Eclectications

Short takes on science, business, health, agriculture and possibly the kitchen sink

Robert Wise   email  
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Shop Indies to Build Community Resilience

Every retail store gives back to its community in some degree, but some are generous and some are downright extractive. I don't mean "giving back" as in sponsoring a Little League team, but something more fundamental: recycling dollars into the local economy. Every store's contribution is different, but you can judge coarsely by the type of retail organization. Is it an independent store, a franchise of some type, or a retail chain store?

A locally owned, independent store recycles more dollars to the community than any other type. Aside from the cost of wholesale goods and state taxes, all its revenue cycles back into the local economy: employeesí wages; fees for local services such as cleaning, accounting and building repair (unless some services are hired from out of town.); city and county taxes, and the ownersí profits. If the store is a member of a "retailer-owned cooperative," it may also earn dividends from the national organization.

These coop members are the "invisible independents" -- a shopper has no way of knowing they are not chain or franchise stores. I was unaware of them until I interviewed the owners of a local lumber company for a book on small business. They told me in glowing terms about the Ace Hardware franchises they had added to two of their stores.

Every Ace Hardware store is an independent business. The owner joins the Ace organization by buying its stock, but makes all business decisions on his own, even to the extent of carrying non-Ace inventory. He keeps all his profits and also draws some dividends from the Ace stock. He always has the option of withdrawing from Ace and going to other suppliers.

An Ace Hardware store. (Photo from Hardware News Network , used by permission.)

Quite a few familiar names are retailer-owned cooperatives: Grocery stores such as IGA, ShopRite and PriceRite; hardware stores including Ace Hardware, True Value Hardware and the Canadian Do It Best stores; several pharmacy organizations, and some distributors such as NAPA Auto Parts. A list of retailer-owned cooperatives is published in Wikipedia.

After independent retailers, certain franchises recirculate the biggest share of their revenue: those that charge no royalties and relate to their franchisees mainly as a wholesaler, such as Sav-a-Lot supermarkets or the former Rexall drugstore franchise, as it existed in the 1930s-40s. Franchisees may be required to purchase services from or through the franchiser, but at least they keep their profits. Itís hard to know which franchises fit this description, since franchise terms are not advertised to the public. (Sav-a-Lot states that its contract is not a franchise, though its characteristics fit that category.)

The poorest dollar recirculator, proportionally, is a franchise charging the average royalty of about seven percent of sales. (Royalties vary from none to much higher than seven per cent, but that's the average across all contracts.) In sparse years, the franchisee may owe all of his profits or more as royalties. In the typical "business format" franchise, those little stores that look identical in every town, most services are performed by the franchiser. The building itself may have to be constructed or built out with required fixtures and signage from the franchiser.

But on a total dollar basis, a retail chain store recirculates even less. The proportion of profits going out of town may be less; typical profit margins for big-box stores are on the order of three to four percent of sales. But considering the volume of sales, such a store will send more funds out of the community than many small franchise stores combined. Wages will typically be low, with some stores striving to use part-time help wherever possible.

Most of the "recirculation" I've spoken of means putting more dollars into the pockets of local business owners. In the past, this might have seemed backward. Shoppers were often happy to see a chain or franchise store open, to compete with local businesses and bring prices down. In some communities there was a lot of resentment of the local "fat cats."

But all business owners are human, and the chain or franchise store just directs profits to different, out-of-town fat cats. To make your community resilient in the face of economic stagnation and decline, it will help to have some local entrepreneurs with capital to invest who are not beholden to any distant corporation.

Many researchers have attempted to measure the "local premium" effect described here. The American Independent Business Alliance summarized the results of eleven studies conducted between 2003 and 2013. The results showed that independent retailers returned more than three times as many dollars per dollar of sales to the local economy as their chain store competitors. Locally-owned, independent restaurants returned twice as much as chain restaurants.

Should you spend more in order to shop independent stores? Some local business advocates say flatly that you should. But even if you can afford to agree, youíre probably asking "how much and how often?"

Often you donít need to spend more. We have several Ace stores nearby, and I find Ace prices in the same ballpark as the big builder supply chains, sometimes undercutting them on a particular item. A local, independent pharmacy often fills my prescriptions cheaper than my insurorís mail-order pharmacy, depending on the drug and where I stand with the deductible.

I buy pool supplies from a local independent store, and here I do pay extra -- about 25 cents more per jug of chlorine, twice a month. But when they installed a new pool pump motor some months ago, they cured a problem that probably killed the previous two motors.

My wife clips coupons religiously, so grocery shopping takes us to many different stores. But now and then we shop at the local Sav-a-Lot, finding surprisingly low prices on most items.

Have a look around. There could be more indies in town than you thought, and you may find you prefer to trade with them. When you do, you give a little boost to the local economy.

Comments


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References:
MyAce.com: The Ace Hardware franchise

Ryan Smith, List of Retailers' Cooperatives, Wikipedia

Sav-a-Lot stores: Ownership Program

AMIBA review of studies on the multiplier effect

Hardware News Network: Ace Hardware Tops in Customer Service

Revisions to this post:
Oct 31 -- Changed header picture and a few words.


Strips of Native Prairie Protect Farm Soil
A new way of preserving topsoil on row-cropped land

A new conservation practice reduces cropland erosion to sustainable levels even on moderately sloping land: contoured strips within corn and bean fields, planted to native prairie grasses. The deep rooted grasses slow runoff, trapping suspended soil and nutrients. They also provide habitat for insects and wildlife. No more than 10% of a field need be put in prairie strips to gain full benefits from the practice.


Cornfield with strips planted to native prairie grasses. Photo by Sarah Hirsh, used by permission.

Researchers in the STRIPS project (Science-based Trials of Row-crops Integrated with Prairie Strips) developed the "prairie strips" practice in an ongoing experiment using flume-metered test fields. The test fields lie on slopes of 6-10%, in soils moderately damaged by previous erosion.

Each test field is cultivated by the "no-till" method -- no plowing and minimal cultivation. At harvest time, a combine chops cornstalks into a mulch, spreading it back onto the soil. Spring planting is done directly into this mulch layer, without disturbing the soil.

Many farmers have adopted no-till methods, as much to reduce expenses as to protect topsoil. But no-till alone may not reduce erosion to a sustainable level in a particular field. During a year with heavy midsummer rains, the test field without prairie strips lost 11 tons per acre -- over twenty times the estimated rate of soil formation (half a ton per acre per year), and much more than would be predicted by standard estimation methods.

Test fields with prairie strips lost approximately half a ton per acre that year -- 95% less -- putting them approximately in balance with soil formation. In a year with milder rains, the prairie strip fields lost approximately 100 pounds per acre, suggesting that they added topsoil during the year. The field without prairie strips lost nearly four tons per acre.


From STRIPS brochure, permission requested.

Many soil conservation practices use permanent grasses with soft stems, such as brome or fescue, to provide a slippery surface which lets rainwater flow rapidly without disturbing the soil underneath. Prairie grasses, in contrast, provide a barrier that slows runoff, allowing it to sink into the ground, trapping suspended soil and dissolved nitrogen. (One farmer has successfully converted some of his grassed filter strips to prairie grasses.)

Prairie strips enhance the biodiversity of a field out of proportion to their small land area. Species counts on the test fields showed twice as many bird species and five times as many plant species on the stripped fields. The strips support 70 species of bees as well as some insect predators of corn and soybean pests.

The STRIPS staff is working with farmers to introduce the practice on working farms, targeting those on highly erodible land. A number of farmers have installed the strips, some featured in the STRIPS documentary. USDA will probably provide cost sharing for installation and rent, for a limited term, on land taken out of production.

These subsidies help all taxpayers to some extent, not just farmers and landowners. NRCS policy has long aimed at improving water quality as well as protecting topsoil. The effects of cleaner water extend beyond local streams and lakes, right down to the Gulf of Mexico.

The "dead zone" in the Gulf is created by soil and nutrients washing into the Mississippi from Midwestern farms. Algal blooms, feeding on the nitrogen and phosphorus, reduce dissolved oxygen in the water to a level where fish canít breath. Prairie strips and other soil conservation measures, supported by tax dollars, are helping to clarify Mississippi waters and ultimately to shrink the dead zone.


Mississippi-Missouri watershed and the Dead Zone. From Marine Science Today, permission requested.

Prairie strips provide one more soil conservation option for farmers and landowners. USDA subsidizes all conservation practices at some level, depending on the "farm bill" currently in force and the risk of erosion on a particular field. The funds available are always directed to the most vulnerable land.

The risk of erosion varies widely from field to field, depending on soil type, slope, even the size and shape of the field. Landowners tailor their conservation practices -- if any -- to the risk level of a particular field, and also to the level of government support available. The STRIPS test fields fall somewhere in the middle of the risk spectrum, between nearly flat farmland on good soil, and steeply sloping land with soils that wash easily.

Many conservation practices are available, often with USDA support, but only the land owner can take positive action to prevent soil depletion. On average, itís not being done. Iowa is losing about five tons of topsoil per cropland acre per year, ten times the theoretically sustainable rate.

But hidden in this average are many carefully managed farms using the best conservation practices, and stretches of level land on good soils that have a minimal risk of erosion. With new options such as prairie strips and growing public awareness of the nationwide impact of farm runoff, there are more opportunities to turn this trend around.

Everything I've said about "erosion" in this and previous posts applies only to water-borne soil erosion, essentially the only soil conservation concern in the midwestern corn belt. Further west, in the high plains, wind erosion becomes the overriding concern. It's a different world.

Note on Inflation and the CPI
I had planned to mention this topic but have not developed anything to add to the discussion. I talked with an information specialist at BLS about their methods, and gathered some more data which I'm still tinkering with. I may yet come up with something worth a post.

Next Post: Friday, October 31

Comments


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All comments are moderated. I may answer flame mail directly, but will not post it unless it makes a good point.


References:

STRIPS Project Website

STRIPS Documentary Video

Ecohydrological Response to Integrating Perennial Vegetation into Midwestern Agricultural Landscapes

STRIPS brochure: Small Changes, Big Impacts

Missouri Prairie Journal, Spring 2014

Harvest Public Media: "Cost effectiveness of Prairie Strips"


Will the Real Inflation Rate Please Stand Up?

"Heís pouring it out on the ground!" came a groan from the darkness behind me. I wasn't -- had just spilled a few ounces of gasoline while getting the nozzle into my gas can. But it was enough to draw attention from the line of cars waiting at the gas station, before dawn on a workday in 1979. The can was for my motorcycle, a Yamaha 175 I bought to cut commuting expenses. My car had half a tank, but I topped it off anyway.

Living through the 1970s sensitized me to price inflation. Coping with inflation changed our lives much more than the occasional shortages of gasoline, coffee or sugar. We gardened and canned our produce, bicycled instead of driving when we could. I vowed never to borrow at a variable rate or lend at a fixed rate.

When stock and bond earnings didnít measure up to inflation, people poured their savings into gold or into their homes. Some bought and stored huge supplies of canned and paper goods, knowing the prices were bound to rise. Cost of Living Adjustments (COLAs) were added to union contracts and finally to the Social Security regulations.

I'm also sensitized to inflation from a habit of trying to understand the world in terms of energy flows. Without trying to justify or elaborate this view, here's what it implies: Nearly all the work in our economy is done by inanimate energy, mostly from oil, gas or coal. Real value consists of a call on present or future energy supplies, or ownership of something produced at a certain energy cost. So as energy becomes scarcer and more expensive, its rising price will filter through the economy, inflating all prices. I expect this as a long-term trend, on some unspecified time scale.

Much more is going on, of course, including an almost opposite effect: a spike in energy prices can trigger a recession, causing the price of energy and everything else to drop.

How bad is inflation today? No knows for sure. Thereís a widely followed official estimate from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the Consumer Price Index (CPI). (Inflation is measured as the change in the CPI, month to month or year to year.) Through the 1970s and early 80s, everyone looked to the CPI to measure inflation. But since then, BLS has changed its methods and even its definition of what the CPI measures.

Three Estimates
Economist John Williams, a longtime critic of BLS methodology, publishes two alternate estimates of the CPI on his website shadowstats.com. He bases one estimate on backing out computational changes made after 1980, another on backing out changes after 1990. Williams does not recompute the CPI but adjusts it, mainly on the basis of other BLS data.

The chart below shows annual changes in the official CPI, Williams' 1990-based Alternate CPI and his 1980-based Alternate CPI. Values for January of each year are plotted, as the annual values were not available for the 1990-based Alt CPI.

Each estimate seems to stay in a fairly narrow band, within plus or minus 1-1/2% of its period average, except for spikes up and down during the 2008 banking crises. Whatever the cost of living is, it's rising at a steady rate -- not accelerating as in the 1970s.

The1980-based Alt CPI puts the average rate of inflation in recent years higher than it was during that period. The chart below shows annual changes in the CPI from the first oil shock to the start of the Fed-induced recession. (At least one economist estimates inflation to be even higher, based on the price of gold.)

I donít perceive anything like the level of economic stress today that I recall from that period. It seems very unlikely that the 1980-based Alt CPI could be correct. (However, Iím perceiving from the perspective of comfortable retirement -- not from that of a young family struggling to make ends meet.) Williams himself uses the more conservative 1990-based estimate to derive his alternate versions of other headline statistics.

Spot Checks
If the truth lies somewhere between the official CPI and Williams' 1990-based Alt CPI, itís hard to narrow down any further. Financial columnist Rex Nutting did a spot check on these notions by comparing prices of 20 items in 1983 versus 2012. He used each price comparison to derive an inflation rate for the period.

Most of his rates were close to the then official CPI of 2.3%. Food prices averaged 2.5%, gasoline about 4%. Electronics and air fare actually deflated. But public college tuition rose about 8% per year, and health insurance about 11%.

The official CPI is correct, Nutting concluded, but people are deluded by their own perceptions. They pay more attention to price increases than to decreases, and underestimate the cumulative impact of small inflation rates. Three per cent, for instance, sounds low, but will double a price in 24 years.

I did a spot check in my local newspaper, comparing sale ads and classifieds between late September 1990 and 2014. Like Nutting, I converted the price change to an average annual inflation rate. The average CPI for the period was 2.3%; the average 1990-based Alt CPI, about 5.5%.

In my price sample, grocery inflation rates clustered around 3%. Gasoline rose only about 4% per year; college tuition, 7%. The rent for a 3 bedroom home inflated less than 2% per year.

Then thereís the McDonald's Hamburger Index. You can still buy the same burger, apparently unchanged, that sold for 15 cents during the 1960s. Itís 89 cents today, even lower than the official CPI would have predicted ($1.02.)

These are true back-of-the-envelope numbers, nothing much to compare with the gargantuan data collection effort that goes on continuously to develop the official CPI. BLS surveys prices in 200+ categories in 38 regions of the US. It combines estimates across regions only at high levels -- at the lowest level are categories like "steak in Chicago" and "steak in San Francisco".

It would be interesting to check or recompute the CPI from the basic BLS data. However, the available data is limited. BLS publishes price histories for some large categories -- food, clothing, transportation and energy. But for others, it publishes only indices and indices of indices. And if thereís significant inflation above the official rate, much of it is happening in those other categories.

Substitution
Critics have complained about "substitution" in the CPI for decades. The original pre-1980 CPI was based on a fixed "market basket" -- a shopping list of goods and services representing what an average familyís income would be spent on. Not absolutely fixed, because shopping habits and the available merchandise changed from year to year. But the market basket was kept as constant as possible. The proportion of income spent on each category of goods -- its weighting in the CPI -- was changed only every ten years.

All the changes since 1980 have been aimed at allowing more rapid substitution, simulating it by "geometric averaging" within categories, and revising the category weights every other year. BLS is now developing a "chained" CPI, which will allow continuous reweighting from month to month.

The next post will discuss substitution in more detail, including geometric averaging, "hedonic quality adjustment" and reweighting. I hope to shed more light on the level of present-day inflation -- still gathering data -- but may only pose a philosophical question. I'll also have some notes on soil erosion.

Comments

Oct 12
7.5% in my house for 2013.
jb


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All comments are moderated. I may answer flame mail directly, but will not post it unless it makes a good point.


References:
Shadow Government Statistics: Alternate Inflation Charts

J. Williams, Public Comment on Inflation Measurement and the Chained-CPI (C-CPI)

R. Nutting, Why the CPI is not misleading

BLS, Addressing misconceptions about the Consumer Price Index

J. Williams, Response to BLS Article on CPI Misconceptions

BLS, Consumer Price Index FAQ: Is the CPI a Cost of Living Index?

R. Weyler, Real wealth: Howard T. Odumís energy economics


Plowing Bedrock
How bad is soil erosion in US cropland?

A statement in JM Greer's blog last month challenged everything I thought I knew about soil management in American cropland. At today's rate of erosion, he wrote, the topsoil would be gone by 2075. Gone! The land might look like Providence Canyon , where poor soil management in the 1820ís triggered runaway erosion that is still going on.


Providence Canyon, the "Little Grand Canyon" formed in southwest Georgia by manmade erosion in a tricky geological context. (courtesy of George Dept of Natural Resources)

"Gone by 2075" seemed an absurd projection for the well-tended midwestern topsoil. Driving there, you pass mile after mile of fields with furrows always running across the slope, patches of permanent grass where a gully might form, strips of grass and shrub along creeksides, sometimes bands of grass alternating with cultivated strips across steeply sloping fields. Many fields are no longer plowed or cultivated, but farmed on a no-till system.

You canít stop all erosion, of course, unless in a rice paddy-type field. Most farmers seek a lesser goal , formalized by the Soil Conservation Service in its early years: Keep erosion slow enough that it doesnít damage the soilís productivity.

How much erosion is acceptable? For the better soils of the Midwestern corn belt, about five tons per acre per year -- in theory. The Soil Conservation Service, who are now the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), speak of the acceptable erosion rate as the Soil Loss Tolerance Rate, or sometimes the "T factor."

NRCS reported in 2007 that only 28% of US cropland was eroding faster than the acceptable rate "T" -- not an ideal situation, but apparently much better than "gone by 2075." Yet the more detailed NRCS data donít fully support this statement. And the T factor itself is a puzzling legacy..

NRCS publications donít say how T was calculated, though itís tabulated in the soil survey for every soil in every county of the US. The calculation took into account the natural rate of soil formation, but only as one factor among many. Judging from some discussions back in 1956, T was mainly designed to keep the topsoil deep enough for crop production, free of serious gullying, and capable of holding most of the nutrients applied to it. The soil formation rates considered may have been some early, highly optimistic estimates.

Current estimates suggest that soil forms at about half a ton per acre per year in some representative Iowa and Minnesota soils. Even the lowest T values are many times higher. Soil scientist Leonard Johnson reviewed the research behind the T factor in 1986. He concluded that erosion control based on T values "..should be considered as provisional or short-range."

A 2014 webinar at ISU by Prof. Rick Cruse concluded that using T as the criterion for soil erosion control was effectively "a depletion schedule" for topsoil.


From R. Cruse, Pritchard Lecture 2014.

The long range goal Johnson, Cruse and many others recommend is to keep topsoil erosion slower than the rate at which it is being replaced by nature. If this were achieved, hills and ridges would level out slowly over geologic time, always blanketed by a continually renewed layer of topsoil where crops could be grown.

Conservation planning is difficult because the accepted method of estimating soil erosion in a given field, refined and extended since the 1930s, is still inadequate. New studies, in which actual runoff from test fields is collected and measured, show that actual soil erosion is 100-200% worse than the most sophisticated estimate. (One of the test fields is being farmed by the best no-till methods.)

With actual soil erosion this severe, we may be losing topsoil at 10 to 30 times the rate it is forming. That range echoes the 10x-40x estimate of an Australian soil scientist, Prof. John Crawford, for the entire worldís cropland. He told Time magazine in 2012 that
"A rough calculation of current rates of soil degradation suggests we have about 60 years of topsoil left..Even the well-maintained farming land in Europe, which may look idyllic, is being lost at unsustainable rates."


Tolerable vs actual soil erosion rates in Europe. F.G.A. Verheijen, R.J.A. Jones, R.J. Rickson and C.J. Smith, Earth Science Reviews :24-38. From Prof. R. Cruse,
Pritchard Lecture 2014

There are other soil management issues. No-till methods require herbicides, which have accumulated in groundwater to such an extent that many farm families rely on bottled drinking water. Herbicides can also kill grasses planted for erosion control.

Soil erosion estimates take into account a number of climate measurements, all of which may be changing as the earth warms. Revised values may be needed in the many tables of the soil survey. Some values reflect the frequency of heavy rainstorms, which may be increasing. A major storm can cause erosion close to the annual total in a single day.

Despite the questionable T-value guidance, NRCS remains an invaluable safety net, helping farmers to preserve and protect cropland. It assists in planning, financing and sustaining all types of erosion control structures. Among other services, it provides guidance for farmers making the transition from conventional to organic farming. All its work since 1933 has been helpful -- just not as successful as we thought.

Holding erosion below the rate of soil formation isn't impossible, but may require some unfamiliar and costly practices. Cover crops would help, as would the long-cycle crop rotations specified in every county's soil survey. Iíll elaborate in another post, after I learn more.


Iowa cropland seen from the air after a rain. Light patches are subsoil exposed on hilltops and ridges. From Prof. R. Cruise, ISU webinar.

Next Friday: Will the Real Inflation Rate Please Stand Up?

Comments



Sep 30
I grew up in Iowa. Severe topsoil erosion was amply evident in the 50's. I cannot stand to go back now. The ground is poisoned and there is pig slop everywhere. Such a waste!
David McFarland

That's sad to hear. The state is always beautiful to me when I travel there, in the same way as the Netherlands, because so much of the land is cultivated, productive, and looks like it's well taken care of. But I appreciate your insight. I've been learning a lot in the last ten days.



Sep 29
Gday mate
Great article , this east of perth
[Western Australia]
(picture)
Cheers
Andy Ward

Andy sent a series of pictures taken by airline passengers. In response to my questions he explained:

Taken from 737 of wheat growing areas in w.a , some are from around Esperance, some from between Perth and Kalgoorlie. The white streaks are salt rising to the surface, a result of denuding all the low scrubby vegetation that was native. The scrub held a lens of fresh water over the salt, keeping it in the depths.., but not now, we are in big trouble over here, climate / soil wise, no way back..You can see the wheat fields in these two , it just looks insane ..., I think we may have some " denial " going on over here ... Its not just a river in Egypt , you know!
Cheers Mate
Andy
He also recommended Peter Andrews "Beyond the Brink." Two of the most striking pictures:


Sep 28
The northeaster, the high tide, and rise in sea level over the past ten years is now giving our backyard interesting new possibilities. Maybe we'll be able to fish off the balcony or open a marina.
..from a college friend at his beachside cottage off the intracoastal waterway in NE Florida, where the shoreline is usually 100 ft or so back from the house:




Post a comment...
All comments are moderated. I may answer flame mail directly, but will not post it unless it makes a good point.


References:

J.M. Greer, "Dark Age America: A Bitter Legacy"
http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2014/08/dark-age-america-bitter-legacy.html

Prof John Crawford, Univ of Sydney "What If the Worldís Soil Runs Out?". Time magazine, December 14, 2012.
http://world.time.com/2012/12/14/what-if-the-worlds-soil-runs-out/

Mike Duffy, retired economist, "Value of Soil Erosion to the Land Owner", ISU Ag Decision Maker,
http://www.extension.iastate.edu/agdm/crops/html/a1-75.html

NRCS, "State of the Land"
http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/nrcs143_012458.pdf

NRCS, "Soil erosion on cropland 2007"
http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/national/technical/nra/nri/?cid=stelprdb1041887

Leonard C. Johnson, "Soil Loss Tolerance: Fact or Myth", Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, May-June 1987
http://www.portal.ufra.edu.br/attachments/991_Aula%204%20Johnson,%201987.pdf

Paul S. Sutter, What Gullies Mean: Georgia's "Little Grand Canyon" and Southern Environmental History
http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb1167354.pdf

Prof. Rick Cruse, "Soil Erosion - What will the future bring?",
http://extension.agron.iastate.edu/soybean/documents/SoilErosion.pdf

Prof Rick Cruse, "Soil Erosion in Iowa: How much is really happening?" ISU webinar April 2014
https://connect.extension.iastate.edu/p7sqo5f1v71/

Prof. Rick Cruse, "Is soil and water degradation invitable? Don't bet your life on it.", Pritchard Lecture 2014
http://www.swcs.org/documents/filelibrary/14ac/Pritchard_Lecture__Rick_Cruse_A784F8E95E921.pdf

Revisions to this post:
Sep 28 -- Added sources' names in text, rephrased some paragraphs, smaller font.
Sep 29 -- Changed picture of Providence Canyon to one provided by the Georgia DNR.


A Land Under Waves
Why does a man who knows about global warming and rising sea levels live by a saltwater canal where his back yard ends twenty inches above the water? Because the location is too beautiful to give up. And because I donít know if the canal will rise to the doorstep during my lifetime.

We had a preview in 2009 when hurricane Faye drove Atlantic waters against the coast and into the lagoons. My dock and seawall were under water. No one could remember the canal ever rising that high.


Photo by neighbor Chase Patterson, who was watching in case the boat floated off the lift. My wife and I were out of town.

If one day it rises over the seawall again and stays there, I have a plan: applying an old strategy to the new problem. Floridians have long excelled at marketing slightly damp real estate to out-of-town buyers. My ideal customer would be a global warming denier. There seem to be plenty of them, and I only need one. I would proceed something like this:

"Good morning, Mr. de Neyer. Iíll be glad to show you the house. Letís look around the back yard before we go inside."

"Flood insurance? Sure, we have it. With a good company too -- they always pay our claims right away. Iíd suggest you stay with Ďem."

"Where is the seawall? Sir, in this neighborhood we do not believe in seawalls. They just ainít natural enough. Here we donít need any docks or boat lifts -- you just pull your canoe right up on the grass. Itís wildlife-friendly, too. There's nothing cooler, or greener, than to look out your kitchen window and see a five-foot gator sunning himself on the lawn!"

"That roof on pilings out in the canal? Oh -- Iím so glad you asked. That is a fish shelter. Most of the neighbors have them too. The mullet and sea trout just love the shade and the underwater structure. You cast out by that corner piling around dusk, and youíll get a hit every time!"

"You canít believe all that global warming stuff, buddy, but Iíll tell you what I know for sure: the fishing in this neighborhood just keeps getting better!"

But I probably wonít need to make this pitch. Judging from the latest IPCC report, our canal will average six inches below the seawall by 2035 in the worst case. Waves may slap the sides of the dock or splash over it, but wonít flood the back yard. In the best case, sea level will rise at about the present rate and bring the canal up about seven inches, just enough to keep the larger dock joists wet. Hurricane surge will be a wild card, as always.

Another wild card is the West Antarctic ice shelf, the contributor to sea level rise whose behavior is least understood. If it collapses, the canal could reach the top of my seawall.

Scientists have modeled the Greenland ice sheet and verified the models against real data. Its behavior is included in the IPCC sea level projection. But the behavior of Antarctica's western region, with its ice shelves and its glaciers grounded below sea level, could not be projected as well.

The consensus estimate for year 2100 puts sea level ten to forty inches higher than today, provided the West Antarctic ice shelf doesnít collapse. If it does, sea level would rise higher, perhaps fifty to seventy inches higher than today.

IPCC bases its worst case estimates on its worst case projection of future greenhouse gas emissions: "business as usual," with no effort to reduce emissions.

On a world map, a forty inch rise doesnít appear to change the coastline much. But some regions will be strongly affected, such as my back yard. Millions of homes are on equally low ground. Along the Gulf coast, many areas of the Mississippi delta will be under water. Much of the Netherlands and Belgium will be below sea level -- much more than today -- as will a hundred-mile stretch of the Italian coast centered on Venice.

Not that the sea will stop rising in 2100 -- itís expected to keep on for centuries, slowly responding to the warming air and melting icecaps. One projection says the amount of carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere has committed us to 50 to 75 inches of sea level rise.

On the same basis, the global temperature maximum that many nations have agreed to as the target for mitigating climate change commits us to an eventual sea level rise of about 200 inches.

Those projections are based on one research teamís modeling of the major causes of sea level rise. They summarized their findings in a single relationship: for every degree Celsius that global temperature rises -- every 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit -- an eventual sea level rise of about 90 inches is "locked in."

Squeezing the myriad interactions of the earth-sea-atmosphere system into a one-variable dose/response model seems like a stretch. But some basic physical facts support it. Carbon dioxide lasts a long time in the atmosphere and makes it retain more heat in a fairly predictable way. And across the ages, where we have evidence, periods of global temperature more than 2 degrees Celsius above the present also experienced sea levels at least 200 inches higher than today.

In some futuristic novels, the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps have melted entirely, over a period of centuries or millenia. Sea level is at its maximum, Memphis is a port on the Gulf of Mexico, and Florida is only a legend -- a distant echo of the Celtic Land-Under-Waves. You can't talk about prediction or projection that far out, but an ice-free world is possible. Itís happened repeatedly in earth history.

When I studied climatology as a grad student half a century ago, global warming was only a suspicion, and studies of paleoclimate were just gathering steam. It's good to see how far this work has progressed, and how much practical guidance is being developed from its findings.

Next Friday: Plowing Bedrock - How bad is soil erosion in US cropland?

Comments


Sept 21
Interesting. 80 million years ago, 50% of North America was under water. See the Kansas Sea.
David Stewart

There's a map of the Kansas Sea at oceansofkansas.com


Sept 21
As an owner of waterfront property, I found this pretty useful. I have to say I feel better knowing I've probably still got some time to sell it and move my interests to higher ground. The history of this might be interesting: we used to do nearly anything to dredge, fill and mow land in order to get more waterfront holdings. Now, we're wondering what to do with what we have. Another inquiry some time, Bob?
George Meyer
Tampa

I think we're safe for a decade or two. But, looking far ahead, you might want to sell as opportunities arise.

Re future topics, I'm thinking somewhat on similar lines of a post about Florida's many 19th century waterways. As we've seen in our rides, the state is a museum of little-used canals and river/lagoon waterways, a good many created in the 1880's, still maintained and navigable.

As for dredging today, I've been told you could theoretically dredge out a new marina or new canals for a subdivision, but that the costs of reporting environmental impacts and getting approvals are probibitive. (Just heard in conversation with a dock contractor. I'm no expert on this.)
-- Bob


Sept 20
Well done, Professor Eclectations! You may be more of an expert than anyone I've heard so far--informative and funny. Looking forward to hearing about soil erosion.
Jim

Thanks, Jim, glad you approve. I hope the march went well today, and wish you an easy journey home.
-- Bob


Sept 19
Interesting blog, Bob. Made me wonder if Atlantis was once an area like Florida is today. Perhaps they had de Neyers there, too, back in the day! Linda

Hi, Linda, Thanks for looking and commenting. J.M. Greer mentions Atlantis now and then in his blog. He describes the symbolism of the story as very much like latter-day global warming and sea level rise -- including some activists and some de Neyers. Hope you and Harry are well.
-- Bob


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References:

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis
http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg1/
This is a huge section of a gigantic document. Browsing it on the internet may bring your computer to its knees. I suggest downloading the pdf's that interest you, to look at offline. I can't link to locations within a chapter, so have noted the subheadings and page numbers for certain topics.

Chapter 1. Introduction
http://www.climatechange2013.org/images/report/WG1AR5_Chapter01_FINAL.pdf
Sea level rise to 2035: See page 157, Table 1.A.8 in IPCC Range of Projections

Chapter 13. Sea Level Change
http://www.climatechange2013.org/images/report/WG1AR5_Chapter13_FINAL.pdf
Modeling of Greenland Glacier: See page 1139, Understanding of Sea Level Change
Sea level in 2100: See page 1140, Global Mean Sea Level Rise Predictions
Past sea levels and associated temperatures: See page 1139, Past Sea Level Changes

Global Sea Level Rise Map
http://geology.com/sea-level-rise/

"Rapid accumulation of committed sea-level rise from global warming"
http://assets.climatecentral.org/pdfs/Strauss-PNAS-2013-v2.pdf

"The multimillennial sea-level commitment of global warming"
http://www.pnas.org/content/110/34/13745.full

Revisions to this post:
Sep 21 -- Fixed a typo, diddled some words, expanded blogroll.
Mar 30, 2015 -- Minor rewording.

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