Skip to main content

Crossing a Threshold

I imagine that the farmers and ranchers who lived through the Dust Bowl felt like the world (at least as they knew it) was ending.  That's the thing about drought - you don't know you're in one until it's well underway, and you don't know when it will end until it's over.  All you know for sure is that the world is not behaving normally.  Or, to put it another way, "Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get." This quote is often attributed to Mark Twain, but I can't find evidence that he actually said it!

As we face a fourth year of drought in California, I feel like we've crossed some sort of climate threshold.  The world has changed, at least from where I can observe it.  Here's a partial list of the things that feel different to me:

  • We have almost no snow in the Sierra Nevada (Spanish for Snowy Mountains).  Many ski resorts - even some of the big ones - have closed early.  The latest snow survey reveals that our snow pack is just 8 percent of normal for this time of year - the lowest amount every recorded in the 65 years we've been doing snow surveys.  Since we rely on snow pack for storing much of the water we use in the hot, dry summer months (for irrigation, drinking water and environmental purposes), the lack of snow is of grave concern.
  • The winter weather we have had this year was concentrated into a handful of relatively extreme events, punctuated by extended dry periods. December 2014 was the wettest December we've experienced since moving to Auburn in 2001.  January 2015 was the driest January in history.
  • Speaking of extreme events, we've seen wildfires and dust storms on the east side of the Sierra Nevada this "winter."  I talked to a friend whose family has ranched on the east side of Sierra Valley (north of Truckee) for generations.  They had a sand storm in February that left 2-3 feet of sand piled up along their fencelines.  A February wildfire north of Bishop burned more than 7,000 acres and destroyed many homes in the small community of Swall Meadows.
  • I manage sheep and cattle grazing on annual rangelands in the Sierra foothills.  The vegetation is 30-45 days ahead of where it should be in late March.  Our annual grasses are already producing seedheads - and some are dying back.  The blue oaks and black oaks leafed out at least 30 days earlier than normal.  And since the vegetation is off schedule, so are many of the insects and animals that depend on rangelands.  The wild turkeys are already nesting.  We have leaf hoppers in our grasslands that we normally don't see until early summer.
  • Much of this is related to temperatures, I'm sure.  We've had temperatures in the high 70s and low 80s in March - it feels more like May!  The warm temperatures and early vegetation growth means that soil moisture is depleted - what little precipitation we received since the first of the year is gone.

And so at the risk of sounding slightly apocalyptic, it feels to me as if we've crossed some sort of climate threshold.  If our own activities as humans have changed the climate (and I believe that the scientific evidence supports this perspective), then it feels as if we have moved into a period of rapid change and profound uncertainty.  We have challenging days (and years) ahead of us, I'm afraid.


Popular posts from this blog

Trade Offs

As we were building fence for the soon-to-be-lambing ewes this morning, someone drove by and asked my partner Roger how long it took to set up the electro-net fencing we use for the sheep. Roger replied, "It's not too bad," to which the driver said, "Seems like a lot of work." Roger's answer - which both of us use with some frequency, was, "Yeah - but this way we don't have to feed any hay!" The driver, who obviously wasn't a rancher, didn't understand - and I suspect even some of my rancher friends don't understand the trade off we're making. Building electric fence is a lot of work - wouldn't it be easier just to feed hay?

The paddock that Roger and I built this morning encloses about 5.75 acres of high quality forage. Since the ewes are on the verge of lambing, their forage demand is peaking. They're eating nearly twice as much grass now as they need in the late summer - after all, many of them eating for three (and p…

No Easy Answers Part 2

In mid October, some friends who graze their cattle in the mountains of western Lassen County (less than 200 miles from our home), became the first ranchers to have cattle “officially” killed by wolves in California in nearly a century. Wildlife officials confirmed that the Lassen pack killed a 600-pound heifer; four more heifers died (and were partially eaten by wolves), but the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) couldn’t confirm the cause of death. While I learned about the depredations shortly after they happened through the rancher grapevine, news of my friends’ losses weren’t made public until the California Cattlemen’s Association and California Farm Bureau Federation issued a joint press release this week. The October 28 edition of the Sacramento Bee ran the story.
If you’ve read my previous blogs about wolves, you’ll probably know that I’ve frequently been frustrated with the Bee’s coverage. The paper has run guest opinions disguised as news articles, and appar…

Humbled and Excited

More than 20 years ago, I went to work for the California Cattlemen's Association (CCA). After two internships, I'd been hired by my friend and mentor John Braly as the membership director in 1992. By 1996, I'd been promoted to assistant vice president - pretty heady stuff for a young guy who hadn't grown up in the industry. I started looking for new challenges. Dr. Jim Oltjen, who was (and is) the beef extension specialist at UC Davis (my undergraduate alma mater) suggested that I think about going to graduate school to prepare for a career in extension. I considered it, but the timing wasn't right.

Fast forward to 2013 (or so) - I'd been working as a part-time community education specialist in our local University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) office for several years. The farm advisors in the office - Roger Ingram and Cindy Fake - suggested that I consider getting a master's degree and applying for a future farm advisor job. This time the id…