Story by Yesenia Gonzalez
Photos by Yesenia Gonzalez & Michelle Rojano
Water is the source of life on earth. When looking for life on other planets, one of the first signs scientists look for is any amount of water. More than 70 percent of the earth is covered in this resource and human beings cannot survive more than three days without it. At any given moment, different parts of the world exhibit unique weather patterns with profound effects on the ecosystem. Natural weather events, like floods, droughts and tornadoes are some of the most common in Oklahoma.
Weather occurs in cycles and one way that scientists can predict incoming disasters is by looking at weather patterns. Oklahoma is no different and its varied landscaping makes for a wide variety of inclement weather activity. Oklahoma is prone to drought because of factors like the dry line, which means there is low moisture in the atmosphere. Wildfire dangers emerge when there is a lack of rain, dry air, high winds and low dew points over a region. Wildfires are one of the negative consequences of periods of intense drought.
According to Steve Carano, professor of atmospheric science and geosciences coordinator, in 2011, Oklahoma had more than 50 days with temperatures over 100 degrees. If 100-degree weather is not dry, but rather muggy and moist, there is a potential risk for other types of severe weather outbreaks. As the environment becomes more unstable, tornado chances increase. The weather during 2011 proved deadly, with the Oklahoma Forestry Services reporting 1,745 fires that blazed across Oklahoma. It was a different story for May 20, 2013, with the resulting weather being just as deadly. A category EF5 tornado ravaged central Oklahoma, with Moore enduring the heaviest damage. A tornado forms when cold, dry air converges with warm, moist air and that combination creates instability in the atmosphere. Thunderstorms precede tornadoes but can increase in severity depending on how unstable the environment is at the time.
One of the reasons Western Oklahoma exhibits a different climate than that of the dry, eastern region is that the western part of the state faces the Rocky Mountains. Its location gives it a wide gap in the diurnal temperature. A diurnal range of temperature is the difference between the highest and lowest daily temperatures. When the diurnal temperature difference is wide, there is an increased risk for the atmospheric instability that causes thunderstorms, floods and tornadoes.
According to Professor of Environmental Science and Geosciences Coordinator Daniel Ratcliff, there is no real way for humans to prevent droughts; in fact, one of the biggest challenges in water preservation is the copious amount needed by the agricultural industry.
The United States Department of Agriculture estimated that agriculture accounted for about 80 percent of the United States’ consumptive water use. Oklahoma is right in the middle of a region known as the central plains, which hosts other dry, flat areas. Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana are the other states located in the central plains. Economic research conducted in 2017 by the United States Department of Agriculture concluded that Oklahoma is the state with the fourth highest number of farms in the US, the total sum being about 77,200. Texas is the top farm state in the United States, with about 240,000. In the case of Oklahoma, regions in the western half of the state are prone to dry, arid conditions while the eastern half of the state receives more precipitation.
Although human intervention cannot prevent Oklahoma’s inevitable droughts, scientists, farmers, agricultural engineers and utility companies take steps to mitigate the consequences of Oklahoma’s droughts.
Xeriscaping is a practice where farmers place plant species that consume less water in areas prone to drought. Water laws during the summer time are instilled by different municipalities across the state, each law limiting the amount of water people can use to water their gardens and at what times. Oklahoma has the most man-made lakes in the United States. Since Oklahoma is a flat, dry state, man-made lakes have one primary function: underground water storage. Lake Hefner, Stanley Draper and Overholser are all man-made lakes that serve as water storage.
Lake Stanley Draper specifically functions as an aqueduct. The way an aqueduct functions is that when the lake fills with water, a series of ducts and canals transport that water to the regions it serves. Lake Thunderbird also has an aqueduct that supplies water to Midwest City and Norman. Oklahoma’s eastern half is more prone to flooding than the western half, so it is especially important for artificial lakes to collect some of the excess to place less of a burden on the area.
“The No. 1 cause of weather-related fatalities is drowning,” said Professor and Director of Emergency Management Jackie Wright.
In 2015, record flooding impacted eastern Oklahoma. The Red River was backing up to the dam, which could not keep up with the heavy rainfall that hit the state. When a natural disaster hits Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Emergency Management Department oversees ensuring the safety of those affected. Oklahoma is one of only about 20 percent of the U.S. whose emergency department is not directed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Rather, it is overseen by Oklahoma’s Department of Homeland Security as an office under public safety instead of being its own department.
During the 2015 eastern Oklahoma floods, disaster declarations informed residents of the incoming dangerous road conditions. According to Wright, fatalities caused by floods are common because people do not respect dangerous flood waters.
Severe weather events do not only impact human lives but can also bring about negative consequences to wildlife. According to Ratcliff, since every habitat is different, organisms are adapted to varying conditions. What may not greatly affect one ecosystem can bring about detrimental effects to another. Species who are adjusted to dry climates like those of Western Oklahoma would not experience particularly adverse effects during a drought but organisms who live in wetland environments would receive a greater impact. Environments like bogs, marshes and wetlands contain microorganisms who contribute to nourishing the soil. Without water, those microorganisms would not be able to thrive and keep the habitat healthy.
“Those [animals] which have adaptations that are tied to an aquatic environment [are more vulnerable to extreme drought],” Professor of Life Science Dr. Cory Rubel said. “This obviously includes fish which require water as their habitat, but also, droughts can affect the level, temperature and salinity of water which can cause detrimental consequences. But other animals as well, such as those whose reproduction is tied to water, [like] the amphibians, and animals whose food source requires water, which can include reptiles, birds and mammals.”
Long-term versus short-term droughts can mean all the difference for plant and animal species when it comes to survival. Ratcliff explained that droughts increase evaporation in the soil. In a short-term drought, the earth can regain that lost moisture content, but extended droughts can have permanent effects. Droughts are not unique to the 21st century. In fact, as severe as weather events may appear during certain years, severe weather patterns are nothing new. Ratcliff used the Ancient Pueblos of the Four Corners region as an example of the result of a severe drought that occurred more than 3,000 years ago. The region is known for its dry cliffs that formed during the drought and housed Native American groups. Today, the cliffs remain, a picture of the far-reaching effects of long-term arid conditions.
“Brief droughts are usually recoverable. Organisms often have variations in populations that allow for survival of some members during the drought that recover fully when conditions return to normal. Organisms with many offspring allow for a high mortality, yet those few that survive often survive until adulthood. However, most populations will see a decline in population due to many factors including loss of habitat, reproduction, food source, fires, and an increase in disease due to organisms crowding together by the remaining water sources,” Rubel said.
Water is a limiting factor when it comes to population growth among humans. Currently, there are about 7.5 billion people inhabiting the earth. Sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson from Harvard University is among the scientists who believe that the earth has a capacity to carry, at most, 10 billion people. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs estimates that the total global population will reach 9.7 billion by 2050. There are various solutions to alleviate droughts and reduce water consumption, each with their own benefits and drawbacks.
Genetically-modified crops are nothing new, but Ratcliff thinks that talks of genetically modifying crops to consume less water may increase in the coming years. Some of the benefits of genetically modifying crops are lower water consumption and increased drought resistance. However, genetically modifying plants reduces biodiversity among species. Without biodiversity, a disease could easily wipe out an entire plant species to extinction because all the plants are engineered to be alike. Cloud seeding is another widely debated topic. Seeding a cloud means to insert more particles in it so that it can produce more condensation, which in turn produces rain. While cloud seeding has the potential to relieve areas in long-term droughts, it can also cause floods and other types of damaging, inclement weather to the area or even surrounding states.
“Now, cloud seeding is just one of those things, what we’re doing in the cloud seeding [process] is we’re putting condensation nuclei in the atmosphere and, so, moisture will condense upon those particles and make clouds and hopefully it will precipitate. Well, let’s say we, like you said, set a cloud seed here and it goes over to Arkansas and they have ten inches of rain and people die and lose their homes. Well, you know, somebody’s gonna be paying the piper for that. So, I think that’s the big reason why they don’t do a lot of cloud seeding; because of [potential] lawsuits,” Carano said.
Water can be a resource that many take for granted. After all, more than 70 percent of the earth being covered in a single resource makes it appear abundant but there are various factors to consider. Only about one percent of all water on earth is readily available for human consumption. As the world population increases, so will the demand for natural resources, which can put a strain on the earth. Ratcliff mentioned a quote by Benjamin Franklin that summarizes the necessity to be mindful of water consumption:
“When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.”