Reaping the whirlwind

I am currently surrounded by fells covered in sandy coloured dried grasses, beneath which new shoots of vegetation are growing slowly, held back by the persistent easterly cold Siberian wind which has blown over the UK for the past month. It has been the coldest spring in 50 years. Thousands of sheep with their new lambs have died in sudden snow drifts which covered them in such depth the farmers could not rescue them fast enough. Hundreds of tawny owls have starved to death as the rodent activity has also suffered. All wildlife in the UK has been through dreadful weather in 2012, and now 2013 is proving to be disastrous too.

The Met Office website tells us:

2012
After an unusually dry, sunny and warm March, April has seen some very wet and unsettled weather with below average temperatures. So what has caused this about-turn in the UK’s weather? There are many factors which can impact the notoriously changeable weather in the UK, so no single one on its own can be said to be fully responsible. However, it is possible to isolate contributing factors and, in this case, one of those is the northern hemisphere jet stream. This is a narrow band of fast flowing westerly winds (ie blowing from west to east) in the high atmosphere. This band moves around and also changes its track, from a fairly straight line to something more closely resembling a meandering river. Its position can, and does impact weather in the UK and other parts of the northern hemisphere. In both March and April we have seen what we term a ‘blocking pattern’ in the jet stream, where it meanders north and south instead of making its more usual eastward progress. Despite this, March was the 3rd warmest and 5th driest March in the all-UK record going back to 1910, while April has so far been relatively cool with rainfall already 30% above the average for the whole month across England and Wales. So what is causing the difference? It comes down to the position of the blocking feature. In March, the meandering of the jet stream caused it to pass to the north of the UK – anchoring high surface pressure over the UK. This suppressed cloud, increased sunshine and temperatures, and prevented the usual rain-bearing Atlantic weather systems coming in from the west from reaching us. Soon after the start of April, however, the whole pattern moved westwards, so the peak of the northerly meander moved over the North Atlantic Ocean. The UK, in contrast, found itself under the adjacent southerly meander, with the jet stream passing to the south of the UK over France and Spain. This atmospheric set-up brings low surface pressure, cloud and rain. Because the pattern is still blocked, without a west-to-east jet stream to blow the weather system through, the low gets stuck over the UK, resulting in high rainfall totals overall. Like the weather, we can predict the path of the jet stream with a good deal of accuracy up to about five days ahead but it is more difficult to give detail on longer timescales.

And after the summer:

There’s no disputing it has been a very disappointing summer so far in 2012 – with the wettest June for over a century followed up by a very wet start to July.

In fact, barring a warm and dry spell towards the end of May, the weather has been persistently dull and wet since April – which was also the wettest in records dating back to 1910.

Our weather here in the UK is complex and determined by many different factors, including the position of the jet stream.

In 2013, so far we are told:

The jet stream consists of ribbons of very strong winds which move weather systems around the globe. Jet streams are found 9-16 km above the surface of the Earth, just below the tropopause, and can reach speeds of 200 mph……..

The position of a jet stream varies within the natural fluctuations of the environment. They are caused by the temperature difference between tropical air masses and polar air masses. What happens in one part of the world depends on what is happening elsewhere – the atmosphere is a complete environment with numerous connections.

Waves or ripples along the jet stream can cause Atlantic depressions to deepen explosively as they are steered towards the UK, so they are very important to meteorologists………

Blocked weather patterns, where large areas of high pressure remain in place for up to several weeks, occur every so often pushing the jet stream way off its normal course. The displaced jet stream can open the door to cold easterly winds in winter such as occurred in Europe in February 2012; while those directly influenced by the high pressure areas often endure prolonged spells of dramatically hot conditions in summer, such as occurred during the Russian heatwave in summer 2010……….

…..low Arctic sea ice cover is now becoming increasingly linked with significant changes in the North Atlantic jet stream in winter and hence the severity of European winters. A number of studies are indicating that Arctic sea ice depletion, in isolation, may increase sea level pressure over the Arctic in winter and drive more easterly winds across Europe in both observations and computer models. It is possible that continued low Arctic sea ice during the coming years might therefore drive additional changes in northern European climate due to changes in winds as well as the more direct warming effects of longer term climate change…….

And whilst we suffered wet, wind and cold, the US suffered other extremes such as drought, causing headlines such as:

“Drought Devastates U.S. Maize and Soya Crops”

The most valuable crop hit was maize, causing a worldwide shortage. Here in the UK the Gulf Stream is relied upon to warm up the land. The Siberian winds have been drying out the land which improves soil structure. Maize growers in the south of the UK are likely to start planting the maize in May, waiting for warmer soil conditions. Maize requires warm, humid conditions. To cope with colder conditions, Scottish growers use the latest technology to protect the newly planted seeds, and now it is possible to grow maize as far north as Aberdeenshire. It is likely to be grown to use as forage for cattle. However, it is also being considered as a gas producing crop for a new anaerobic digestion plant.

The US ethanol programme pushed up corn prices by up to 21 per cent as it expanded to consume 40 per cent of the harvest last year.

Al Jazeera

This price premium was passed on to corn importers, adding an estimated $11.6bn to the import bills of the world’s corn-importing countries since 2005. More than half of that – $6.6bn – was paid by developing countries between 2005 and 2010. The highest cost was borne by the biggest corn importers. Mexico paid $1.1bnmore for its corn, Egypt $727m.

Besides Egypt, North African countries saw particularly high ethanol-related losses: Algeria ($329m), Morocco ($236m), Tunisia ($99m) and Libya ($68m). Impacts were also high in other strife-torn countries in the region – Syria ($242m), Iran ($492m) and Yemen ($58m). North Africa impacts totalled $1.4bn. Scaled to population size, these economic losses were at least as severe as those seen in Mexico. The link between high food prices and unrest in the region is by now well documented, and US ethanol is contributing to that instability.

Maize constitutes a fundamental ingredient in many of the world’s cuisines, ranging from Mexican enchiladas and Chinese baby-corn, to African-American grits, corn flakes, popcorn, Italian polenta or gruel, corn meal, maize-based alcoholic beverages (such as whiskey and bourbon), mayonnaise, and corn oil.

And Maize originated in Mexico where the ancient peoples, dubbed ‘Mesoamericans’, observed the weed ‘teosinte’ growing in the arid scrubland around them and somehow, still a mystery to this day, turned an inedible grass into edible through a process which is yet to be explained. Archaeological remains of early maize ears, found at Guila Naquitz Cave in the Oaxaca Valley, date back ca. 3450 BC, with the oldest ears from caves near Tehuacán, Puebla, dating to ca. 2750 BC. Maize was therefore used as a food for humans at least 6000 years ago, and very likely 9000 to 10,000 years ago.

The name, teosinte, is of Nahuátl Indian origin, and it has been interpreted to mean “grain of the gods”. One form of teosinte, known as Z. mays ssp. parviglumis, shares a particularly close genetic relationship with maize and available evidence indicates that it is the direct ancestor of maize (Doebley 1990; Matsuoka et al. 2002). This latter teosinte grows in the valleys of southwestern Mexico. In these regions, it grows commonly as a wild plant along streams and on hillsides, although it can also invade cultivated fields as a weed. It is most common in the Balsas River drainage of southwest Mexico and hence is also known as Balsas teosinte.

Protected within its casing, the teosinte kernel can survive the digestive tracks of birds and grazing mammals, enabling the seed to be easily dispersed (Wilkes 1967). By comparison, the massive maize ear can bear 500 or more kernels, each of which is attached to the central axis of the ear or cob. The kernels are naked without adequate protection from predation and are easily digested by any animal that consumes them. Since the kernels are firmly attached to the cob and the ear does not disarticulate, a maize ear left on the plant will eventually fall to ground with its full suite of kernels. When hundreds of maize kernels germinate the next season so close to one another, the emerging plants are unable to obtain adequate light and soil to grow and reproduce. Thus, maize is completely dependent on humans for its survival.

Before farming, Homo Sapiens ate 80 thousand kinds of food. Queensland aborigines in the 19th Century ate 240 separate plants.

Early farmers simplified the plant source to rice, maize and/or wheat. When communities depended on maize, they were unaware that maize inhibits iron, lack of iron leads to anaemia, anaemia to tiredness, weakness and depression. Working in the fields to produce the maize depleted the worker further and their lives were shortened as a result.

Maize is now part of the processed food industry. So instead of eating it made into porridge or tortilla, it is fed to cows to create high fat burgers, chickens to create nuggets and even into fizzy drinks. It was cheap corn which gave rise to fast food. Maize is the main ingredient of chicken nuggets and soft drinks use corn syrup. Milk is often from cows fed on maize rather than fed on grass. Cornstarch is used to make chewing gum, peanut butter, ketchup, car paint, soap, potato crisps, surgical dressings, nail polish, foot powder, salad dressings.

Genetics has influenced the breeding of animals and plants to create a multi million pound agri business. It took thousands of years until Darwin opened the window to genetics which is now having a dramatic impact on our every day life. There are now less hungry people in the world. Hurray.

8 hundred million people in the world are hungry.

BUT

2 billion are overweight. Boo!

The trend over the last decade toward heavier populations cuts across regions and income levels. In India, 19 percent of adults are overweight, up from 14 percent in 2002. In Mexico, the figure has risen by 8 percentage points since 2002, while Brazil’s is up by 7 points and the rate in the U.K. is up by 5 points. East Asia has seen a 4 point increase over the period. The United States leads all industrialized countries with 78.6 percent of the adult population overweight, although Micronesia and Polynesia top all countries. There, nearly 88 percent of the over-15 population is overweight.

Fast, cheap food equals cheap, fast bursts of energy. Fizzy drinks, cheeseburgers, chips – foods all high in fat and salt and low in calcium is the result. UK citizens spend a sixth of their income on their three meals a day. That is half what they spent fifty years ago.

Reducing dietary choice reduces good health outcomes.

Now we have more tired, infirm and sad people due to simple, unhealthy range of food available. The food is cheap and readily available. Expanded waistlines from such diets lead to thirty thousand premature deaths per year in the UK. Those of us who grew up before junk food became available may be the longest lived in history. Perhaps junk food will kill off the world population, rather than a nuclear war.

As the weather disrupts the maize production, prices go up and, as we are dependent on maize for good or evil, I sit here in my cottage and contemplate: are we really evolving as a race since farming became a preferred method of human survival?

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About borderslynn

Retired, living in the Scottish Borders after living most of my life in cities in England. I can now indulge my interest in all aspects of living close to nature in a wild landscape. I live on what was once the Iapetus Ocean which took millions of years to travel from the Southern Hemisphere to here in the Northern Hemisphere. That set me thinking and questioning and seeking answers.
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