In the week before St. Patrick’s Day 2019, meteorologists in the US Midwest were watching a developing weather system that was expected to slam into America’s heartland. By the time it was all said and done on Friday the 15th, precipitation records had been smashed, and the majority of some states were disaster areas. The areas of the US that were amongst the hardest hit in the so-called “Bomb Cyclone” then were immediately lined up for a second major storm less than a month later that (as of this writing) is expected to set records for snowfall, rainfall, and barometric pressure.
What exactly is a Bomb Cyclone?
A Bomb Cyclone is essentially an inland hurricane, where the barometric pressure drops so low that it creates hurricane-force winds along with heavy precipitation. The reason it isn’t called a Hurricane or Typhoon is that those — by definition — occur over water. Bomb Cyclones occur over land, in this case the heart of the US Midwest. While local leaders are preparing to deal with a major late winter/early spring storm including major precipitation, power outages, flooding, and all of the other things that come with storms like this, there is another concern for those of us around the world.
The area affected by these Bomb Cyclones make up close to 5% of the agricultural land in the world: one hundred and seventy-five million acres. They produce approximately 45% of the corn and soybeans, and approximately 25% of the wheat that is grown in the US. This is a part of the world that relies heavily on farming and agriculture for its livelihood, and in turn the world relies heavily on the grains produced in this region to help feed the world. A disaster here not only affects farmers and those who rely on them to make their living, but also people on the other side of the world.
The disastrous flooding that follows these Bomb Cyclones has devastated the infrastructure that this region relies upon to transport grain from the farms where it is harvested to either a domestic or foreign point of sale. This same infrastructure is used to transport equipment, crop inputs like fertilizer and pesticides, as well as all of the items for daily living. Roads and rail lines are washed out, bridges have collapsed, and essential buildings like houses, barns, schools, and businesses have all been destroyed. The flooding was so bad that the Nebraska National Guard had to fly hay bales in to feed livestock that was stranded in the flooding. As of this writing, there is still no account on the total livestock lost due to the March 2019 event, and there may never be.
But there is a bigger concern here, one that will challenge not only this region, but the entire world as we figure out how to adapt. Acres upon acres of topsoil has been washed away, leaving behind barren land in an area that relies on agriculture as a primary economic driver. When the rain from the bomb cyclone hit the existing snow pack, it melted the snow. Because of this rapid melt, the ground didn’t have enough time to thaw in order to absorb the excessive moisture. Where it did thaw as a result of coming into contact with the surface water, it only thawed the topsoil, leaving perfect conditions for the topsoil to be washed away by the overwhelming amount of water.
The US Midwest produces huge amounts of grain that is used for everything from feed for livestock, to bread and pasta, to ethanol for fuel. This, coupled with rampant over-consumption means that food shortages are a real possibility, especially in poorer areas. When coupled with the increasing number of extreme weather events around the world, the world’s population is at risk of severely decreased agricultural production. Farmers are already delayed in preparing for the coming year, and further delay or damage could be catastrophic for world food supplies.
I make my living as an Emergency Manager. As a result, I spend an inordinate amount of time looking at the systems that make our world run. In the past 60 years, we have lost the capability to feed ourselves locally and have become reliant on the network of global trade in order to meet our needs. We no longer purchase our meat from the farmer down the road, nor our bread from the baker on the next block over. While there are some who still maintain this lifestyle (my family and I try hard to, but it’s not easy), not nearly enough of us are capable of feeding our families, much less our communities.
We rely on national and international trade in order to feed ourselves, and that brings with it enormous vulnerabilities. We no longer have the capacity east of the Mississippi and Red Rivers to feed the North American population in that region. Toronto, Montreal, New York, Washington, Boston, and thousands of other cities and towns rely on the global agriculture sector to have enough food. This means that they are deeply reliant on the transportation sector to move the raw and finished products around.
The transportation sector is reliant on the manufacturing sector to make the vehicles in which food products are transported.
The manufacturing sector is reliant on the energy (electricity and natural gas) sector to power their factories.
The energy sector is reliant on the communications sector to ensure the smooth and stable operation of their physical, virtual, and financial systems.
The communications sector is reliant on the energy sector to ensure that they have the energy required to run their equipment.
They’re all in turn reliant on the Public Safety, Government, and Financial sectors to ensure the safety of their infrastructure and employees…employees who need to eat the food provided by the agricultural sector.
This is a very basic definition of the complexities of critical infrastructure and interdependence. There are entire series of textbooks written on this issue, and if you’re interested in them, let me know and I can point you in the right direction.
As an Emergency Manager, part of my job is to promote resilient and sustainable processes and practices, and I have to consider those processes and practices in the context of the whole system. It isn’t enough for us to build a flood barrier and call our job done, we have to consider the impact that flood will have on systems upstream and downstream of our location. We have to look at our job holistically and work in cooperation with each of the systems we interact with. It’s no good to save the physical infrastructure of a city if we can’t save the systems that support the inhabitants of the city.
We need to start thinking in terms of whole systems, and to apply complex systems theory to everything we do. We no longer operate in simple systems where everything is within walking distance. We now rely on incredibly complex global systems that are only going to grow more and more complex. Unless we can change how we think about our systems, we will need to change our systems…though that seems unlikely in an age where I can talk to anybody anywhere on a device that fits in my pocket.
This is precisely the reason why climate change (the root of this problem) is so hard for many people to grasp. They’ve grown up in a world of relatively simple systems, most of which no longer exist. Climate change (and its effects) is an incredibly complex and interconnected series of systems which makes it very hard to explain to someone living in an urban city why driving their pickup truck instead of a fuel-efficient sedan means that their food will cost more six to twelve months from now.
But we need to.
We need to figure out how to explain the complexities of this issue before we lose more of our arable land and before we run out of food. That’s what we’re facing here; nothing less than a global food crisis. Or, as Joel K. Bourne Jr. put it so succinctly in the title of his book; the end of plenty.
Note: This article was edited on April 9, 2019 after a conversation with a source who was cited from a book they had written. The information that I used from that book was no longer accurate, so I have removed it.