Thursday, October 15, 2009

Blog Action Day -- Climate Change

"Change is the law of life," I remember John F. Kennedy saying. Certainly he was right. Some changes take eons; some only days. Right now, we're in a period of climate change which I particularly don't like. I am a fan of cool weather. I like wearing sweatshirts and sweaters and long pants. I don't like heat, which is an unfortunate thing, as I live in Florida.

I really do not have any concrete information about how climate over the centuries has affected my ancestors. My ancestors were not journal-keepers of any sort at all, apparently. At least, nothing has survived to come down to me. There is other evidence, though, which give some hints as to how climate may have affected my ancestors.

Samuel Packard, the colonial progenitor on my father's side of the family, came over from Suffolk, England to Hingham, Massachusetts in 1638. According to one book I have on life in colonial America, the climate on this side of the Atlantic was harsher both in summer and winter than in Europe at the time. Winters were colder and more severe; summers hotter and plagued with insects. It was a difficult time to begin a farm, much less doing it on a wild and unknown continent. At first, settlers had to depend on what they brought with them, and the list of recommended items was long, indeed, including cooking utensils, farm implements, tools and tack for handling livestock and domestic animals, clothing, medicines (until the natives taught the colonists herbal medicine), right down to fishhooks and sewing needles.

As time went by, they became more self-sufficient, producing textiles, furs for clothing, blankets, and other necessities. And in order to keep their homes warm -- and, indeed, to build the homes in the first place -- they pretty much deforested the area around them. That deforestation in itself would have affected the climate further. I know from experience that having an abundance of trees in an area has a definite effect on the local ambient temperature. Driving out of the city into the country around here, when you get away from the sprawl and into the country where there are many more trees, you can feel a perceptible drop in the temperature.

My great-great grandfather Nelson Reed McKee, of whom I've written as the black sheep of the family on my mother's side, began as a farmer. Evidently he did not succeed at it -- or possibly he just did not like it -- for he soon switched professions to jeweler and watchmaker. Did weather or climate have a hand in his decision? I have not yet had time to investigate that to any extent, but it is certainly possible.

Weather affected my husband's great-grandfather Daniel McLeod Marshall, who migrated from Alabama to Florida after the Civil War (with, according to family lore, five or so of his brothers). He first settled in Apopka, in Orange County, where he raised citrus fruit and cattle. There was a freeze in 1883, and his crop was ruined. He was not fond of Apopka, his opinion of it being that it would never amount to much, and he moved further south to Lakeland, in Polk County. There he again grew citrus, and also strawberries, and again he ran cattle. There was another freeze in about 1895, and the frozen oranges fell off the trees. He thought that would make fodder for the cattle, and he turned them loose in the grove. Apparently, too many frozen oranges are not good for cattle, for they all bloated up and died. oops . . .

My husband has an amusing climate-related story. Here in Florida, it is not only hot, it is very humid (which makes it feel even hotter). Humidity around here can run between 80% and 90% or more. A few years ago, my husband and some of his co-workers were sent to California to install a network or some such. The trip took place in June or July, when it is, of course, extremely hot and humid here. When the plane landed in California, they immediately felt the dryness in the air, it being noticeable. The individual who greeted them at the airport, however, was apologizing all over himself for the extreme humidity they were experiencing. The Floridians, feeling dry as bones, looked at each other and wondered what was wrong with this guy. When they got to the base (my husband and his co-workers were Navy civil service computer programmers), another official apologized profusely for the horrible humidity they were experiencing. My husband and the others shook their heads.

When they got into the conference room where everyone was meeting to go over what was to be done, another individual apologized. This time, the Floridians burst out laughing, unable to contain themselves any longer. The Californians were baffled, again emphasizing how awfully humid it was, and that they just knew everyone must be grossly uncomfortable. My husband asked what the humidity reading was that had them so apologetic. Oh, it was about 35%, according to one of the Californians. The Floridians laughed again. My husband explained the levels of humidity we routinely put up with, and also explained that when they got off the plane and realized that their shirts were not sticking to their backs, they were extremely glad, and thought it felt just fine.

Finally, in 1998, we had an unusual year in which the humidity plummeted to the levels that would make Californians uncomfortable -- around 35% to 40%. We had been experiencing drought for a few years already; our rainfall levels were drastically below normal. With the unusual and extreme dryness in 1998, we began to have fires. Eventually, half the state was on fire. Our younger daughter, on her way to visit a friend in Brevard County, on the east coast of Florida, a trip that usually takes less than 2 hours, took over 8 hours and had to detour over all the way to the west coast of the state to get there, being redirected here and there and yonder by fire officials because roads were impassable. We live on the edge of a state forest, and one day we had fires coming our way from two different directions -- one up the country road which is the only way in or out for us, and another from the other side of the forest. The fire breaks that the forest service plowed on the edge of the forest seemed irrelevant when we saw video on the television of fires jumping the interstate highways! Fortunately, those two fires were controlled before they got to us.

Along with the plummeting humidity levels, we had a dry west wind that would blow every day, very contrary to the usually moist south or east wind we normally get. The wind reminded me of the dry, hot westerly wind that blows in California, called the Santa Ana. I'm from southern California originally, and a neighbor who is also a transplanted Californian understood what I meant when I told him that if I wanted the Santa Ana, I'd go back to California.

This time, we are in more danger, I believe, than we have been before. Around the world, habitats are changing or disappearing, endangering not only animal species but also plants -- both of which we depend on for our sustenance. There are few who doubt that there is a change occurring which does present danger to us. There are things we can do, and should do. And if we do do these things we need to do, we'll all be healthier in the long run.

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