Every year at about this time, from the end of spring on into summer, is the time of year I affectionately refer to as “Monsoon Season.” This is because nearly every day for several consecutive weeks, at around 3 or 4 in the afternoon, it rains. The weather outside could be bright and warm and sunny one moment, then overcast and pouring the next. When I say it rains, I don’t mean a light sprinkling shower. I call it Monsoon Season because the rain appears to come from nowhere, pouring down in buckets hard and fast for several minutes, and then vanishing just as quickly; a peculiar mountain occurrence, to be sure. But I am not deceived by this show of rain every day. The Western Carolina region is, in fact, in the midst of a drought. The word “drought” tends to conjure up images of a dry and barren desert, of withering brown crops and soaring temperatures due to a complete lack of rain. A drought in Western North Carolina means something a little different. There is still rainfall, even what appears to be a lot of it, but in a drought there is less rainfall than there normally is. A drought means that water reserves are lower than they should be and temperatures are abnormally high. There are even several kinds of drought, as defined by the National Drought Mitigation Center at http://www.drought.unl.edu/. In the summer of 2007, all of North Carolina is classified under drought conditions. The least affected region is in the east, in the area of North Carolina surrounding the Outer Banks. The most affected, classified by the North Carolina Drought Management Advisory Council, as being under extreme drought are the counties here in the west: Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Jackson, Macon, and Swain to be precise. The most probable reason for these drought effects? Global warming. Statistics recently released by the National Climatic Data Center report that this past winter (2006-2007) has been the warmest ever recorded, with global temperatures averaging 0.72 degrees Celsius (about 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit) above normal, as opposed to the previous record set in 2004 of 0.12 degrees Celsius above normal. This warming occurred particularly in the Northern Hemisphere over heavily populated land areas. The NCDC claims that this is a result that climate models have been predicting for a long time now, based on the theory that human-emitted greenhouse gases could substantially affect Earth’s atmosphere and cause significant warming of the planet. The NCDC also states that further substantial warming can be expected in coming years, as human-emitted greenhouse gases continue to increase at about 2% a year. Global warming and drought are linked together by more than just the fact that raised temperatures causes water to evaporate more quickly. The amount of rainfall an area gets is determined by its climate, or more specifically, the wind patterns and jet streams that regulate moisture and weather in and out of an area. These patterns have been the same for a long time, thus creating an area’s climate. These patterns change with the seasons, bringing distinct weather for each of them. But in recent years, the increased amount of greenhouse gases humans put into the air (greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide from cars, factories, methane from livestock, nitrous oxide, and ozone) have caused these wind and weather patterns to change, thus bringing unusual weather to an area that is not used to it. (Cutting down massive amounts of trees that take carbon dioxide out of the air and replace it with oxygen doesn’t help much, either.) Therefore, the area has more heat or less rain than it is used to, perhaps both, causing a drought. There is an increasing awareness as well as less and less doubt that this global warming effect is the result of human activity, and no area is immune to it, not even Western North Carolina. The problem with drought is that it is what is known as a “creeping phenomenon.” Its effects are slower in coming and so people are not often aware of its potential dangers as they are, say, to a hurricane or a tornado. Remember reading about the Dust Bowl in school? That was because of drought. So, what can you do to help fight against global warming and drought? There are several things:• Carpool or take public transportation. The less individual cars that put carbon dioxide into the air, the better. There are also vehicles and alternative fuel sources starting to appear that rely less on gasoline and other fossil fuels. Take advantage of them.• Conserve water. Simple little things such as turning off the faucet when you brush your teeth or taking a bath instead of a shower can save several gallons.• Plant trees. This is better for the environment all around. They help regulate carbon dioxide in the air, as well as protect against soil erosion and offer shade from that hot summer sun.• Work together. One person doing these things on their own won’t make much of a difference, but if human beings can organize and cooperate, then perhaps they can.
For more information on North Carolina’s Drought Watch, go to http://nc.water.usgs.gov/drought/.