Environment

For crops, rivers, living beings, drought could spell a bummer of summer

 

The most recent drought map, released this morning, shows dry conditions over most of North Carolina. Red is extreme drought; brown designates severe. Beige and yellow show areas designated as moderate drought and abnormally dry. (Map: US Drought Monitor)

For North Carolinians who were living here in 2007, you might remember that year’s drought — worse than 2002, even worse than 1925, which in a more innocent time, was considered the very worst of the worst.

At the peak of the 2007 drought, Falls Lake looked like a moonscape, and cities were tapping quarries and wielding divining rods to meet water demand. By October of that year, 37 percent of the state was classified as being in exceptional drought. And in November, our thirsty neighbors in Georgia watched then-Gov. Sonny Perdue hold an hour-long pray vigil for rain. Perdue must have prayed for a cabinet position, too, because now he’s President Trump’s USDA commissioner.

It’s too early to say 2017 will be that dry (we can’t even forecast if it’s really going to snow on Sunday), but state officials warned the Environmental Management Commission last Thursday that record-breaking heat in January and February, coupled with a a dry start to the year could “set us up for a bad summer.” Streamflows, for example, are at historic lows. And the influence of Hurricane Matthew on water supplies “is gone.”

Just six months ago, much of eastern North Carolina was being deluged by historic rainfall from the hurricane. Now some of those same areas — among them, Lenoir, Duplin Greene and Cumberland counties — have been designated as “abnormally dry.” (Geek alert: Last week, North Carolina’s drought map and the national map differed somewhat because the state’s version measures impacts — such as dwindling public water supplies. The national version uses “indicators,” such as rainfall totals in determining drought status.)

Public water supplies are haven’t been affected, although reservoirs that are part of Duke Energy’s Catawba-Wateree Project in western North Carolina are operating under special drought protocols.

Although it’s scientifically difficult to prove climate change causes individual weather events, a warming planet is responsible for overarching — and to use a very unscientific term, weird — climate patterns. (Someone tell EPA chief Scott Pruitt, who questions the science and human impacts of climate change.) In turn, those climate changes signal to azaleas that it’s safe to bloom in late February, only to crush the bushes’ dreams when an otherwise-timely frost occurs. On average, whatever that is, the last spring frost in central North Carolina occurs in early to mid-April.

Ozone season also starts earlier, under the EPA’s new standards for the pollutant. Ozone can cause asthma, even in people who’ve never had it. The pollutant also can worsen heart and lung disease.  “This is a really important ozone season, especially in Charlotte,” said Michael Abraczinskas, DEQ acting director of Division of Air Quality.  The new EPA standard for ozone is 70 parts per billion, and “we’re right at that in Charlotte.”

The entire state currently meets the ozone standard. However, from 2004-2013, Charlotte failed to meet the federal requirements; as a result, the city and state had to implement rules to reduce those levels.

Ozone levels are usually higher in the summer, especially on hot, calm, dry days, the kind of days typical in a drought. That perfect (dust)storm could tip Charlotte into non-attainment. But  instead of killing jobs as the Trump administration likes to claim, new federal regulations could help keep the air cleaner. As of Jan. 1, rules have reduced acceptable levels of sulfur in gasoline. That translates to less work for your car’s catalytic converter, which translates to less nitrogen oxide in the air. And less nitrogen oxide means less ozone. And a summer that’s less of a bummer.

 

 

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