The news reports from the nations news outlets handle the situation without emotion. I suppose if you are sitting at the Newark New Jersey airport waiting for your flight you can watch the news of the recent blizzard that struck South Dakota so violently. Dead cow carcasses buried under snow, nothing but a muzzle or a hindquarter exposed in the white landscape. Some ranchers have lost entire herds. To folks living in the more populous and less natural world it seems like a minor problem. If you are one of the ranchers it is a major problem indeed. Partly financial and partly emotional.
As the ranchers wonder around their pastures gathering dead carcasses, what feelings they must have? They watched in the cold of a South Dakota January night as each of these calves were born. They were the ones that wiped the amniotic fluid from their nostrils and blew life into them. The rancher was the one that made sure each cow and calf was “mothered up” each time the herd was moved so that neither would become distraught. The rancher was the one loaded the pick up everyday, two times a day, to take hay to the herd in the wet muddy days of March. In the warm, bright spring he gathered them together and laid his brand on their soft hides to tell the world “these are mine”. During the heat of summer he moved them from pasture to pasture, always watching for any sign of sickness or disease. With each case of foot rot, scours or bloat he dropped all plans and became the doctor, applied the medication and monitored the result. As the days became shorter and the chilly winds began to blow he observed the fruit of his toils and knew that he would soon experience the annual emotional roller coaster, sadness at shipping his herd to market and the joy of payday.
Is this storm that inflicted 20-80% losses simply a freak occurrence? Does it just happen once every one hundred years or so, like it did in 1888? According to many predictions storms with large amounts of precipitation are likely to become more and more frequent. According to a study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) these events should not be considered in isolation. The effects of green house gasses and the resultant climate change will increase the probability of this type of storm. We can expect to endure more weather variation, more heat in the summer and more rain in the spring and fall; not just a little more, a lot more. A more recent report in Nature states that up to 5 billion people will face an “entirely new climate by 2050″.
I am continually amazed at the reporting of this type of tragedy. Whether the story involves wildfires, drought, flooding or in this instance devastating blizzards, there is no mention of the role of climate change. As the political inaction around climate change continues the predictions are that the weather will become increasing erratic and less hospitable in the coming decades. It may not help the ranchers to know that green house gases helped to kill his cattle, but through the loss of his cattle we can focus our grief. We are bound to experience much grief related to climate change in the coming decades. As a nation we need to mourn those losses and focus our resources on improving the planet for our children and grand children. The black lifeless forms jutting from the snow drifts are not “just cows”, they are a harbinger of our future.