Western Kansas, for instance, gets about the same amount of rainfall each year as southern Arizona. For decades Kansas farmers have increasingly made use of groundwater pumped from the Ogallala Aquifer to grow corn. What will happen when that aquifer inevitably dwindles to the point it’s no longer useful for agriculture? What will happen to my hometown? What will happen to the countless other small towns and the families who have called them home for generations? Always check in advance with neighbours and friends to see if you can hide clues for your treasure hunt on their property.
During the spring of 2019, the whiplash effect of climate change was on display on a massive scale: just months after widespread drought in 2018 ruined fields in Kansas and Missouri came the wettest year in US history. Rivers spilled over to flood dozens of towns from the Dakotas to Louisiana, effectively turning them into islands. At one point, between Omaha and Kansas City, every levee was breached on the Missouri River. An aerial view at the Nebraska state line visually confirmed that the overflowing Missouri looked more like an ocean than a river. Cities from Saint Louis to Baton Rouge experienced the longest-duration flood in history. And as the spring flood stretched into hurricane season, a new type of compound flood threat emerged during July’s Hurricane Barry: for the first time in history, New Orleans completely sealed itself off and waited out a threefold attack from rain, river, and rising seas.
By midcentury, on our current course, long-lasting droughts will have become more common and more severe across the western part of North America, including in my home state of Kansas. Recent studies predict that, later this century, a megadrought will persist for decades. Indeed, it may have already started. A drought like that would create a new normal. Even if the amount of rainfall doesn’t change, rising temperatures will boost the speed of evaporation and make the rain that does fall less useful to plants, altering every aspect of life in the place where I grew up.
Chronicling the human-induced destruction of the natural world in real time isn’t a career I’d recommend for people who get emotionally attached to their work. Watching all this happen with the keen eye of a climate reporter and the broken-open heart of a parent is difficult to handle. By the time my two preschoolers, Roscoe and Zeke, are as old as I am now, the world will be transformed. I’m not quite sure what to do with that information. My job is to study the weather and climate on a global scale, and I’m not even able to fully comprehend how radically things in our neighborhood will change in my kids’ lifetimes.
Our current home in Saint Paul, Minnesota, sits a half mile from the Mississippi River. Outside of Alaska, Minnesota is the fastest warming state in the country. We are losing populations of native species of plants and animals at an alarming rate, just as fast as in the Pacific Islands. And just as it is in Puerto Rico, the weather is becoming more erratic and extreme. At another time in history, Saint Paul would be the perfect place to raise a family. Now, though, there are days when a deep anxiety takes over and I’m paralyzed with worry about what will happen if we don’t radically change course.