Oklahomans Get Burned

Image of Kandinsky work

With a chunk of northeast Oklahoma City still burning or still facing a wildfire threat and with the announcement that Oklahoma’s agricultural losses because of the drought will approach $2 billion for the year, it should be paramount local and state leaders begin to prepare for the possibility that we could be facing an extended weather event along the lines or even worse than the drought of the 1930s.

Unfortunately, such planning isn’t taking place or isn’t being reported by the local media. What is the reason for this? Is it that nothing much can be done? Is it because of a prevailing anti-science view of some of our local meteorologists and editors at The Oklahoman, who obviously know how politicized the weather has become at the hands of politicians such as U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe? (To its credit, The Oklahoman did recently give an overview of the record-breaking heat from a meteorological perspective.)

Do people here want to risk their homes and even lives getting destroyed defending Inhofe’s archaic view that global warming is nothing more than a left-wing political conspiracy? Don’t we at least need to consider the role global warming might have played in this year’s weather?

This week an area of northeast Oklahoma City suffered major damage because of wildfires caused by exceptionally hot, windy, dry weather in an area around NE 50th Street and Sooner Rd. According to a local media report, authorities have said that by Thursday morning 17 homes and five mobile homes have been destroyed. Other homes have also been damaged. A church also burned. People have been left without power and faced evacuations.

Wildfires were also reported in other parts of Oklahoma and in Texas, which also suffered damage. Texas is also in an exceptional drought along with Oklahoma.

As the fires in Oklahoma City continued burning, Oklahoma Agricultural Secretary Jim Reese reported that collectively the state will face around $2 billion in farm- and ranch-related losses this year due to the drought.

According to one media report, Reese said, “Things are getting better” in response to the losses and argued somewhat obviously that good rains often follow droughts. Well, sure, the end of a drought is usually marked by extended rains. What else can end a drought? But what about the possibility that we’re in an extended multi-year drought even worse than the Dust Bowl days in the 1930s?

This summer, the state has shattered record after record for high temperatures. For example, the Oklahoma City area set the record for triple-digit temperatures this summer. In July the state set the all-time record in the United States for the highest average monthly temperature. Texas has also broken high temperature records. Meanwhile, as Reese pointed out, the one to three inches of rain some areas of the state received in August isn’t enough to help much.

“North American Drought: A Paleo Perspective,” a historical narrative presented by the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), discusses the ramifications of droughts in the 1930s, 1950s and the 1980s, which can be important to understand what we’re now experiencing.

The narrative notes that the 1930s drought came in waves:

The drought came in three waves, 1934, 1936, and 1939-40, but some regions of the High Plains experienced drought conditions for as many as eight years. The "dust bowl" effect was caused by sustained drought conditions compounded by years of land management practices that left topsoil susceptible to the forces of the wind. The soil, depleted of moisture, was lifted by the wind into great clouds of dust and sand which were so thick they concealed the sun for several days at a time. They were referred to as" black blizzards".

Soil maintenance has improved since the 1930s, but are we heading for drought waves again? The record-shattering heat this year should at the very least draw people’s attention.

The narrative asks the same question:

What is the likelihood of another Dust Bowl-scale drought in the future? No one is yet able to scientifically predict multi-year or decadal droughts, but the paleoclimatic record can tell us how frequently droughts such as the 1930s Dust Bowl occurred in the past or if droughts of this magnitude are indeed a rare event. If such droughts occurred with some regularity in the past, then we should expect them to occur in the future.

The paleoclimatic record, according to the NCDC, has also documented droughts over the last 500 years more severe that what we’re now facing.

According to the NCDC:

The paleoclimatic record also indicates that droughts of a much greater duration than any in 20th century have occurred in parts of North American as recently as 500 years ago. These data indicate that we should be aware of the possibility of such droughts occurring in the future as well.

The historical record, along with the extended current weather conditions, shows us there’s a real possibility we could be facing a major extended drought. Meanwhile, the United States Global Change Research Program has these “key messages” that are important to Oklahoma:

U.S. average temperature has risen more than 2°F over the past 50 years and is projected to rise more in the future; how much more depends primarily on the amount of heat-trapping gases emitted globally and how sensitive the climate is to those emissions.

Precipitation has increased an average of about 5 percent over the past 50 years. Projections of future precipitation generally indicate that northern areas will become wetter, and southern areas, particularly in the West, will become drier.

Note that the drier areas include this region of the country.

Current weather conditions here, the historical record and scientific predictions about global warming should demand, at the very least, the city and state develop plans for responding to an extended drought. The plans should include measures for lost revenue, emergency preparations for an extended drought and how we pay for it, the impact on economic development, how to become more energy efficient in our homes, how we manage our water supply, the psychological impact of drought, how we care for the most vulnerable in an extended period of relentless heat and how we maintain our lakes and rivers during stressful weather. This is the short list.

Many climate-change scientists are predicting more severe and erratic weather events throughout the year because of global warming. When next year’s big blizzard or ice storm hit in the Oklahoma City area, don’t dismiss the drought this summer. Next summer could be worse or just a little better than this year. Can you imagine that? Will you be ready? Will Oklahoma City and the state be ready?