Climate Change: When the Ground Shifts Under Your Feet

Sometimes we feel metaphorically, due to changes in our lives, as if the ground under us is shifting.

For the 11,000 people of Tuvalu, a Polynesian country in the Pacific Ocean midway between Hawaii and Australia, the ground is literally shifting. To be more precise, the ground is sinking into the sea. In the foreseeable future, Tuvalu will become uninhabitable, perhaps even disappear beneath the ocean.

They’re talking about sea walls and artificial islands, but you know that’s not going to work. These are poor people, and there’s nothing on the island other than increasingly salty dirt and rocks and sand and dying palm trees — nothing that is worth saving. Offshore the coral is dying too, and fish feed on the toxins from dead coral and make the people who catch fish and eat it sick.

Fiji has offered the people of Tuvalu a home, but they don’t want to leave their island and culture and customs which — as it is for most of us — are tied to the land where we were formed and our temperaments shaped. I still talk of myself as having a Midwestern temperament like my father, even though I never lived on an Iowa farm the way he once did. It’s in my DNA.

I feel for the people of Tuvalu. Polynesia has always seemed like a paradise for me, far enough away not to have plastic washing up on its shores and toxins killing its coral. But that’s the least of their problems now, when the sea threatens to rise up and swallow them whole.

Drought in Panama?

Panama’s dry season, just coming to an end, has apparently been even more parched than usual. The lack of water is affecting transit through the Panama Canal.

The two sets of locks on each end of the Canal are basically like bathtubs, filling and emptying to raise or lower ships coming from sea level into the geographically higher Gatun Lake. Every time a ship goes through, most of the water is dumped back into the ocean, although the new locks apparently have some sort of drainage basin which conserves some of the precious water.

The village that I visit will be affected by low water levels as well. Gloria has told me that sometimes at this time of year, when she turns on the faucet, nothing more than a dribble of gritty water comes out, leaving a residue as she washes the clothes or in the pitcher of drinking water. The nearby hotel complex where I rent a house has a Jack Nicklaus golf course, and the amount of irrigation needed to keep the greens looking colorful and healthy during dry season has changed the water ecology for miles around. Even more serious, when the water levels are low, pesticides and fertilizer are in much greater concentration in the rivers that are the main water source.

When canal transit is down, Panama takes a big revenue hit. Having that canal revenue is what has set Panama apart from more economically challenged countries like El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, and made the country more politically stable. Panamanians are well aware that the country’s livelihood depends on water ecology, but no one has figured out how to entice Mother Nature to drop more rain when it’s needed.

Getting to Know Seattle: Thinking about Rain

Before I discovered my inner gardener, I was perfectly happy with Seattle’s bifurcated climate. We get a lot of rain in the winter, and almost none in the summer — less than many states that have desert areas. One year we didn’t get a drop of rain for 91 days, which was fine with me. Everything green and growing here was parched and bone dry, grass gone dormant and lots of plants wilting badly or dead.

Seattle is an environmentally conscious place, which means you get frowned upon if you water your lawn. Keeping bushes and plants alive is marginally OK.

But I have this lovely green sod that was planted last fall, and a host of spring flowers, and some ornamental flowering bushes. All were bone dry due to our very dry spring, and I was already watering.

On Tuesday we had a gentle, all day sort of rain.  I have to say I was happy to see it, even though it meant walking downtown with a raincoat and umbrella for my mid-day meeting. 🙂

Climate Change: Denial Swamped by Salty Seas

Some years ago the North Carolina legislature actually voted that climate change data couldn’t be taken in to account in planning economic development along the coastline. Had it been, of course, construction of expensive new properties would have been curtailed. Showing all the bravery of Don Quixote tilting at windmills, North Carolina legislators were sure they could turn back the encroaching salty sea.

Now, North Carolina farmers who work the once rich soil along the tidal flats and swamps that were drained to create arable land are dealing with dead crops, high levels of salinity in the soil, and visible salt crystals making increasingly large patches of land useless for cultivation.

Of climate change’s many plagues — drought, insects, fires, floods — saltwater intrusion in particular sounds almost like a biblical curse. Rising seas, sinking earth and extreme weather are conspiring to cause salt from the ocean to contaminate aquifers and turn formerly fertile fields barren. A 2016 study in the journal Science predicted that 9 percent of the U.S. coastline is vulnerable to saltwater intrusion — a percentage likely to grow as the world continues to warm. Scientists are just beginning to assess the potential effect on agriculture, Manda said, and it’s not yet clear how much can be mitigated.”

I hardly know what to say to the North Carolina legislators — some of whom are probably out of office now anyway. Climate change denial is “somebody else’s problem” until it the adverse effects of a changing world affect constituents’ day to day lives. Would North Carolina legislators vote differently today, when their own farmers are losing their land and agricultural production is down?

Denial is a powerful thing, and I’m not so sure they would.


Death of Gum Wood Trees

Our first home in Rochester, a two family in the 19th Ward, had beautiful gum wood trim throughout. Our second home, a single family in a nicer neighborhood and with more room, was a step up for us — but lacked the rich gum wood framing doors, providing floorboards, and encircling rooms with classy ceiling trim. And, I grew up in New Jersey — north Jersey, not the swamp areas of the southern part of the state from which this article is taken. The two connections drew me to read the article, which is an overview of significant examples of ecological loss — all likely irreversible.

Bear Swamp is a forest of 400- and 500-year-old black gums, some of the oldest trees in eastern North America, along the Delaware Bay in southeastern New Jersey. The trees have begun to die. The cause is the rising sea, which is making the groundwater at the base of the forest saltier. The trees are doomed. Much of the Glades Wildlife Refuge, which contains the forest, eventually will be under water.

Though I live only 55 miles away, I’ve never seen the forest nor had I heard of its old-growth trees until I read about them recently in The Philadelphia Inquirer. This knowledge was enough to make me grieve for the world that is vanishing before us. Earth is rapidly shedding life and the systems that sustain it. We know this but we don’t seem to be able to face it, for ours is an age of loss disguised as plenty.”

Loss disguised as plenty.” Now that’s not something to celebrate in the New Year, is it?

Panama 2019: Classy Hat

A hat with a brim wide enough to protect my face and back of my neck is essential for Panama. We’re right on the equator, and the sun is merciless, whether in the city or out at the beach. I’ve had this hat for a year or so, minus the feather adornment. I wear a hat in Seattle during the summer too, on strict instructions from my dermatologist. I don’t really like wearing a hat, so sometimes complying is a chore. Friend Nicki gave me the feathers for Christmas, and I can’t wait to step out in Panama City with my newly classy head gear. 🙂

Contemporary Culture: Our Water Use

Most of us in the United States have ready access to clean water, and we don’t think much about our usage. I think back to the Peace Corps years, when Minga had to carry all the water her family used on a daily basis. That meant multiple trips to a well that was several hundred feet from her house, filling a 5 gallon can each time, and bringing the heavy, unsteady burden back balanced on her head. At the house she had a large oil drum, and that’s what she filled each time — many trips, 5 gallons at a time. She did it at least 3x a day: after washing the clothes in the morning, sometime mid-afternoon, and then the last thing at night before going to bed.

Amazon is moving new headquarters offices into Queens, which has an aging sewer system. Estimates are that the 25,000 anticipated workers will each use 100 gallons of water a day. The article below discusses how well equipped the city water system is to handle that usage — as in, 25,000 toilet flushes several times a day.

But what sticks in my mind is what it might have been like for Minga to have to carry 100 gallons of water a day for each of her then 7 family members. Seven hundred gallons every day? Would never have happened.

This is a pic from the Peace Corps era — not Minga, but two of her neighbors. You can just see the spout of the pump sticking out just above the yellow water can. And the woman in the checkered blouse has the pump handle in her hands. The people in Rio Hato were lucky — they had a well that delivered clean water. At least I assume we had clean water. Most of us got parasites, including me, but I assumed that was from muddy ground water, not what we drank.