Seen on the run: Is climate change here?

Is this where we're headed?

Is this where we’re headed?

I was out running the other day, hitting some trails and exploring new routes in a part of the park I’d seldom seen before.

The place has all the things I love in trail running – long stretches of single track, technical paths, lots of trees and hills. Down one old jeep trail was some sort of pipeline. Elsewhere, there were signs naming certain parts of the trail system. The top of the hill is a rocky outcrop, the bottom of the ravine a maze of dry creekbeds.

Eventually I come through the thick tangle of trees and brush into an open area. A sign greets me, telling that a small body of water at my feet is “Pepsi Lake.” It’s really just a pond – Turkey Mountain has a few of these. But the misnomer aside, what strikes me is that Pepsi Lake is about two-thirds dried up.

This is one symptom of an ongoing crisis here in Oklahoma – we’re in the third year of an ongoing drought that has given us little rain, record heat and a host of problems related to both.

The situation doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon. It’s been an incredibly dry and warm fall, and as I’m running these trails, I’m wearing shorts and a T-shirt.

It’s mid-December.

***

I live in an energy state. Oil, gas and coal have been a big part of the development of Oklahoma, and the boom in shale oil and gas has helped the fossil fuel industry reassert itself as the big dog on the block, economically speaking. It’s boosted the state economy, though there are many (mostly from out of state) who decry big energy’s resurgence.

It’s pretty easy to talk a really big game about being green while enjoying the fruits of fossil fuel energy. As I write this, I’m typing away on a computer that is powered by electricity derived from the burning of coal. Same is true with all the lights that are illuminating my home. The computer is partially made of plastics that are made from refined crude oil. For the run I mentioned above, I traveled to Turkey Mountain in a car made from metals, glass and plastics manufactured in factories powered by gas and coal; the car is itself is powered by gasoline (another refined crude oil product) and travels on roads paved with asphalt (also a refined crude oil product). And all those wonderfully cheap techno-gadgets we all love and crave were made in similar processes overseas, shipped to our shores from halfway around the world on cargo ships powered by diesel fuel.

Everything we love about modern life – travel, ease of movement, readily available foods, communications, automation and just about every other convenience that we take for granted – owes its existence to the extraction, refining and burning of fossil fuels. You might not want to hear that, but it’s true. If not for oil, gas and coal, we’d be living lifestyles akin to what people lived in 18th Century. That’s something to think about when you’re on your iPad ripping into someone whose views are not as green as your own, or when you’re riding your eco-friendly bike made from steel, plastic and rubber forged and otherwise manufactured by way of intense drilling and mining for the old, compressed bones of ancient microorganisms buried deep underground.

But here’s another fact: The earth is getting warmer. And just about any scientist in the know will tell you that we humans are the cause.

Everything has a cost.

***

At this time last year, I was grumbling to myself about not being able to test my cold-weather running gear because of how mild the winter had been. Don’t get me wrong, being able to head outside in the middle of winter and enjoy 60- and 70-degree weather is pretty awesome. I can see why snowbirds from up north eventually retire in the Sunbelt states to the south.

But I was looking ahead. In the winter of 2011, Oklahoma had one really nasty blizzard and cold snap that produced record low temperatures – as cold as -30 degrees F in a town just north of Tulsa.

Not long after that, the state began to warm up and dry out. The following summer registered record heat – like two months straight of 100-degree temperatures and little to no rain. Summer 2011 was brutal, and we were all glad to see it end.

But the following fall and winter were mild and dry, absent of the weather extremes from the year before. I feared that we were in for a repeat performance for the summer of 2012. Turns out, I was right.

I’m pretty stubborn when it comes to getting outside and training, and being a night shift worker, my prime training time is late morning to early afternoon. This past summer I was out running streets and trails in temperatures that exceeded 110 degrees at times. More record heat, and almost no rain.

That pattern has continued this fall and looks to persist this winter. Does that mean I’m in for another brutal summer of training, running up to fall race season?

Big-picture rewind: Who really cares about my training being inconvenienced? The real price for this pattern of heat and drought is a confluence of ruined crops, wildfires and depleted water sources. Ranchers are forced to sell off cattle they can’t feed and water; farm ponds, like Pepsi Lake, are turning into hollow pockets of mud.

Similar stories are being told south of the border in Texas. But go north and you’re hearing it as well in places like Missouri , Iowa and just about everywhere else in the Midwest. It’s so dry, in fact, that state officials and members of Congress are begging the president to authorize the release of more water from reservoirs along the Missouri River. Why? Because the Mississippi River’s water levels are getting so low that commercial barge traffic is close to the point where it can’t reach some ports.

Drought is making Old Man River a puny version of its normal self. But upstream on the Missouri, there isn’t much water left to spare. Blame that on a lack of rain, and also fault the lousy snowpack that accumulated in the Rockies last winter – a lousy snowpack that could be matched in its lack of depth this year as well.

I’m starting to wonder if we’re watching the expedited desertification of the West and Midwest.

***

I can get used to these mild winter temps. Day after day, week after week, I go outside and I’m greeted by bright sunshine. That’s going to happen today, too, when I head out to the trails for more running/exploring.

I’ve also proven to myself that I can handle the heat. No, I can’t run as hard when it’s 110 as I can when it’s 60, but I can still get some work done and do it safely, provided I take the correct precautions.

My pace is slower. There’s a lot more hydration going on. And there’s a mental toughness you have to develop when you step out the door and are greeted by blast furnace heat. I consider it a challenge.

But I have to wonder: If this cycle of heat and drought continues, what will my beloved wooded hills west of town become? All those blackjack oaks and scrub brush are pretty hardy, but if we start heading into Dust Bowl conditions, will they survive? What if we go into Dust Bowl conditions and never get out? It’s probably too soon to think about that. Who knows? Weather patterns change.

But what I do know is this: I’ll be headed out to the trails today, in mid-December, wearing shorts and a T-shirt again. Looking at the forecast, that will be the case for at least the next week.

***

climateraph

It would be one thing if this weather pattern in my part of the world was an isolated event. But it’s not.

Sea levels have risen a foot in the past century. They’re likely to rise more, and a lot faster, if ice sheets in Antarctica, Greenland and the Arctic Ocean continue to dissolve at their current rate. That has led to speculation that events like Superstorm Sandy are not just a warning to coastal communities, but a harbinger of things to come. NOAA says 2012 is very likely to be the hottest in the contiguous 48 states on record, following some other, very hot years in the last decade or so. A pattern is under way.

I was a climate change skeptic for a long time. How could a bunch of fuzzy-headed eggheads from the ivory tower world of academia possibly know that what we’re seeing was caused by us?

It now seems they’re on to something. NASA agrees. They’ve got a thorough rundown of the evidence that the accelerated warming of the planet’s seas and skies is tied to the increased production of carbon dioxide, methane and other gases that trap the sun’s heat in our atmosphere.

So what to do? Go green? Develop alternative energy? What does that look like, in terms of practical application?

Do we have to relegate ourselves to scaling back our economy? Accept sky-high energy prices that are the norm in Europe? Given how deeply every aspect of our lives is in the fossil fuel economy, is it even possible?

Smarter people than me will have to answer those questions. Changing national and global habits is hard.

One thing I know for sure is that the world is changing. It’s not just because some scientist or activist told me so. I can see it with my own eyes when I go run.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

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11 thoughts on “Seen on the run: Is climate change here?

  1. It is a tough question. Running is not a “green” activity. Our clothes, shoes, hats etc are all made from engineered fabrics. We drive long distances to race.
    I try to do my part by recycling 75% of my trash and composting a lot of our garbage. In the summer we have a garden and grow hundreds of pounds of food. We are also in the process of installing solar panels that will supply 70% of our power.
    I think that if we all do something we can all make a difference.

    • Great take. I hadn’t even thought about the gear we love, and hey, I LOVE roadtrips. And like just about anyone who runs or otherwise enjoys the outdoors, I have shelves full of synthetic fiber clothes.

      This is a hard issue. Petroleum and other fossil fuels and petrochemical products are ingrained in modern life to an unfathomable degree.

      But the fact is our earth is getting warmer. It’s changing, and that change seems to be accelerating. I hope the big thinkers start to think big to see what we can do to slow things down a bit.

      Thanks for the insightful comments!

      • Where have you been? One thing you can do to help is to stop running. Running consumes calories and you must eat more food to replace those calories, agriculture is a major contributor to global warming. Alot of people run, so the public must stop running as a passtime, actually all sports activities must stop, it is the best thing they can do to save the planet. When will runners realize this?

  2. I was once on a jury on a murder trial. The eyewitness testimony corroborated the technical evidence presented by forensic experts. What people said they witnessed was backed up by the scientific evidence being presented. Yet we ended in a hung jury — some people refused to believe the consistent evidence being put in front of them. And so it is with climate change, I think. You’re right — fossil fuels are a fundamental part of modern life and they aren’t going away soon. I don’t know either what the answers are, but realizing we have a problem is surely the first step. I am hopeful that technology, both in using cleaner sources of energy and using older sources more cleanly, will help, and also hope that it is not too late.

  3. I enjoyed the article. My thoughts are that I truly think most people don’t want to see the environment go to shit but we are so spoiled. It’s easy to consume so much energy and not think anything about it. Americans and everyone else for that matter need energy to do almost everything. I would love for there to be better alternatives for energy (which there are) but there is so much money to be made off of what is being used right now that I don’t think we will ever be not dependant on oil, coal or gas. Until that happens I don’t know what the answer is. All I know is it is getting hotter and the winters are getting shorter. Which means it really SUCKS for my future ice climbing.

    • Good take. Yeah, for people who love the snow and winter sports, kinda rough right now.

      This is definitely a big-think issue that folks need to tackle. Doing nothing might lead us somewhere we don’t want to go. Thanks for the word! And good luck finding some good lines on your next ice climb!

  4. You might find the book “Earth: The Sequel” by Fred Krupp of interest. We can solve this problem. “Power Trip” by Amanda Little is pretty good too. In his book “Storms of My Grandchildren”, James Hansen has an interesting idea he refers to as “fee and dividend.” Essentially it is a carbon “fee” that is paid to the government and then redistributed equally to the citizens as a “dividend” to cover increased costs. This gives the citizenry a annual budget to invest as they desire to handle the increased costs due to the fees imposed on carbon. It then levels the playing field for emerging tech (that is ready to go and really just needs funding to scale). Every year the fees would go up which would give incentive for people to invest in tech that has a lower carbon footprint and come out ahead in the long run.

    • Interesting. Certainly for power generation, this could be pretty doable. Tougher for transportation, and with all the plastics and synthetic rubber we use, it gets more complicated still. But we definitely need to be more aggressive about making the switch to renewables.

  5. Pingback: Will There Come Soft Rains? | outsidereading

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