Sunday, January 6, 2008

Global warning?

It's the first Sunday in January. Ordinarily, here in northeast Missouri, cross-country skiing is an option after morning coffee. Well, I've just finished my java and the outside temperature is already north of 50 degrees, merrily on its way to an expected high in the 60s. I saw a confused goose flying northwest—the direction from which the coldest winds ordinarily roar down from Canada. As a rule, January is our coldest month and because we heat with wood it's not unusual to wake up and have to labor a bit to get the indoor temperature that high. What's going on?

     As the snow cover of the last two weeks exits stage south, we are left with a challenge we generally don't have to face sooner than late February or early March: mud. While the balmy weather is easy on the wood supply, it's a complication in other aspects. Mark, from neighboring Red Earth Farms, had just contacted me about felling some black locusts from our property to use as poles for a barn they intend to construct this spring. We've got the trees and ordinarily we'd have made a date this week to harvest them. But you can't do that in the mud (you can cut 'em, but you can't haul 'em). We need the ground to be frozen.
     We're beekeepers, and the hives send out field scouts whenever temps rise above 50. Nature has hard-wired them to think that means it's time to start looking for food. While it must be nice for them to "get out of the house" for a bit, there's really nothing for them to do in January—no nectar and no pollen. But January flights take energy and that means they'll be consuming their precious winter stores of honey that much faster. If it happens too often, we'll have to feed them so that they won't starve before the spring honey flows commence. That's a worry and expense we'd rather not have.
     To be sure, January thaws are a normal part of the local weather cycle, and it's difficult to discern long-term trends in the midst of seasonal swings. Today won't set a record for high temperatures in northeast Missouri, yet it's way above the average high for this time of year, which is around 30 degrees. What constitutes evidence of global warming and what's just normal fluctuation?
     This is Sandhill's 34th winter. That means we've seen a lot of weather. I can recall a Christmas morning that started out at -24 degrees, and multiple days in a row where it didn't get as high as zero. It is definitely less common to see the thermometer dip into negative numbers than it used to be. Some winters it doesn't happen once. (And typically there's hell to pay the next growing season because without the hard cold we don't get good winter kill of grubs and other garden pests.)
     My wife, Ma'ikwe, has plans to be in Daytona Beach the last two weeks of January, and she's really looking forward to the warmer weather she's expecting. I just looked, and the forecast there is for highs in the 70s and lows in the 50s—just a shade cooler than what we currently enjoy here in tropical northeast Missouri. 
     Who knows, maybe this spring we'll plant oranges.

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