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Menopausal Mother Nature

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There Have Always Been Major Climate Events—And CO2 Was Not A Factor

dust bowl 1930s

Amid hurricane landings, flash floods, deadly droughts, and raging wildfires, too little attention has been paid to past environmental events of even greater impact.

This year marks the anniversary of one of those events, the Dust Bowl drought that descended on depression-ravaged North America. It remains one of the most devastating climate events in Canadian history.

And there were no carbon emissions to blame it on.

In August 1931, 90 years ago last month, the Canadian Red Cross launched a national appeal for food and clothing to be sent to Saskatchewan to relieve farmers from the great drought and dust storms that helped precipitate and prolong one of the most traumatic social, economic and environmental crises of the 20th century.

The response to the Red Cross effort, particularly from residents of Ontario, was impressive. As Pierre Berton described the relief effort in his 1990 book The Great Depression, the aid was joyously received by tens of thousands of destitute wheat farmers who had lost everything in the first years of the nearly decade-long assault of a hot, dry, and dust-filled climate.

“The farm families would long remember the hundreds of tons of clothing, collected by the churches, that arrived washed, pressed, and packed in 247 freight cars. The children would never forget the first tinned fruit and fresh apples they’d seen in two years. Only the salt cod from the Maritimes baffled the prairie people; much of it was wasted because no one had explained it must be soaked and desalted.”

The history of the drought and dust bowl of the 1930s is today too easily forgotten and ignored. During the climate and economic crisis, per capita income in Saskatchewan plunged 72 percent between 1928 and 1933, 60 percent in Alberta, and 45 percent in Manitoba.

Facing poverty, starvation, and a seemingly hopeless future, an estimated 200,000 people fled the Canadian Prairies in the 1930s, most emigrating to British Columbia or Ontario.

A note by George Hoffman published by Legion magazine in 1997 singles out one of the 1931 starting points for a decade of climate and economic hell.

The strongest and most remembered image of the Great Depression in Saskatchewan, writes Hoffman, is the dust storms.

“They began in 1931. Parched soil that had been loosened and pulverized by years of plowing was blown off the land by hot, dry winds. Clouds of dust, black blizzards, moved across the province. Soil drifts built up covering fences, filling ditches and forming banks against farm buildings. On one day in January 1931, a month when Saskatchewan is accustomed to blowing snow, it was impossible to see across the street in Moose Jaw at 1 p.m. because of blowing dust.”

The images and accounts of the Prairie drought of the 1930s cross all three provinces. In Manitoba in 1931,

“The land was parched from days of hot temperatures in the mid-30C. And then came high winds, which whipped up two dust storms that deposited 6,000 tonnes of silt in Winnipeg. What Winnipeggers observed in 1931 was the result of storms bearing topsoil from the plains of southern and central Saskatchewan, as well as North Dakota and South Dakota in the U.S.”

In pre-oil-boom Alberta, the 1930’s drought and depression ripped through the province. After the global stock market crash of 1929, the drought unleashed grasshopper plagues, crop failure, erosion of topsoil, and soil salinization, devastating Alberta’s booming agricultural economy. Forest fires blazed.

Much of the blame for the ruin of the 1930s can be pinned on the depression-led economic crisis that caused a collapse in world markets for wheat and other Canadian agricultural commodities. The natural climate drought and windstorms multiplied the economic destruction.

Today’s climate events, heatwaves, and droughts — however dramatic and traumatic in specific locations — are not unique occurrences in the history of North America or the world.

According to the U.S. National Integrated Drought Information System, the 1930s Dust Bowl drought “remains the most significant drought — meteorological and agricultural — in the United States’ historical record.”

Tree ring archives, it adds, indicate the 1930s-scale drought events have occurred occasionally over the last 1,000 years.

Determining the degree to which current droughts and other climate events can be pinned on carbon emissions remains an uncertain process. Environment Canada researchers in 2007 concluded that the worst and most prolonged Canadian droughts occurred in the pre-carbon 1930s.

There are many predictions that drought events could increase with climate change. Barrie Bonsal, a leading researcher with Environment Canada, and colleagues have concluded that a “handful of studies” suggest that droughts in some parts of Canada — especially the southern Prairies — “will likely increase” as a result of climate change.

Given that droughts (and other climate events) are mostly natural and inevitable, and may often be severe, what is to be done?

Regardless of whether the climate change science predictions of more in future, the way forward should be to prepare for the inevitable regardless of the causes, of which climate change is just one.

In their 2015 paper — Climate Change, Drought and Human Health in Canada — Bonsal and other scientists summarize the history of droughts in Canada and called for preparatory action.

Whether caused by carbon emissions or not, the drought risk projections suggest Canada should be prepared to change and adapt its agricultural and health practices.

“Gaps exist in our understanding of the impacts of short-term vs. prolonged drought on the health of Canadians, projections of drought and its characteristics at the regional level, and the effectiveness of current adaptations. Further research will be critical to inform adaptation planning to reduce future drought-related risks to health.”

The same case could be made about the other natural climate risks faced by Canada and other countries. Floods, heatwaves, wildfires, droughts, and hurricanes have always been with us, through the centuries, regardless of the carbon environment.

There will be more, and we should be ready to deal with the inevitable — an approach that does not prescribe net-zero extremes and eliminating carbon emissions that provide the world with energy.

Read more at Financial Post

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