Worried About the Weather, and the Land

THE NEW YORK TIMES, 29/07/07

Summer has brought another rash of extreme weather around the world: relentless rain has caused flooding in Britain, India and Texas, and record-breaking heat has led to wildfires in Greece and in Utah — demonstrating, once again, how severe weather and climate change can quickly alter the landscape. But slower alterations in the earth’s natural features are happening, too, as a result of human activity, and some of these are far more drastic and lasting. The Op-Ed page asked four writers to report on how the environment is faring in their parts of the globe. Here are their dispatches.

1) Winterthur (Switzerland)

The Great Swiss Meltdown

By Peter Stamm, the author, most recently, of the novel “Unformed Landscape.” This article was translated by Philip Boehm from the German.
SOME years ago, when a German critic accused me of “meteorological mannerism” because weather plays such a large role in my books, a friend came to my defense: “We happen to have a lot of weather in Switzerland.” Even our national anthem is full of meteorological phenomena: we sing of gray mists and dark clouds and sunshine’s cleansing power.

My country’s diverse topography accommodates all kinds of climates, from Mediterranean to arctic. Forecasts roughly divide the country into two parts — the north and south sides of the Alps — but weather events are far more local; it frequently happens that one valley has a full day of rain while the next basks in sunshine.

Consequently, it’s not that easy to discern the changes in climate. Not every hot summer day is proof of global warming; nor does one winter’s heavy snowfall herald a new ice age. But the number of weather-related disasters has increased significantly, and the rise in temperature in Switzerland since the 1970s is double the average for the Northern Hemisphere.

The change is most clearly visible in the shrinking of our glaciers, which have lost almost 50 percent of their surface area in the past 150 years; half of this loss has occurred in the last 30. Some 100 out of our nearly 2,000 glaciers have already disappeared, and researchers predict that most will have melted away by 2050. The trend is unmistakable and some scientists fear it is irreversible. In the ski areas, some glaciers are covered with plastic sheeting during the summer months to delay the process at least a little. More radical measures are politically difficult; they would require that we reduce our consumption of fuel and gasoline, and scarcely anyone is ready for that.

A dangerous fatalism has spread among many Swiss. They are happy to see the water in the lakes getting warmer, and view the disappearance of the glaciers as a sad but not necessarily bad development. They blithely forget that the ice is also our reserve supply of drinking water, and make light of the fact that the ground is thawing along with the glaciers, sending mudslides into the valley. The tragic stories are rare, and they are reported on the daily news more as entertainment than admonition.

Most Swiss live in stable houses in the lowlands, far from the crashing slopes and the brooks swelling into raging rivers. Those who are affected bravely clear the debris. Then a feeling of solidarity courses through our country, and only spoilsports ask what is the cause and who is to blame. When catastrophe strikes, the TV does not call upon climate experts but instead interviews the men from the fire department, the heroes of the hour.

Landscapes in Switzerland bear ample witness to the most recent ice ages, when glaciers moved gigantic amounts of material and gave our land its form. The last ice age, which ended 11,000 years ago, brought about a mass extinction of the larger mammals. For humans this was an opportunity: the beginning of farming and raising livestock. Heaven knows who will profit from the current climate changes. But chances are great that this time we will be among the losers.

More than 30 years ago — I must have been about 12 — a couple of friends lowered me into a crevasse with a rope. We were practicing crevasse rescue, and for almost half an hour I dangled 10 meters down inside the mighty glacier, while the others rigged a block and tackle above. The ice overhead shone blue in the light, and below me the crevasse grew narrower and narrower until it disappeared in the darkness. Strangely, I was not at all afraid — on the contrary, I felt safe and secure.

That’s the first thing the mountains teach us: a mixture of reverence and humility. Only the beginner thinks they can be mastered. The glaciers may melt, the rock faces may break apart, the slopes may slide, but the mountains will still be there long after we have vanished from the earth.

2) Winters (California)

Sunny California

By Mike Madison, a farmer and the author, most recently, of “Blithe Tomato”
THERE is no better year for farming in California than the first year of a drought. The lakes and reservoirs still hold ample water from the year before, and the farmer can go about his chores without inconvenient rains confounding his schedule. Sunlight pours down from a cloudless sky. The crops prosper. Life is good.

That’s our situation in the Sacramento Valley at the moment. We’ve had an unusually dry year, and I had to start irrigating in January — ordinarily our rainiest month — and I’ve kept at it all through the spring and summer.

Even if I were housebound and someone else was doing the irrigating, I would know from one glance at the electric bill. It takes a lot of power to move that water around, and it’s the single biggest expense on my farm. Some of my neighbors, who farm on a bigger scale than I do, have electric bills in the summer of $8,000 a month.

This year I’m converting my irrigation to solar power, installing silicon panels that turn sunlight into electricity. This will drive the pumps that lift water from underground and push it through the eight miles of plastic pipes that make up my irrigation system. Even though the panels are expensive, the return on my investment is about 12 percent, better than almost any stock or bond fund I could buy.

I’m not alone in the conversion to solar-powered irrigation. Drive the back roads around here and you will see solar panels on the roofs of barns and sheds or simply mounted on racks out in the open. If we keep at this long enough, we may reach the day when we can take down the miles of poles and wires that bring electricity from afar, and sell them for scrap.

In my neighborhood, walnuts are the preferred crop; they’re reliably profitable every year. But walnut trees are thirsty, and their irrigation has an urgency about it that will keep the walnut farmer awake at night. I didn’t want that particular worry in my life, and so I chose crops — apricots, olives, quince — that will tolerate a drought. I could skip irrigation for a year, and the trees would sulk, but they wouldn’t die.

Growing trees has a slower pace to it than farming row crops. The farmer of row crops — tomatoes, cucumbers, corn — believes that the future will arrive in about 110 days, maybe sooner. But the orchardist thinks in decades. He plants an orchard at great expense, and then waits six years for his first harvest. And it takes a decade after that to pay off his investment and start making money. To one who thinks in these terms, the year 2030 doesn’t seem far off.

As I mentioned, the first year of a drought is a gift to the farmer. Our apricot trees flowered under clear skies, the bees did their job, and in June we harvested a record crop. I sold fresh apricots, I dried apricots, and my wife put up 800 jars of apricot jam: straight apricot, apricot with lime, apricot with saffron. The other crops in the district — olives, walnuts, almonds, plums — are on the same track, heading for a record harvest.

But there is a dark side to this. If the first year of a drought is a gift, the second year is a worry, and the third year is a crisis. That crisis has a twist to it. In the third year, the lakes and reservoirs are empty, and not only is water in short supply, but so is electricity, for with empty reservoirs there is no flowing water to turn the hydroelectric turbines. We get power failures that frustrate irrigation and every other sort of industry. The farmers age a lot in those years.

Of course, the weather is undependable; it always has been, and our best guesses about it, like scientists’ predictions that a climate shift means that the West has many more years of drought ahead, are still guesses. But another observation, which 20 years ago would have seemed preposterous, is that the Pacific Gas and Electric Company is also not entirely dependable, and so we make our own arrangements for electricity.

We won’t know until next year whether this is the first year of a drought, or merely a lucky dry year sandwiched between two wet ones. Either way, we’re enjoying our gift year, and preparing for whatever might follow.

3) Sidney (Australia)

Dining in a Drought in Australia

By Justin North, the chef and owner of the restaurant Bécasse and the author of the cookbook “Bécasse: Inspirations and Flavors”
A FEW weeks ago, when I visited the Sydney fish market to pick up some Murray cod, I was told that there wasn’t any, nor would there be any for a while. I was quite puzzled, since Murray cod is a highly prized Australian fish that is readily available from fish farms, though it is disappearing in the wild. It has a lovely delicate earthy flavor; to get the best out of it we cook it in a sous-vide bag with a red wine and beet jus at 130 degrees Fahrenheit for 12 minutes, which results in an amazingly soft gelatinous texture. We serve it with caramelized tortellini of duck confit. It’s one of my favorite dishes.

So where was my Murray cod? The response was there just wasn’t enough water and feed for the farmers to keep up the supply.

Australia is suffering what some are calling its worst drought in 1,000 years, and the impact on our farmers, livestock and produce is catastrophic. Scientists have linked the six-year drought to the changing climate, and the dry spell has been especially hard on the Murray cod’s home, the Murray-Darling river basin in southeastern Australia, which provides 40 percent of the country’s food. Our water is slowly running out, and the effects are being felt by Australian chefs.

With irrigation restrictions in major farming districts and extreme heat damaging crops, smaller produce yields are forcing price increases. Cos lettuces (romaine to Americans) have quadrupled in cost. Potato and tomato market prices can double within a week. And the hard, brief downpours that punctuate long arid periods damage more delicate ingredients like English spinach and wild rocket (arugula). Our stone fruit has become either too watery or too floury, and either way tasteless.

The cost of feed and the lack of water is also crippling Australia’s meat and poultry industry and forcing prices up. The cost of lamb has fluctuated widely over the last six to nine months — by as much as 15 percent to 20 percent — particularly after a burst of rain.

The daily inconsistencies play havoc with restaurant margins, since we can’t suddenly increase menu prices without driving away customers. Restaurants are now absorbing the rising costs, but sooner or later something will have to give.

At my restaurant, Bécasse, we’ve had to become more flexible — quickly adjusting dishes depending on what’s available, and creating interesting dishes using unexpected cuts of meat. And while we’ve been adapting dishes, we’ve also been adapting ourselves. I was taught, and have encouraged other chefs, to seek out the best-looking produce from the most dedicated farmers and growers. But unfortunately, until recently, I made my choices with little regard for sustainability. In researching and writing my book I spent two years traveling around Australia talking to producers, and I could see first-hand the devastating effects of the water shortage.

So what can and should chefs not just in Australia but around the world do to help ease the food crisis, and to protect our land and produce? We must consider sustainability.

My restaurant’s menu takes into consideration particular farming practices and how they affect the environment. We understand more about our produce: where it is from, how it is farmed, raised or caught. Rather than buying from aquaculture farms that dredge their scallops from the ocean floor, for instance, I buy from ones where divers collect the scallops by hand.

Thinking this way is vital if chefs want to avoid a future where all of the best and most interesting produce are protected species. This means changing our practices and demanding that our suppliers change as well.

Unless we learn and act, all we can do is hope and look to the heavens. Interviewed recently about the latest round of irrigation restrictions for our farmers, our prime minister, John Howard, had only this advice: “Pray for rain.” The Murray cod deserves better than that, and so do all Australian food lovers.

4) Jerusalem

Israel’s incredible shrinking sea

By Haim Watzman, the author of “Company C: An American’s Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel” and, most recently, “A Crack in the Earth: A Journey Up Israel’s Rift Valley”
THE stark, barren shores of the Dead Sea are dotted with ruins of people’s attempts to create paradises: Herod’s desert palace of Masada; Qumran, the ancient religious commune near which the Dead Sea Scrolls were found; the shattered homes of the Beit HaArava kibbutz, where in the 1940s Zionist pioneers tried to create a utopian society on land no one else wanted.

Thirty years ago, when I first saw it, the Dead Sea — one of the world’s saltiest lakes — vaguely resembled a dumbbell. It had two basins, a deep northern one and a shallow southern one. But by the mid-1980s, the southern basin had dried up, leaving a vast expanse of salt flats. The Dead Sea Works, a chemical factory built to extract minerals from the water, had to start piping in water from the northern basin. The luxury hotels and spas to its north created an artificial pond to provide vacationers with a beach.

The northern basin is also shrinking. Eerily, the road that runs along its west side retains, like a fossil, the imprint of the sea’s outline from decades ago. What were once shoreside amenities now stand forlornly in the middle of the desert, a 300-yard hike from the beach.

The problem is that the Jordan River, the Dead Sea’s principal tributary, is a trickle once it reaches the sea because Israel, Jordan and Syria siphon off 95 percent of the water for drinking and for irrigation. Over the past century, the water’s surface has dropped 80 feet; in the last two decades, the sea has shrunk by a third. Sinkholes have caved into the former seabed, and its water has become saltier, strangling even the unique one-celled microbes that long ago adapted to this poisonous environment.

In April, the World Bank asked for bids to study a bold, high-tech solution — a 110-mile-long canal that would channel water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. The project, estimated to cost $5 billion, would have additional benefits — the water cascading from sea level at the tip of the Red Sea to minus 1,400 feet at the Dead Sea would create hydroelectricity. The system would also desalinate sea water — one reason the scheme is popular with the Kingdom of Jordan, which suffers a severe water shortage.

Unfortunately, like many bold, high-tech solutions, it would likely have unintended consequences. The Dead Sea has never received water from the Red Sea. The Red Sea’s water, less salty and with a chemical composition quite different from that of the Dead Sea, would float on top, creating an environment inhospitable to the Dead Sea’s native biota. The reaction between the two kinds of water would most likely cause the precipitation of gypsum, turning the blue sea white, and the release of large quantities of hydrogen sulfide from the lower level. Hydrogen sulfide is rotten-egg gas, not what you want to sniff if you are vacationing at a beachside hotel.

The canal itself has been routed through a seismically active region, which means an earthquake could crack it and send saltwater flowing into the surrounding lands.

A low-tech alternative solution, promoted by the environmental organization Friends of the Earth Middle East, is to restore the original system and allow fresh water to flow from the Jordan into the Dead Sea. The only way to replenish the water of the Jordan is to radically change the consumption habits of the millions of people, Jews and Arabs, who now drink that water and consume the crops that it irrigates. It means switching to less thirsty crops and creating a system of water salvage and reuse.

These are all measures that the countries should take anyway to preserve their water resources. And it is possible to make these changes, with a major commitment on the part of all the countries involved.

Unfortunately, their governments are too preoccupied with the rising tide of fundamentalist Islam, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the muck of Iraq and Iran’s nuclear dawn to make such an investment of effort and resources. The Red Sea-Dead Sea canal is much easier politically. So the Dead Sea may rise again, but it will be a ghost of its former self.