Water and Life

This year’s summer in Wisconsin has been an interesting one.  For the first time in the 13 years that I’ve been living here, we had a substantial drought for the first half of the summer.   Although there have been extremely hot years in the past–years where it was above 90 or even 95′ for 2-3 weeks solid–those years also had lots of moisture.

This year was different.  This year in Madison, it rained around memorial day and then didn’t rain again until the third week of July.

The effects of this lack of water were profound.

On an abstract level, one can look at this in terms of numbers.  Using the chart linked above, one can see that by June 1st, Madison had received about 11 inches of precipitation and the yearly average for that point was about 12 inches.  Thus, despite having a relatively snow-free winter, we had only a 1 inch deficit in precipitation, which meant we had received 92% of our expected precipitation.

Then, although we hadn’t realized it, the drought started.  By July 17th, which was the day before a major storm finally plowed through Madison, the deficit in precipitation had increased to 6.56 inches–since January 1st–and a startling 5.81 inches alone since June 1st.  (I got the data for this from here using the “Daily Climate Summary” button–but it is always current.. so there’s not a permanent link to the data… )

These numbers meant that we went from having 92% of our expected precipitation to having only 58% of it in just 7 weeks.

We were failing when it came to rain.

Since July 17th, however, thing have appeared to get back on track.  We’ve had regular rain to the extent that by August 20th, our total precipitation deficits had become 5.74 inches since June 1st and 6.82 inches since January 1st. This also translates into an improved 72% of our expected precipitation for this point in the year.

Of course–this obviously shows that we have not erased the overall deficit, but we are no longer increasing it (dramatically), and instead we seem to be back on track.

This has all been abstract, however, and does not convey the physical, mental, and emotional impact that the drought had on people here in Madison.  I was not the only person to wonder if it would ever rain again as we approached the 3rd week of July without water from the sky.  More importantly, the landscape here changed as I’ve never seen it.  Because of these changes, I decided, on a whim, to take a picture on one of my daily bike rides and then send it to some friends who had moved from Madison to California.

This was what I sent them:

7/17/2012 in Madison, WI.

Their response was “Oh.. a nice pretty picture of California, wait, what, OH FUCK, THAT’S WISCONSIN!”

The fascinating aspect of their response was that it did really look like a lot of California–esp. southern California.  Depending on how the rain patterns change–it may also be more like our future, considering that city planners in Chicago expect the climate to shift numerous plant zones to be more like Birmingham, AL by 2070, and to be like Baton Rouge, LA by the end of the century.

Time will tell.  In any case, hours after this picture was taken, it rained (you can even see the clouds there in that first picture).  It then rained a few more times in the next ten days (and ever since then) and the plants started to recover.  By July 26th, the scene had changed to this:

7/26/2012 in Madison, WI

Life was starting to return to us.  As more rain fell–not every day–but every couple of days or so–it got better.  By the end of July, it had further greened to be more like this:

7/31/2012 in Madison, WI

This is just 5 days after the previous picture, but you can see the increase in greenery.  Something this brings out is that life is robust, but it takes its time.  Yes, we are talking about plants here, rather than animals, and plants are masters of the slow and steady path–but they are also very much at the center of many of our core perceptions of  Nature and the Environment, and thus it is worth our time to pay attention to how these things work.

In the end, I will leave you with one more picture, from August 20th.  One month after the end of the drought–and with a normal amount of precipitation for that month–you would be hard pressed to know that there had even been one.

8/20/2012 in Madison, WI

Of course, the plants will remember this drought.  They will change their long-term growth and their reproductive behavior in the future due to the lack of water.  At more abstract levels, the drought is going to dramatically change the financial situation in this country by concretely raising the price of a lot of foods this upcoming fall and winter.

We’ll see how this all plays out in the future, but at the moment, I am just happy that the greenery has returned.

Water is Life.

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About Prof. Woland

I contain multitudes. Come meet us.
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