2012 has already been a rough year for farming in North America, as crops withered under record heat, drought and wildfire, while others washed away in Hurricane Isaac's torrential rains. This followed similar problems in 2011, ranging from the historic Texas drought to Mississippi River floods and Hurricane Irene.
Despite all the recent setbacks, however, farmers were dealt yet another blow this week as Superstorm Sandy flogged and flooded a swath of crops along its 2,000-mile path. The post-tropical cyclone hit in late October, when many U.S. growers have already harvested summer produce, but it still found ways to wreak havoc.
Sandy got started in the Caribbean, killing more than 60 people before surging north toward the U.S. East Coast. The majority of those deaths were in Haiti, where heavy rainfall caused devastating floods and landslides that crushed buildings, wiped out roads and inundated farmland. "Most of the agricultural crops that were left from Hurricane Isaac were destroyed during Sandy," Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe told Reuters, "so food security will be an issue."
Cuba took a direct hit as Sandy grew into a category 2 hurricane, and 20 to 30 percent of the country's coffee farms were destroyed overnight, according to Food World News. The worst damage occurred in the Sierra Maestra mountains, where 92 percent of Cuban coffee beans are grown, and it came just as the harvest normally peaks in late October and early November. Experts say Cuba may now produce less than 4,000 metric tons of coffee in 2012, its lowest output in more than a century. Sandy also struck hard in the Bahamas, where farmers lost crops such as bananas, cassava, tomatoes and watermelons, the Eleutheran newspaper reports.
Damage assessments remain underway in the U.S., with many areas still in disaster-relief mode. At least 70 deaths are confirmed so far, and some estimates suggest damage could reach $50 billion. Yet the overall impact on U.S. agriculture may be less severe than in the Caribbean, since the summer growing season is over in cooler climates and many farmers sped up harvesting ahead of the storm. "Sandy is a big weather story, but it's mainly a human life issue on the East Coast — no real impact on crops or harvest," John Dee of Global Weather Monitoring tells the Economic Times.
That's not the case everywhere, though. Localized crop damage has been severe, including at some New York City outfits like Red Hook Community Farm and Battery Urban Farm, which were flooded by several feet of seawater. Many rooftop gardens escaped the floods and endured the winds, according to the New York Observer, but it wasn't just plants in the line of fire. "The bees got washed away, flooded out," says the chief operating officer of Brooklyn Grange, which had the city's largest commercial apiary. "It was pretty devastating."
It's important to realize Sandy didn't occur in a vacuum, points out ecologist Steven Apfelbaum of Applied Ecological Services in Wisconsin. "This isn't the only storm that's impacted agriculture in the U.S. this year," he tells MNN. "We've had intense, damaging storms over large areas of the U.S., one of the most extensive droughts in recent history, and we had nearly 500 heat records broken during just one day in August." Even small shifts have taken a big toll, he adds. "The fruit crops in Wisconsin and Michigan were blooming three weeks earlier than normal this year, then we got normal spring weather conditions and lost nearly 100 percent." Combined with the effects of Hurricane Sandy, Apfelbaum says U.S. crop-insurance claims in 2012 could be "profoundly larger than anything we've ever seen in this country."
While no one can directly link a single storm to global warming, the wild weather of 2011 and 2012 is exactly what climate models have been predicting for years: longer droughts and stronger storms. "Before, climate change was talked about as an abstraction, something that would happen in the future," Apfelbaum says. "But the changes we're experiencing now are not abstract at all. They're very real."
The issue of climate change has been conspicuously absent from this year's U.S. presidential race, but storms like Sandy are reminders that it can't be ignored forever. And while politicians dance around it, Apfelbaum says farmers should take initiative to protect themselves. "Build buffers into your farm plans where streams overflow, areas that are going to be able to absorb the recoil," he says. "Put in grassy waterways and native, deep-rooted perennial plant buffers. Take some of your land out of these row-crop uses and build intrinsic capacity for absorbing the impact on your own land."
Related hurricane stories on MNN:
- Climate vs. weather: Extreme events narrow doubts
- How Hurricane Sandy became a snowstorm
- The financial impacts of Hurricane Sandy
- Are hurricanes linked to global warming?
MNN tease photo of flooded barn: Shutterstock