Weather Talk

23 04 2009

Climate change is nothing new.  The idea of artificial climate change, however, is a more recent development.  Flux has happened throughout recorded history, with the frost line receding and growing in colder regions, or the desert receding and growing in the arid regions.  As fertile land increases, people moved into it, thinking that this was a permanent change.  Later, when it snapped back to its former boundary, people were exiled from it, forced to find new lands or starve.  People used to see themselves as victims of circumstance in these cases, but lately, they’ve come to see themselves as controlling agents of the weather.  Global warming is not the first example of this.  During the late eighteen-hundreds, the Great American Desert, known as Nebraska, experienced unprecedented rainfall, and lands which had formerly been unsuitable for farming were suddenly quite productive.  The idea grew that people were causing this change by tilling the soil.  Eventually, this was considered a scientific fact, even.  People who disagreed were considered ignorant, as we’ll see further in this post.

In order to avoid adding too much to the discussion, I’ve omitted my own commentary from the following quotes.  They are placed in order, by date.  The first quotes were taken from a barren Nebraska.  The following quotes show an increasing confidence in the exact cause of the climate change.  The final two quotes follow the reversal of the climate change.  Draw your own conclusions.

“Our rich possessions west of the ninety-ninth meridian have turned out to be worthless, so far as agriculture is concerned.  They never can entice a rural population to inhabit them nor sustain one if so enticed.  We may as well acknowledge this,- and act upon it,-legislate upon it.  We may as well admit that Kansas and Nebraska, with the exception of the small strip of land upon their eastern borders are perfect deserts, with a soil whose constituents are of such nature as to forever unfit them for the purpose of agriculture.” (“Report of the Secretary of War on the Several Pacific Railroad Explorations,” North American Review, LXXXII (Jan., 1856), 236)

“the people now on the extreme frontiers of Nebraska are near the western limit of the fertile portions of the prairie lands, and a desert space separates them from the fertile and desirable region in the westerns mountains.  They are, as it were, on the shores of a sea, up to which population and agriculture may advance, and no further.” (U.S. Congress, House, “Report of Secretary of War John B. Floyd,” Executive Documents of the House of Representatives, 35th Cong., 2nd sess., serial 998 (Washington: James B. Steedman, printer, 1859), 644)

“From the earliest explorations by white men, the vast region of sand and alkali, sage-brush, greasewood and cactus, extending from western Kansas to the Sierra Nevadas, and from the British Possessions to northern Mexico, was called the ‘Great American Desert.’  Its boundless wastes, often sweeping the hundreds of miles in dreary sand-hills and plains destitute of water, trees and grass, were particularly repulsive and believed to be utterly unproductive.” (Albert D. Richardson, Beyond the Mississippi (Hartford: American Publishing Co., 1867), 135)

“The amount of rain-fall per year is steadily increasing west of the Missouri river.  The average for nine years past at Omaha is twenty-nine inches.  With the year ending June, 1877, it was thirty-eight inches in south-east Nebraska – an amount equal to the average of northern Illinois.  From similar statistics we are able to show that the rainfall is steadily increasing westward, following the pioneer farmer and his plow, which is the primal cause of all these beneficient changes.
“With a logic that cannot rest we are forced to this conclusion, that the agencies of civilization now in action are such as will secure a complete victory over the wilderness and waste places of western territory.  The plow will go forward; ‘God speed the plow.’  The rich carpet of grass will continue to advance.  The rains will assume the regularity of times and seasons.  By this wonderful provision, which is only man’s mastery over nature, the clouds are dispensing copious rains upon millions of acres that were for centuries comparatively parched and desolate.” (C.D.Wilber, “The Relations of Geology to Horticulture,” Annual Reports of the Nebraska State Horticulture society (Lincoln: Journal Co., state printers, 1879) 92)

“observation, experiment, and the highest scientific authority demonstrate that climates in the west are becoming moister; that rainfall is increasing steadily.  This increase must extend until the plains east of Denver and Laramie receive sufficient rainfall to produce farm products without irrigation….It follows also that the evidence of any number of ignorant persons, whether merchants or herders, is wholly incompetent on this question, and should have had no weight before a congressional committee.” (Samuel Aughey and C.D.Wilber, Agriculture Beyond the 100th Meridian or a Review of the U.S. Public Land Commission (Lincoln: Journal Co., state printers, 1880), 6, 35.  Charles Dana Wilber was the Superintendent of the Department of Geology and Mineralogy, Nebraska Academy of Sciences and professor at the University of Nebraska.  Samuel Aughey was a state geologist and professor of natural sciences at the same university as Wilber.

“Less than twenty years ago it was generally supposed that only those counties bordering the Missouri in the eastern part of Nebraska, were fit for agricultural purposes, and those of the earlier settlers who took land and opened out farms west of these counties were regarded as foolhardy and unwise men.  But still settlers continued to push farther west and engage in farming contrary to the gratuitous advice of those who thought they knew all about the capabilities of the state.  At the present time farming has reached Lincoln county, and reports from there are to the effect that the finest kinds of crops of wheat, oats, etc., will be harvested.  As the sturdy farmer takes possession of and cultivates the soil the Great American Desert moves still farther west, and soon we may look for it to entirely disappear, and in its place – as has already occurred for hundreds of miles – find the most fertile and productive grain fields in the country.” (Plum Creek Pioneer, quoted in the Nebraska Farmer, VII (Aug. 15, 1883), 249)

“One asserts that every yard of steel rail laid in the desert will draw from the heavens a gallon of water per annum; another claims that there has always been a good rainfall here, and points in evidence to the numberless canyons and creek beds twisting and turning in every direction, but all ultimately converging to the rivers which empty into the Missouri.  A third contends that rain follows the upturning of the sod, and that every acre of land ploughed makes a draft on the clouds for a definite quantity of water.  It is certain that the buffalo-grass sod which has covered these plains for centuries has become as impervious to water as a cow-boy’s slicker.  Hence the rain never penetrates it, but rushes off the ‘divides’ in a fury to reach the rivers….But when the prairie sod has once been ploughed, the soil absorbs water like a sponge.  After a day’s heavy rain there is no mud visible in a ploughed field; the moisture soaks downward to great depth, and the soil retains it through weeks of dry weather afterward….” (Frank H. Spearman, “The Great American Desert,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, LXXVII (July, 1888), 244)

“In God we trusted, in Nebraska we busted.” (Arthur F. Mullen, Western Democrat (New York: Wilfred Funk, Inc., 1940), 33)

“With the bugbear of desert apparently destroyed by our home talent men of science and relying on the permanency of a temporary rainy cycle, there was a tremendous rush across the one hundredth meridian during the eighties.  Whole counties were populated in the short period of a year of two.  Then in the nineties nature’s pendulum swung in the opposite direction and there ensued a series of abnormally dry years over the whole state, causing a great exodus back to the eastern part of Nebraska and to the states east of the Missouri River.  Eastern Nebraska suffered exceedingly during this extraordinarily dry period but the normally semi-arid region suffered even more.” (Everet Dick, Conquering the Great American Desert, (Nebraska State Historical Society, 1975), 20)

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