“Keeping the Marble in the Bowl” - that was the title of a breakfast briefing I gave MPs on September 29, 2009. Parliament was hosting some talks on climate change prior to COP15 (the 15th Conference of the Parties) in Copenhagen. My talk was inspired by a woman who farms near Lloydminster. I met her at a gathering of producers in a community hall in Vegreville. First she said my presentation was ‘farmer friendly’, which I took as a big compliment. Then she told me she sees the fluctuations in our weather like a marble rolling up and down the sides of a bowl. When the oscillations are large, between extreme wet and dry or severe hot and cold, the marble flies out of the bowl. She had another insight – by altering the climate system, humans have tipped the bowl and the marble can fly out more often. Adaptation is what governments, communities and individual producers do to keep the marble in the bowl and prevent damage and loss from extreme weather and climate change. I often use her analogy, acknowledging the source. I even drafted this cartoon to illustrate it.
Of course it’s not hard to engage a farmer or rancher in a conversation about weather and climate, and I’ve had lots of opportunities. For the past 30 years, my field assistants and I have collected old wood to reconstruct past climate from tree rings. Most of this wood was found on land owned or leased by cattle producers in the foothills of the Rockies and in the forested uplands and river valleys of the plains. Gaining access to the land usually involves explaining what we’re doing which leads to a conversation about the weather. Then there are the almost 300 talks that I’ve been asked to give to producer associations, rural communities, watershed stewardship groups and agricultural agencies. And another source of producers’ observations is my colleagues’ research in the social sciences; we combine our studies of the social and environmental dimensions of climate change. This gives me access to information from interviews with hundreds of producers.
The Reno Welch family ranches at the southern end of the Porcupine Hills. It’s a typical scenic southwestern Alberta ranch; rolling hills of fescue prairie with Douglas Fir forest at the higher elevations. In September 2012 I asked Reno for his permission to collect some small samples of old Douglas Fir for a study of climate variability. He responded in the same way as all the farmers and ranchers we ask; he was happy to help and invited us up to the house for coffee and conversation, mostly about weather and climate. Reno told us that we probably wouldn’t find very old trees, because he once had a sawmill. Then he said:
“I found looking at the tree-ring growth, that there’s an approximate 60-year weather cycle in this country, but 60 years isn’t definite, it could be 70 years and it could be even less, with weather there’s nothing written in stone.”
Over the past 25 years, my students and I have collected about 8000 samples of old wood from nearly 200 locations in Alberta and Saskatchewan, and the nearby regions of Manitoba, Montana, North Dakota, and the NWT. We’ve sanded and polished each piece of wood to highlight the annual rings. Below is an image of a cross section from an old Douglas fir (it was dead; from the living trees, we take a small diameter core, less than the size of a pencil). Using image-analysis software, we measure the width of each tree ring to within 0.001 mm.
The earth is flat. It’s obvious. Just watch the first few minutes of any rerun of the TV show Corner Gas, filmed in southern Saskatchewan. As the camera zooms out from Brent Leroy, the gas station proprietor, we see the vast flat prairie landscape and hear the first few lines of the show’s theme song:
First you tell me that your dog ran away.
Then you tell me that it took three days.
Out here, where it takes three days for a running dog to disappear, the earth looks flat. Contrary to this earth bound view of the prairies; scientists in the fields of astronomy and geophysics have pretty good evidence that the world is round. Most of us accept this evidence even though we’re not astronauts and haven’t seen the earth from space.