Let me be blunt: there is no such thing as a “natural” disaster. Disasters are complex, multifaceted, frequent, and overwhelming. We have a hard time fully grasping the nuance and complexity of each disaster – particularly one that strikes halfway across the world – so we turn to calling it a “natural” event. The term natural disaster is, in essence, a heuristic that we fall back upon in order to interpret the event.
A disaster is widely perceived as an event that is beyond human control; the capricious hand of fate moves against unsuspecting communities creating massive destruction and prompting victims to call for divine support as well as earthly assistance.
A spinning ice disk spotted on the Sheyenne River in North Dakota is a totally natural phenomenon and not the work of aliens or secret government spies, according to reports.
Retired engineer George Loegering saw the giant frozen circle on Saturday while on a hunting trip with relatives, The Associated Press reported. About 55 feet (17 meters) around, the icy disk was spinning in the river current like a record on a turntable.
The massive pancake-shaped ice pans often turn up on flowing rivers in cold climates. Video and photos posted online show similar disks discovered in Canada, England and Sweden during winter.
Theories abound to explain their formation. National Weather Service forecasters told The Associated Press that the Sheyenne giant likely appeared because cold, dense air slowly froze the river surface in bits and pieces. The floating ice chunks were trapped in a river eddy, creating the rotating circle discovered by Loegering. In 1993, MIT researchers who sought to explain smaller ice swirls on Boston’s Charles River also suggested current-driven eddies.
What’s the connection between Super Typhoon Haiyan and climate change? Despite the conflicting headlines connecting climate change to massive storms, the science really is unclear. And this is a problem that science writers need to be clear about. Tom Yulsman of Discover Magazine rounds up some very controversial and frankly terribly dishonest headlines about climate change and typhoons. Check it out if you have a chance.
Flowering times are well-documented indicators of the ecological effects of climate change and are linked to numerous ecosystem processes and trophic interactions. Dozens of studies have shown that flowering times for many spring-flowering plants have become earlier as a result of recent climate change, but it is uncertain if flowering times will continue to advance as temperatures rise.
Here, we used long-term flowering records initiated by Henry David Thoreau in 1852 and Aldo Leopold in 1935 to investigate this question.
Thoreau and Leopold’s baselines always make for compelling analyses. Here’s the real story though:
Our analyses demonstrate that record-breaking spring temperatures in 2010 and 2012 in Massachusetts, USA, and 2012 in Wisconsin, USA, resulted in the earliest flowering times in recorded history for dozens of spring-flowering plants of the eastern United States.
Did you catch that?: 2010 and 2012 show the earliest flowering times in recorded history.
A number of factors all happened simultaneously to create a situation of very high energy needs and high stress in cattle and other livestock. Any one of the following factors could have an impact by itself, but when all combined, it was simply too much for the animals and they most likely succumbed to hypothermia.
The contributing factors included:
Animals were not adapted to winter conditions. Cattle will grow a thicker hair coat in response to shorter days, and cooler temperatures. But temperatures prior to the storm were in the 70°’s. For cattle, this meant they had thin hair coats and little protection from the elements.
Snow was preceded by hours of rain. A wet hair coat reduces the “insulation” that the hair and hide provide and increases the rate of heat loss from the body. For example, a cow with a wet hair or summer hair coat has critical temperature of 59°, while one with a dry, heavy winter coat has a critical temperature of 18°. The critical temperature is the temperature at which the animal must increase its metabolism, or burn its own energy, to maintain its body temperature. The further the effective temperature is below the critical temperature, the more energy the animal must use to maintain its body temperature. See “Spring Storms and Cold Stress” for more detailed information.
Winds in this blizzard were recorded up to 60 mph. Both research and practical experience show what a difference “wind chill” has on effective temperature. The range and pastures that are grazed during summer months are typically “open” – without constructed windbreaks, and usually very few natural windbreaks. With the storm so early in the year, most livestock were still out on summer range and pastures. Thus, animals felt the full intensity of the wind.
The hair coat, temperature, moisture and wind combination meant the animals’ energy needs to maintain body temperature were much higher than even during a “normal” winter blizzard.
Coupled with the very high energy needs of the animals was the fact that most of the feed the cattle were currently eating was quite low in energy. Cattle grazing lush green grass makes a beautiful picture, but the reality is that lush, rapidly growing green grass is very high in moisture and low in energy per pound of feed consumed. The unusually large rainfall in September had created this rapidly growing grass in many areas. Under normal weather conditions, cattle were able to consume large quantities of grass to meet and even exceed their energy needs. But under blizzard conditions, it was not possible for them to consume adequate amounts of forage to meet their much higher than normal energy needs.
To try to escape or reduce the harsh wind, cattle will walk with the wind and seek areas of shelter, such as draws and ravines. Walking through heavy, wet and deep snow increased their energy needs even more. The severity of the snow fall also meant that the animals were walking blind, and could easily fall in to gullies, walk into a stock dam or creek, or gather into a fence corner and face crushing and trampling.
With all the factors above combining effects, exhaustion and the inability to maintain their own body temperature finally caused cattle to simply stop and succumb to hypothermia.
Excellent reporting by Carey Gillam of Reuters. Gillam dives into how the ranchers and families will cope with the losses. The federal government shut down comes into play, as does a tax-payer subsidized bailout for their losses under the - imo - ridiculously bloated and unfairly skewed US Farm Bill.
The story of why nearly 100,000 head of cattle perished is a complicated one, one not just due to freak weather. And Gillam really nails it.
Swirling snow lodged in some of the animals’ lungs, suffocating them. Hypothermia killed more. And others were caught in gullies, or plunged off slickened rock ledges, livestock experts said.
"I’ve been in this business 50 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Jobgen, who estimated her family lost nearly half of its herd of 350 when the storm swept through October 3-5. “The vision of seeing all these cattle dead is something you can’t wipe out of our eyes.”
South Dakota had the sixth-largest cattle herd in the United States with some 3.85 million head in January 2013, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. Most of those are in the western part of the state, where the storm struck, leaving carcasses strewn on the Plains and hitting ranchers with tens of millions of dollars in losses.