The State of Drought

Drought Monitor for Virginia
Drought Monitor for Virginia

“Drought—what drought?” That was a typical response to my question before this week’s news of wildfires in Virginia and the Governor declared a state of emergency. I’m sure farmers, beekeepers, gardeners, foresters, and firefighters have worried for weeks, if not longer, about the lack of rain. The difference in perception depends on how close we live to the soil. I noticed a deficiency before my garden well ran dry and a blanket of fall leaves crisp as cornflakes and far more flammable.

I understand puzzled reactions while lawns remain green, and we haven’t had a hose-pipe ban yet. The drought is less severe here than in Shenandoah and north-west of the state. Besides, plants are getting some relief on dewy mornings and there’s less evaporation than in July and August.

A drought can be overlooked until it becomes severe from creeping forward slowly and having impacts that vary with soil type, plant species, and temperature. For the same reason, climate deniers take cover when a sizzling summer is followed by a wet autumn and/or a chilly winter.

Rising sea levels and melting glaciers are undeniable evidence of global climate change whereas the weather is debated more, sometimes hotly. What is normal? Are memories of idyllic summers spent on the beach and winters sledding in our youth our baseline? Most people prefer a plain plus or minus answer whereas it comes down to probabilities (plenty of scope for politically motivated interpretation).

The US Drought Monitor keeps an archive of dry and wet periods since records began in 1895 (and from 400 AD based on dendrochronology). The dark red spikes on the graph for Virginia represent intense drought, and the reciprocal navy blue spikes show extreme wetness. The range between extremes is huge, and much greater than the famously damp UK climate (though recent storms begin to undermine its reputation for moderate weather).

Anthropogenic impacts on climate are reckoned to be notable after 1950. The graph doesn’t reveal much difference to my eyes. An algorithm using the raw data is needed to check if the pattern is random or has a subtle periodicity.  

A tornado not heading to Oz

Loblolly pine fallen by tornado
A victim of nature’s wrath

Suddenly Uncle Henry stood up. “There’s a cyclone coming …” he said. Thus, began Dorothy’s voyage over the Kansas prairie with her dog, Toto, carried by a tornado. The first warnings were the wail of the wind and bowing grass.

The blood and sinew memory of panic soon fades after danger passes. After escaping to a safe haven, we tell the story blithely. Hence, I am writing while feelings remain fresh.

I was walking my dog in the afternoon. The air was calm and the clouds creamy-white apart from a sulking grey curtain over the horizon. Ben wanted to go further than planned but we turned back at the first spots of rain. By the time we were 400 yards from home I heard a tremendous roar behind, like a steam engine chasing us. I didn’t look round but pressed forward faster, expecting only to be drenched.

When debris started flying at a rate never seen before, we ran towards the path through our woodlot that takes us home. Later, I regretted we didn’t stop for refuge under a neighbor’s verandah because the violence grew and grew. The path was covered in debris and branches laden with leaves flailed as if animated by pulses of high voltage. We heard loud crashes behind, on each side, and even overhead. To halt under a tree seemed suicidal; to press forward felt perilous.

When we reached home, Lucinda held the door open eyes round as marbles and her quaking voice inaudible from the din outside. The phone I left on the table during our walk showed an emergency announcement to take cover immediately. Later we heard people had seen a funnel cloud. I could tell them where it had touched down.

When the wind abated, I went outside to check the damage. Large trees had fallen in a narrow swath almost surgically. Only a few yards from the giants, delicate plants were unaffected, although the ground was strewn with broken boughs, sticks and leaves. I found a tree lying across the path where it had been felled seconds after we passed.

A tornado transported Dorothy and Toto to the Land of Oz, but Ben and I missed going to another place.

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker
Photo: Inge Curtis

Downies are the smallest and cutest of eight species of ‘peckers in south-east Virginia. Inge captured this picture of a male downy at a food bank. It hammered suet, nuts and seeds into a cavity of a bough. We don’t expect different species to be deliberately cooperative, but so it seemed. Like visitors at a community bank, a Red-breasted Nuthatch and Tufted Titmouse also deposited titbits while two other species came to check it out. All the depositors returned for withdrawals, the female downy taking more than the rest, perhaps for her nestlings. But an open safe at a bank is a temptation to bandits and along came a squirrel to steal everything.

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