It’s official. 2012 was the hottest year in 118 years of record keeping for the U.S. It was the hottest year on record from South Dakota to Texas and from Kansas to Illinois. In almost all other states with appreciable grasslands, this was one of the warmest three years on record. Over 99 million people experienced 10 or more days above 100 degrees where they live this year. There were 356 all-time record highs set in the U.S. There were 4 all-time record lows.
In grassland continental climates, heat is associated with drought, and 2012 was true to form. Last year was among the driest ever for much of the middle of the country. In 2011, flooding plagued the Midwest. By the end of 2012, the mighty Mississippi was reduced to mud, sand bars, and a trickle. At least the reduction of exports on barge traffic is associated with a decrease in the export of sediment and nutrients.
In 2012, 9.2 million acres burned in wildfires. Some of these fires consumed areas beyond my comprehension.
The shit truly hit the fan in 2012, and although much of it was unprecedented in our records, it was not beyond the capabilities of our natural systems for recovery. The problem that I see as a conservationist and restorationist is that there will be a day in our children’s lifetimes and in some of our lifetimes that this will be the norm. It will be the norm if we take action on climate now. If we don’t take action now, years like this year will be a cakewalk.
We can view a prairie after a drought or forest or sage-steppe grassland after a severe fire and comfort ourselves in the resilience of these systems, but resilience assumes that there is a window of conditions for recovery. In eighty years the recovery window, which is yesterday’s normal, will be an anomaly…as anomalous as 2012 with respect to the current climate record. If we don’t drag our feet, we have a lot of hope for saving species. If we’re really smart and lucky, we’ll be able to save the physical structures and functions of natural systems. I don’t think we can possibly learn what we ought to do fast enough. All we can do is improve our odds.