Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Big Chill

Last year was a warm winter in Banámichi. Some of the nights were chilly, but it never froze. The plants in my garden grew all winter and looked beautiful. A couple of bitter days in January 2011 changed all of that.

Now, all the lovely subtropical plants along the south wall are brown and look dead. Even the huge Sapote tree in the yard is covered with crispy leaves. Chuchico's even more enormous tree in his yard (the one that drops stuff on my veggie patch) is covered with crispy leaves. My carefully nurtured little mango, avocado and papaya trees all look finished. It's all very sad and forlorn. It is hard not to be angry at mother nature for ruining my garden.

Trumpet plant before the freeze
Trumpet plant after the freeze

It took two very cold days and a couple of nights at about 18 degrees Farenheit to accomplish this. The repercussions will probably last for several years. Our friend Tom talked to some of the "ancianos" in the town - the  folks over 80. Each one of them said that this kind of cold has never happened before now in their lifetime.

I remind myself that I am not alone in having my garden ruined. Others are also heartbroken at what has happened to their plants. Many people rely on the avocado, mango and citrus trees in their yards for food. All that is gone. Those fruits will have to come from elsewhere this year at a much greater price. Many people here live on the edge, and this will just add to the effects of the world economic downturn and the almost complete lack of tourism due to the self-serving US media reports of violence in Mexico. Money for high priced produce is scarce.
 dead mango tree
dead papaya tree

I personally was caught in a record setting snowstorm in Minneapolis, and later again sat on a runway for several hours at JFK in New York while our plane was de-iced, and now here is all this cold. What is happening? How could we have such a dreadful winter in a supposed time of global warming? Good question, I thought and did some research.

Apparently, the first thing to understand is that weather is not the same as climate. No heat wave or cold spell by itself is indicative of whether or not our climate is changing. But climate change does cause instabilities in weather patterns such as heat waves- like last summer, and severe cold and snow - like this winter.

The slowly rising temperature of the planet results in warmer water in the tropical Pacific (el niño), which affects  weather patterns all over, particularly in the mid Atlantic states. This also can mess up the jet stream and force cold air down from Northern Canada. Voila...a cold snowy winter in a time of global warming.

Back in northern Sonora, all the agave plants have frozen. This means that for several years there will be no bacanora, the regional type of tequila that many locals make.The mescaleros who cut the agave will be out of work. Those who make the bacanora and sell it will have less income, and the impoverished will now need to buy tequila instead of drinking their own home brew. The vegetable farmers were frozen out all the way down to the state of Sinaloa. One little weather system and so much economic impact!

But how can we be sure this cold is really caused by greenhouse gas emissions and not just some other more normal fluctuation? A recent article in the online New York Times cites a study in which computer programs simulated the climate and then analyzed whether recent severe weather could be explained by normal variations in climate. It was found that it could not, and that severe weather as we have experienced this winter could only be explained by taking into account greenhouse gases created by human activity.

It's interesting what froze and what did not. The lemon and Mexican lime trees look bad, and the fruit has turned brown and rotten. Meanwhile, the oranges and grapefruit are just fine. All the herbs except the basil are good, and the lettuce is ready to be picked. The coleus jungle is gone. I think about the lovely red chiltepins and their plants out in the riparian areas where we picked them. Are they still alive?

frozen Mexican Lime tree

It's hard to contemplate that climate change is partially my fault. I drive cars that rely on fossil fuels. I buy foods that have to be transported great distances, using even more fossil fuels. I travel in planes. I like my heating and air conditioning as much as the next person. My habits contribute to climate change, and therefore indirectly contribute to the wild weather fluctuations that cause so much suffering. What can I change about my life to lessen this impact? Should I not drive or not travel? Should I purchase carbon offsets? Should I eat only local foods in season? Should I suffer the cold in the winter and the heat in the summer?

So far I am embarrassed to say I have not been willing to do these things. Making the effort seems like such a drop in the bucket and to make these sacrifices would significantly reduce my quality of life. Not enough other people are making these sacrifices for us all to make a worthwhile shift in the greenhouse gas picture.What I have been willing to do is to consolidate trips so as not to waste gas, fly infrequently, use energy saving light bulbs, and to turn down the heat and AC. I am not sure these help any more in the long run than taking more extreme actions, but at least they soothe my guilt.

Still, when I realize the impact of the cold, the guilt nags at me and makes me wonder if I could do more. I think we need a change in collective consciousness so that enough people take these actions that we create a 100th monkey effect. How do we create that change? Many people do not even believe that climate change is real. I despair for the future of this planet.

Meanwhile, all the experts say to leave the plants alone for another month so it becomes more obvious what will come back. It is hard to restrain my pruning shears. I want to get rid of the brown crispy stuff and forget what happened. I want my garden to return to the way it was before. But that's the thing about change -- things may not ever go back to the way they were before. And that is painful whether it happens in the plant world or the human world.