This is The ChangeUnderground for the 13th of March 2023.
I’m your host, Jon Moore
Decarbonise the Air, Recarbonise the Soil!
La Niña/El Niño
Now here’s a headline to send chills down the spine: Australia can expect an El Niño weather pattern bringing extreme dry hot weather now La Niña is over.
That’s from the ABC News site, dated 11 March 2023. And like it says on the tin things are headed for drought, basically.
A quick refresher on the dreaded La Nina/El Nino phase swap. When the eastern Pacific equatorial waters are cooler than normal, the western side is warmer, this is La Nina and leads to droughts in Peru and Chile and rains in eastern Australia. The reverse holds for El Nino. For the past three years we’ve been under a La Nina event hence the three years of flooding in eastern Australia. The la Nina has been decaying for a few months now so areas have been receiving the last few flooding events and some areas have already started to dry out. In far north Queensland floods have destroyed townships and a bushfire has burnt out some 18,000 hectares near the gold mining settlement of Hill End. Indeed a land of droughts and flooding rains.
But wait, there’s more! In the olden days, the end of last century and back to WW1, the pattern went something like this: One year of flood, 2-3 years of good years, 4 years of average years and 2-3 years of drought. But, since 2005 which isn’t a long period, climatically but it is instructive.
From the article mentioned before: Australia can expect an El Niño weather pattern bringing extreme dry hot weather now La Niña is over.
A pattern is emerging in Australia’s year-to-year weather variability, and anything that isn’t La Niña, or its Indian Ocean equivalent, has become virtually indistinguishable.
Here’s how it works. We can classify the Pacific into three categories, La Niña, El Niño and neutral.
But a look at records reveals that, in Australia, the rain and temperatures during El Niño and neutral years are now almost identical.
So this means, the 10 year pattern just mentioned now looks like we will have years of flood and years of drought. If all non-flood years are drought years, then they are the newish normal. This has huge implications not just for mainland farmers but for world food production too. Australia produces between 10 and 15% of the world’s wheat. From the Australian Bureau of Statistics as quoted in Al Jazeera 10 March 2022. In drought years this number drops well below 10% and that is sufficient a drop to affect world wheat prices.
The question is: What’s to be done?
Well, as I’ve been arguing and to be fair lots of better qualified people have been too, we need a perennial agriculture. Deep rooted to access the falling water table in a drought, shade providing to lower heat stress in stock and plants and an ability to de-stock and restock quickly before soil damage occurs. There’s an interesting article on the ongoing work on perennial wheat at The Land Institute, link in the show notes. And you can drift way back in time to episode 48 from the 23rd of January 2017 for more info on perennial wheat, a variety of which is called Kernza® and was covered in episode 309 on the 11th of September 2022.
Another approach, taking the shade for stock and pastures idea side of things was reported on the RTE CountryWide podcast on the 4th of March, link, as ever, in the show notes. The segment is entitled “Solar Sheep” and is about a sheep farm in County Wicklow that’s also a solar farm. The point for us was the measurements of fodder production and sheep husbandry. The pastures produced more feed under the panels than those in the neighbouring field and this was during the dry Irish summer of 2022. Even during the wet spells the fodder production was equal to or better than the next field over. All the while producing electricity from the solar panels. What’s going on? Well during the hot, dry period the shade protected the plants and lowered the need to transpire and, therefore, use as much water. During the wet spells, the plants were in the same game as the next field. All this is good but the sheep data was even better. Stock put on more body mass than the control group one field over. They suffered less heat stress and kept feeding more consistently during the wet because they had these mini shelters spread across the landscape.
Where To Now?
The weather pattern changes observed and extrapolated forward may only apply to Australia but my suspicion is that this is not the case. Given the evidence available from perennial wheat trials and other cereals are under investigation, the results of the Solar Sheep and the long argued for increase of tree cover on farms, it makes sense in, not only in Australia but also in areas yet to be as powerfully impacted by changes in climate patterns as the world warms. If it’s not happening where you are, it is coming. If by some miracle we manage to turn things around and I am hopeful, an eternal optimist against all visible evidence, then you’ll have a more productive, stable, resilient agriculture anyway and that’s not a bad thing.
I saw a meme years ago that went something like: What if the science is wrong and we implement all these changes? We’d be stuck with clean air, clean water and productive soil, all for nothing.
The potential upside of doing things we know work is so great I’m surprised so little has occurred. Now the downside of doing nothing is becoming so great, the choice is becoming a necessity. We cannot carry on as usual. The newish normal is upon us.
The ChangeUnderground Academy no-dig gardening course is still available. Link in the show notes. Please tell your friends!
Decarbonise the air, recarbonise the soil!
Thank you all for listening and I’ll be back, all things being equal, next week.
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