Heat is on as US drowns and browns

IN some parts of the US there is water, water everywhere, but in others there's hardly a drop to drink. Last week in Texas eight people and thousands of cattle drowned when 30in of rain fell in just a few days, causing flooding along the San Antonio river, which crested 30ft above normal levels. Meanwhile, in prairie states such as Wyoming, less than a
quarter of the normal expected level of rain has fallen. Farmers are making special prayer appointments with ministers as they watch their land turn  dustier by the day.

The Colorado river, sometimes called the North American Nile, is being channelled out of its bed to irrigate the land in seven western states. So thirsty are the growing communities along its path that not a single drop of it will reach the Sea of Cortez in Mexico, where it is supposed to come out. Other rivers, too, are going the way of the Colorado as irriga-
tion technology becomes more advanced. Across several states huge machines are visible from miles away, spraying crops to keep them alive.

And in a dry summer, forest fires become inevitable. The trees become so parched that they light more easily than matches. As jagged lightning in the summer’s electrical storms shoots towards the earth, it ignites forest fires. This week in Arizona firefighters were still struggling to stay on top of the largest wildfire in state history, which has burned
500,000 acres in the White Mountains, destroying more than 500 homes and causing millions of dollars of damage. It seems that the US has not yet taken on board the message that global warming is already hurting it.

Flooding in flat areas such as Florida is expected to become a chronic problem. Most of Florida is close to sea-level already, and its highest point was built by Disney. In Yellowstone, the enormous national park wilderness, temperatures have risen two degrees in the past 125 years, and there is a possibility that if they go any higher the white-bark pine, which provides habitat for grizzly bears, may start to disappear. Global warming will also reduce snow levels in the whole of the US’s mountain areas, and that is a threat to rivers. Rivers and their importance to the country were touched on by George Bush in a
speech last week inaugurating the bicentenary commemoration of the explorers Lewis and Clark, who 200 years ago next year began a journey to find a water route across North America.

At that stage, of course, there were no roads across the interior of this enormous land mass, and so little was known about it that it can be compared to a trip to outer space. The only way to traverse the impenetrable forests and canyons of the western states was by water, and army captains Lewis and Clark led a daredevil expedition that traced the Missouri river to its source in the Rocky Mountains and then crossed to take the Columbia river down to the Pacific. Part of their job was to contact Indian tribes and to tell them
that they were now part of the US. Calling the Indians children, giving presents of beads and American flags, and telling them to beware the wrath of their Great Father, Thomas Jefferson, the journey looks more imperialist now. In his speech, Bush took care to honour a native American woman called Sacagawea.

Although her likeness adorns the new silver dollar coin, few Americans have heard of Sacagawea. But she was the 16-year-old wife of Louis and Clark’s translator, and it was her presence, along with that of her new baby, who was born on the journey, that convinced many native American tribes to talk to the explorers. She was kidnapped from her home among the Shoshone as a child, and when the expedition tried to buy horses
from the Shoshone, bringing the chief’s long-lost sister, they were met with delight instead of fear.

But in celebrating this great river journey, the US could perhaps also take a look at what is happening to its rivers today, and how the ever-increasing thirst for agriculture, tourism, and housing can possibly be accommodated. In the summertime three million Americans take to the roads in enormous coach-sized recreational vehicles. Each one uses hundreds of gallons of water and cheap fuel.

Any wilderness area sees a constant stream of these behemoths, which symbolise the Americans’ ambivalent relationship with their own countryside. They want to visit it and to be in it, but they don’t really want to leave behind any of the comforts of home, so travel
with fridges, microwaves, cookers, showers, flushing toilets, CD players, TVs, and VCRs in the back of the vehicle.

George Bush’s
refusal to sign the Kyoto agreement angered Europeans. It is unlikely that it would have been implemented even under a Democrat president, because it would be so difficult to force through in a country where car use is so integral to how people live. But emissions from the US are creating almost half of the world’s greenhouse gases, and the US will
suffer along with everyone else if nothing is done.

Apocalyptic predictions are taken with a pinch of salt by sceptics who say that climate change is natural and that the earth is warming up as part of a cyclical process. But it would be foolhardy not to take the warnings of scientists seriously enough, and to take steps while there is still time to avert some of the problems.

The Scottish Herald
July 10th 2002