NYT Leaves Readers High and Dry on Causes of Mississippi Drought

Another example of a major news outlet reporting the effects of climate change without mentioning climate change–this time the New York Times (1/18/13):

New York Times graphic on Mississippi River drought.

How humans keep the river flowing–but not how we made it drop.

For months along the Mississippi River here, the withering drought has caused record-breaking low water levels that have threatened to shut down traffic on the world’s largest navigable inland waterway….

The fact that the river has remained open for business along the critical “Middle Miss”–the 200 miles between the Mississippi’s last dam-and-locks structure, above St. Louis, down to Cairo, Ill., where the plentiful Ohio River flows in–stems from a remarkable feat of engineering that involved months of nonstop dredging, blasting and scraping away of rock obstructions along the riverbed, effectively lowering the bottom of the channel by two feet….

The effort has allowed the corps to maintain the river’s 300-foot-wide navigation channel at a depth of at least nine feet. While that is no deeper than many swimming pools, it is just enough to keep tow boats and their barges afloat, though loaded more lightly than the shippers wish.

But nowhere in this discussion of the reaction to what an accompanying graphic calls the “historic drought in 2012” is there any mention of what is changing our history: the climate change caused by global warming brought on by human alteration of Earth’s atmosphere.

By contrast, here’s how an Australian paper, the Sydney Morning Herald (12/18/12), reported the same story, under the headline “Climate Change Adds to Mississippi’s Toll”:

For the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, whose lands straddle the North and South Dakota border, river water means drinking supplies. For Illinois farmers, it’s irrigation for their crops.

Rivers also power hydro-electric plants, provide recreation for boaters and give coal companies inexpensive access to export markets with barges to New Orleans.

Balancing these competing demands on the nation’s water resources has never been easy. Global warming, linked to near-record low water levels on the Mississippi River this year as well as last year’s severe floods along the Missouri River, is making the task even harder….

The government will increasingly need to referee such disputes as average temperatures in much of the U.S. may increase by five degrees Fahrenheit by the 2080s, straining river systems, [U.S. Water Alliance president Ben] Grumbles said. Earlier thaws and smaller snowpacks will decrease flows from mountains. Increased evaporation rates will dry out some areas and create excess rainfall in others, resulting in more volatile water levels and more frequent floods and droughts, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Carbon-dioxide emissions since the Industrial Revolution have led to a warming of the Earth’s temperature, which threatens to cause extreme weather, drought and coastal flooding, according to the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

The Times piece does close on an attempt at a longer view–one that’s all too short-sighted. Reporter John Schwartz quotes Maj. Gen. John W. Peabody of the Army Corps of Engineers:

While the immediate crisis appears to have passed, General Peabody of the corps warned that cycles of drought could last for years, as the Dust Bowl showed, and that there are no guarantees when it comes to rivers. “We’ll continue to respond to what nature throws at us,” he said. But, he added, “There’s nothing that man can do that nature can’t overcome.”

The reality is that changes underway in the Earth’s climate could last for centuries, not years–and those changes are being thrown at us by ourselves, not by nature. Unfortunately, there are things humans can do that nature can’t overcome–at least on a human timescale.

* * *

Tom the Dancing Bug (7/25/12) offered a vision of media yet to come that is all to similar to the way present-day media cover current climate-related crises:

Tom the Dancing Bug: News Roundup 2032

UPDATE: The New York Times‘ John Schwartz notes on Twitter (1/18/13) that he wrote on the Times blog Green (1/18/13) about the drought’s connection to climate change:

As I write in the Times, a Midwestern drought has caused the dwindling of the mighty river in recent months. The phenomenon cannot necessarily be ascribed to climate change-–no individual weather event can be.

Still, shifting weather patterns, with heavier rainstorms in one area and much lighter ones in others, are part of the emerging picture of the effects of the overall global warming trend. Only a year ago, the river was experiencing record flooding.

If drought does emerge as a more prominent facet of life on the Mississippi and navigation is impeded, the effect on national and even global commerce will undoubtedly be felt.

As I’ve written before (FAIR Blog, 7/2/12, 11/4/12), asking whether a particular weather event is connected to climate change misses the relationship between weather and climate; all weather now takes place in the context of a changed climate, so in that sense every weather event–from disasters to perfectly unremarkable days–is a result of climate change. All you can really do is ask whether a given weather event would be statistically likely on a hypothetical Earth with an unchanged climate, and it’s pretty clear that the answer to that question with regards to the kind of droughts we’ve been having lately is no (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 9/11/12).

In any case, the Times editors’ decision to put the account of the Army Corps of Engineers’ efforts to keep the river flowing in the paper and leave the discussion of climate change and the drought in the blog would seem to indicate the relative importance they place on the two aspects of the Mississippi River situation.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.