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.
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.
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.
On Twitter @RMHigh7088