Happy New (Dry) Year – 2013

Happy New Year!  It sure is nice to start 2013 with some moisture on the ground.  Let’s hope we get some more…

A welcome snowfall in late December will help replenish soil moisture, but it's still awfully dry.

A welcome snowfall in late December will help a little to replenish soil moisture, but it’s still awfully dry around here.  Helzer family prairie, near Stockham, Nebraska.

Ecologically speaking, the biggest local story in 2012 was the dry weather.  In fact, our nearest “large” city, Grand Island, Nebraska had its driest year on record.  The precipitation total came in just under 12 inches for 2012, breaking the previous record of 12.01 inches from 1940.  The average annual rainfall for Grand Island is about 26 inches, so 2012 precipitation was less than half of normal.  That’s pretty dry.

Back in 1940, the famous prairie ecologist, J. E. Weaver, was looking at the effects of about a decade’s worth of drought.  At the time, he and others assumed that many of the drastic changes they were seeing in prairie plant communities would be permanent.  In fact, quite a few prairies were plowed up in the early 1940’s because the owners figured that if the prairie grasses were dead, they might as well try to grow something else.

Fortunately, Weaver was wrong about the drought-stricken prairies in the 1940’s.  The plant communities he thought were irrevocably changed, and the plant species he thought would disappear rebounded nicely in subsequent years.  It’s hard to know whether 2012 was a dramatic, but short, dry spell or the beginning of another long drought for our part of the state.  Either way, it’s good to know that prairies and their inhabitants will survive, one way or the other.

Prairies look pretty dry this year.

The drought of 2012 left most of our prairies dry and crispy by mid-summer.  However, not all plants were affected equally, and some – like annual sunflowers – were able to flourish.  Other species entered dormancy early to conserve energy and moisture for the future.

As we enter 2013, the local long-range forecast is for average rainfall through the early growing season.  That would be great.  However, because we’ll start out with a significant deficit in soil moisture, our prairies will show the impacts of 2012 for quite a while yet.  And, of course, long-range forecasts are notoriously inaccurate, so we may not get the rains we’re hoping for anyway.

It’s easy to feel a little down during droughts – especially for those of us who rely on prairies for income as well as for enjoyment.  Trudging through crispy brown grass day after day can take a toll on the psyche.  However, since we can’t change the weather, the best strategy is to just sit back and watch prairies exhibit their most defining attribute…

…resilience.

I hope you have a tremendous and intriguing 2013.  As always – thanks for reading.

_DSC0977A

2013 is off to a good start – with snow on the ground. Let’s hope that moisture keeps coming.

(Here’s a link to another interesting paper by Weaver, written in the mid-30’s before the worst of the drought had happened. Even at that time, he was already using terms such as “destruction” to talk about what was happening to prairie plant communities.)

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is an ecologist and Eastern Nebraska Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. He supervises the management and restoration of approximately 4,000 acres of land in central and eastern Nebraska - primarily along the central Platte River. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press.
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11 Responses to Happy New (Dry) Year – 2013

  1. James C. Trager says:

    Weaver underestimated nature’s resilience, and we continue to do so today. This constitutes a loss of hope, to which I admit even I sometimes succumb. Our restoration work is part of the remedy to this hopelessness, as are nurturing of remnants, and patience. These too, are tested, by criticisms of our perceived and real mistakes, e.g., the concern over the losses of remnant-specialist butterfly species in small tracts of unplowed prairie, or allowing “brush” to invade our prairies. Some attribute the butterfly losses to management practices, particularly overly extensive and/or too frequent use of fire. One may legitimately wonder if there can be resilience from such losses.

  2. David Burg says:

    Chris,
    Happy New Year and thanks for your good blog. Many of us benefit from your words and wisdom. I have a quibble with this latest post because I feel you confuse normal with average. Your post indicates that periods of drought are normal for your region. Paleo-ecological investigations seem to indicate the same. Your post indicates that this is not a problem for praire adapted species. Perhaps the problem is that this is not a great place for people to be farming?

    • Chris Helzer says:

      David – thank you for catching my slip. I did, in fact, use the word normal instead of average. I try not to do that because, as you say, variation (including drought) is NORMAL. In fact, I included a link in the post that shows how common (and long) droughts are. You last comment is more challenging. I don’t think drought frequency means we shouldn’t farm (and definitely doesn’t mean we shouldn’t graze) but it should play a larger role in the kind of agricultural practices we employ. I think we are often too complacent (and use words like normal to describe what we hope we’ll get for precipitation) and need to plan better for drought. I’m not a farmer, so don’t know all the ways to hedge against drought. In terms of grazing, we use set stocking rates that allow us to absorb the impacts of a dry year, and adjust stocking rates from year to year based on soil moisture conditions. Good ranchers do the same. We have very productive soils in this part of the world – I think it would be counterproductive not to utilize them (and would increase the need for production elsewhere). But we do need smart agriculture that incorporates the reality of the variable climate. Thanks for the excellent comment.

      • David Burg says:

        Chris, the problem with human expectations for a landscape is that it leads to what Malthus termed “the insensible bias”. When you wrote that the snow is “good” it made me think. Isn’t dry just as good, if not better, to maintain the sorts of special communities we both seem to cherish? Yes, we wish for more water in the desert…but then it is no longer a desert.

        You wisely point out that grazing is not the same as tillage farming. In my salad days I spent much of a year shoveling, milking and haying as a hired hand on a Vermont dairy farm. I am married to a woman whose parents and extended family once operated dozens of small egg farms in Eastern Connecticut. My nephew and his wife currently manage a small truck farm in New Mexico. I am very sympathetic to farmers and farming. But as you imply, we can adjust our agriculture to local conditions to the benefit of both farmers and nature. Even here in the north east of North America grazing is the least destructive agricultural practice. See the great work of my friends at the Farmscape Ecology Program in Columbia County NY. They have documented many local grassland species, from meadowlarks to butterflies, that only persist on grazed lands. So thanks for your comments in regards to the appropriateness of grazing, especially on high plains.

  3. Glenn Pollock says:

    The 2011 year flood on Missouri river covered the only know virgin flood plane prairie in Iowa. Cord grass held on during the flooding by emerging above the water. I did not get a chance to see what recovered in the prairie last year but from a distance I could see some thing green in the seven acre prairie. Since the prairie was under water for at least two months I assume that all the insects and prairie crayfish were eliminated. I am sure in the past that the prairie experienced flooding but not for a period of eight weeks underwater. I need to contact the owner to see what the effect of the flooding has done this next spring.

  4. Ed May says:

    Chris, Happy 2013 to you and your family too! Ed

  5. Becky says:

    Thanks again for another thought provoking post, concerning drought, farmers and ranchers. As a former classroom educator I can say that you would be (and actually are) a great teacher. Life is an on-going learning process and I appreciate your contribution to my continuing education about prairies.

  6. Tom Prunier says:

    And thanks for the link to the Digital Commons. Looks like I’ll be doing a lot of reading there. A good New Year to all! Tom

  7. James McGee says:

    Looking at your last picture made me wonder what you have planned for 2013? Maybe you could make a blog post about your plans for the year.

    James

  8. Reblogged this on The Great Plains Trail and commented:
    More moisture in 2013 would indeed be welcomed across much of the Great Plains! Thanks for your thoughts Chris.

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