil degradation map of the United States, one will notice “very degraded soil” right through the center of the American heartland. As the soil becomes weaker, massive force from water (like from the severe storms discussed) are able to redirect river basins, often having devastating effects on small and large cities along the way.
Is there no going back?
To end on a note of optimism, there is still hope for a bettering of our environment. As we begin to control our greenhouse gas emissions, we’ll slowly be able to get a better grasp on how to deal with climate change and prevent extreme weather system. Likewise, the continued call by food and climate activists alike will help generate support for better farming practices.
It isn’t impossible to reverse the changes we’ve already created. And while it may never go back to “normal,” we can at least create something more manageable.