Another viewpoint: Through smoky air, impact of drought clouds the Midwest


Chicago Tribune

Finally, some rain.

We were pleased to see the unfamiliar sight of water falling from the Midwest skies in recent days. For one thing, it can only help to clear out the smoke from Canadian wildfires that has cast a pall over Chicago and Indiana and created a serious health emergency.

But the rain we received was still not enough to end the ongoing drought that threatens to disrupt summer activities and, potentially, the global food supply.

Rainfall amounts across much of the Corn Belt growing area remain well below normal levels. Given high food prices, strong demand and limited supplies, the world is banking on a big harvest from U.S. farmers, and the abnormal dryness has led to volatile price swings at Chicago’s agricultural markets. With traders focused on the weather, more volatility is likely in the days and weeks ahead.

For the week ended June 25, the U.S. Department of Agriculture rated roughly half of the nation’s budding corn and soybean acreage as fair, poor or very poor, which is an unusually bad rating for this time of year. There is still time for the crop to rebound: July is the key month for corn and August for soybeans.

So far, this isn’t a repeat of the historic 1988 drought. But anyone who remembers that Dust Bowl-like disaster recognizes how Mother Nature can upend mankind’s ambitious plans and practices.

An extreme, persistent drought can do a lot of damage. It can hamper power plant intakes and endanger household water supplies by reducing well and reservoir levels. It can kill off fish and other wildlife. Permits that allow irrigated farms, golf courses and other heavy users to draw from surface water may need to be suspended.

A lack of rain contributes to wildfires, including the Canadian blazes that have blanketed Chicago in yellowish haze and made breathing a serious hazard outdoors — and at one stunning point last week saddled our Windy City with the worst air quality of any major metropolis in the world.

If crop losses become widespread, sending feed prices higher, livestock producers typically respond by culling their herds, leading to an increase in meat prices down the line.

You might think nothing can be done about the weather. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It’s premature to pin the Midwest drought on climate change, versus a random, unusual weather pattern. But as most people understand, human activity has led to global warming, which in turn leads to more extreme and unpredictable weather.

On a worldwide scale, reducing greenhouse gas emissions is essential to curb their catastrophic effects. And on a personal level, we need to be mindful about reducing our environmental impact.

Beyond that, America needs to be much better prepared. Drought, severe storms, wildfires, flooding and other natural catastrophes are intensifying. Everything from building codes and water systems to forest management and farming practices needs to adapt to the reality of increasingly disruptive weather.

It’s past time to stop arguing about climate change and get busy mitigating its undeniable effects.

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