Showing posts with label Oklahoma. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Oklahoma. Show all posts

April 26, 2018

Where the West Begins — The Line is Moving

John Wesley Powell, 1834–1902 (Wikipedia)
Driving across the country, I like to play the game of "Where does the West begin?" (westbound) or "Where does the Midwest begin?" (eastbound).

For instance, on US 20 in Nebraska, Valentine is definitely in the West, but anything east of Ainsworth feels like the Midwest.

Driving west across South Dakota, the Missouri River makes an easy marker. From downtown Pierre, I see the dry hills to the west and feel at home. (It helps that I lived as a kid in western South Dakota.)

Another tradition is just to use the 100th meridian of longitude as the marker. John Wesley Powell, Civil War veteran and visionary Western geographer, made this one popular.  (In this New York Times article, the writer ventures among the natives along the 100th meridian.)

Some climate researchers, however, are now saying that the arid/wet boundary is shifting eastward. "Whither the 100th Meridian? The Once and Future Physical and Human Geography of America’s Arid–Humid Divide. Part I: The Story So Far" is an article published by the American Meteorological Society.

Its abstract (summary) states,
The aridity gradient [east and west of the 100th meridian] is realized in soil moisture and a west-to-east transition from shortgrass to tallgrass prairie. The gradient is sharp in terms of greater fractional coverage of developed land east of the 100th meridian than to the west. Farms are fewer but larger west of the meridian, reflective of lower land productivity. Wheat and corn cultivation preferentially occur west and east of the 100th meridian, respectively. The 100th meridian is a very real arid–humid divide in the physical climate and landscape, and this has exerted a powerful influence on human settlement and agricultural development.
This boundary has moved before. An archaeologist friend pointed out to me that in part of the Middle Archaic period (3000–1000 years ago), trees extended farther east onto the plains. Think of of the "pine ridge" country of the Palmer Divide (eastern Douglas and El Paso counties, Colorado) extending clear to Kansas! "Those were the good times," he mused.

Part II of the article makes this prediction for the 21st century:
It is first shown that state-of-the-art climate models from phase 5 of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project generally underestimate the degree of aridity of the United States and simulate an arid–humid divide that is too diffuse. These biases are traced to excessive precipitation and evapotranspiration and inadequate blocking of eastward moisture flux by the Pacific coastal ranges and Rockies. Bias-corrected future projections are developed that modify observationally based measures of aridity by the model-projected fractional changes in aridity. Aridity increases across the United States, and the aridity gradient weakens. The main contributor to the changes is rising potential evapotranspiration, while changes in precipitation working alone increase aridity across the southern and decrease across the northern United States. The “effective 100th meridian” moves to the east as the century progresses.
The Anderson Creek fire burned almost 400,000 acres in Oklahoma and Kansas in March 2016.
Back in the 1930s, the Dust Bowl ripped through the Southern Plains, as plowed land just blew away. So we stopped plowing so much, let it go back to vegetation, and now it's burning. In the long run, that is probably less destructive — more of a natural cycle —but a prairie fire is a scary thing.

In "Why is Oklahoma Burning,"  weather writer Bob Henson discusses the recent Rhea Fire, which burned more than 242,000 acres.
May 2015 was the state’s wettest single month on record, and 2015 was its wettest year. “The November-December 2015 period was the wettest on record as well, and the sixth warmest. So the growing season extended into winter to some extent that year,” said McManus. The result was an unusually lush landscape going into the first part of 2016 that dried out quickly in the weeks leading up to the Anderson Creek fire.
Likewise, the summers of 2016 and 2017 were on the moist side, said McManus. “We also had a pretty severe ice storm during January 2017 that left lots of big fuels on the ground waiting for that spark,” McManus said. Later that year came the the state’s second-wettest August on record. “August would normally be a time we'd get rid of some growth in our typical summer burn season,” said McManus.
The landscape of the Southern High Plains has been extraordinarily dry over the last six months. The western third of Oklahoma has seen little more than 2” since October—only about 20% of average—and most of the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles have received much less than 1”, making it the driest six months on record in some locations. Any moistening of the landscape has been all too brief, which has left the landscape highly vulnerable to a spell of fire-friendly weather.
Some good photos there too.

March 30, 2018

Remember the Dust Bowl?


You probably don't remember it, unless you are over ninety. But see the right-hand blob of the red area? That's pretty much the center of the "Dirty Thirties." Compare it to this map.

April 10, 2016

Why the Comanches Feared the Infantry, and Other Stereotype-Busting from a 1870s Cavalry Sergeant

1870s cavalry trooper
1870s cavalry trooper
At the end of the Civil War, H. H. McConnell had served in a Union volunteer regiment (i.e., not Regular Army) — he does not say which one — but he had not had enough soldiering.

So he re-enlists in the Regulars, trains at Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania, and after a few weeks boards a steamboat for Galveston, Texas, with a new draft of troopers for the 6th Cavalry, stationed on the northern Texas frontier at Fort Richardson.

Being already experienced, literate, and probably not a raging alcoholic, he is quickly promoted to first sergeant of his company.

In 1889, having settled in nearby Jacksboro and served a time as its mayor, he publishes a memoir, Five Years A Cavalryman Or, Sketches Of Regular Army Life On The Texas Frontier, 1866-1871 — my copy was reprinted by the U. of Oklahoma Press in 1996.

This is not a book about campaigns and generals,  but it is filled with social history — the inside story of how things worked. Is a Spencer carbine missing from the company weapons inventory? Have the company "affidavit man" swear that the last deserter certainly took it with him.

Just a few highlights:

• For the first years, the troopers spend less time patroling and more time building or re-building posts abandoned at the start of the war, or altogether new. "Armed laborers," McConnell calls them.

Nevertheless, the top brass announce that the Comanches and Kiowas are no longer a menace to the settlers. The surviving settlers beg to differ. Government policy vacillates between a military solution to the "Indian problem" and the "win them over with love" approach of certain Quaker Indian agents. It's too much like Vietnam or the current campaign against the Islamic state.

• Not just officers but enlisted men, even privates,  are addressed as "Sir" in a very 18th-century style.  "Who gave you permission to go fishing last Sunday, sir?" Sgt. McConnell is angrily asked by the colonel in one incident.

• They seem to have enough weapons, but not enough horses. When the whole regiment is transferred, at least a third of the troopers march on foot.

"Buffalo soldier" reenactor, probably at Fort Sill (US Army photo).
• For the first time in his life, he encounters "colored soldiers," but he is less impressed by the "buffalo soldiers" of the 10th Cavalry at Fort Sill than by the black 38th Infantry stationed for a time at Fort Richardson. Of the latter, he writes, "Many of them were exceedingly clean and neat as soldiers and were often selected as 'orderlies' for the officer of the day," whereas the "buffalo soldiers" of the 10th he dismisses as "unsoldierlike and slovenly." (Don't tell the reenactors!)

Yet since most of the black soldiers are illiterate, having been born as slaves, their white officers are unable to delegate paperwork in the same way that Sgt. McConnell handles much of his own company's. Consequently, they are better officers:
The company officers of white regiments have very little of the detail of their companies to bother them — competent Sergeants and clerks are always to be had, who relieve them of such duties. Not so with the colored troops; every detail of duty, looking after their sanitary interests, performing the clerical work, the books, papers, and the thousand and one things that go to make up the routine of life in the service, all must be attended to by the officers themselves. [Because they thus gain practical knowledge and carry more responsibility, this] accounts for the marked efficiency I have noticed among them as a class.
• Heretical as it may sound coming from a cavalryman, he writes that the infantry could often function better in the field against the Indians:
I should observe here that the Indians greatly preferred to fight cavalry, or mounted citizens, to fighting infantry, for the obvious reason that, owing to their superior and, in fact, unequaled horsemanship, they had their enemies at a very great disadvantage  . . . It took our people a long time to find out that a dozen infantrymen with "long toms" [rifles that out-ranged the cavalry carbines], riding in a six-mule government wagon, were more dreaded by the Indian than a whole squadron of cavalry or [Texas] rangers; but in the last days of Indian fighting or scouting this became the usual mode of arming and equipping parties of soldiers.
• Oh yes, the fabled Texas Rangers. McConnell's considered opinion:
These Rangers were tolerable Indian fighters, but most of their time was occupied in terrorizing the citizens and "taking in the town." Shooting scrapes and rows between citizens, soldiers, and Rangers in this year (1874) were so frequent [that Jacksboro voted to incorporate in order to have government and a city marshall]
• One stereotype that he supports is the predominance of Irish immigrants in the Army: "Nearly all the old soldiers in my time were Irishmen (by old soldiers I mean those of fifteen or twenty years service)" and he calls the Irishman "the best soldier in our army."

Other nationalities were represented too — many Germans and some French, among others. The Franco-Prussian war of 1870–71 was echoed in the barracks by brawls between the nationalities. The French were "few in number [but] they made up for it in an excess of patriotism."
But the Germans had the best of it; the majority of the [regimental] band was from the "Fatherland," and the "Wacht am Rhine" and other of their national airs were played morning, noon and night, to the disgust of the "enemy." 
 After further brawling, the officers "prohibited the playing of the aggravating tunes for the time being."

March 29, 2014

Some High Plains Bird News


Mountain Plover (Cornell Univ.)
Another news story on the upcoming annual Kaval mountain plover festival. Or how a tiny farming town, fearful of federal regulation, learned to love a (not officially) threatened species.

Meanwhile, to the southeast, the lesser prairie chicken has been placed on the "threatened" list.
The prairie chicken, a type of grouse known for its colorful neck plume and stout build, has lost more than 80 percent of its traditional habitat, mostly because of human activity such as oil and gas drilling, ranching and construction of power lines and wind turbines, Ashe said. The bird, which weighs from 1 ½ to 2 pounds, has also been severely impacted by the region's ongoing drought.
Populations in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico are affected. Governors are upset. So when is the Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival?

November 08, 2013

Clinging to the Panhandle

Kenton, Oklahoma, is somewhere on my list of Towns to Disappear To." It is possible, though, that Kenton might disappear first.

You would not disappear in Kenton though. Any newcomer would stand out.

According to old stories I have heard, shady characters used to like Kenton because it was convenient to the state lines of Colorado and New Mexico and not too terribly far from Kansas and Texas.

Now those state lines pose other kinds of problems.
It’s another reason I [writer Sheilah Bright] have fallen hard for this shriveled land. People don’t dance around how they feel. Nearly everything they say deserves quotation marks. If someone dies of a heart attack or pneumonia or cancer, the burial arrangements are handled quickly since business is so slow. A suicide up on the Black Mesa trail (leading to Oklahoma’s highest peak at 4,973 above sea level), or a missing hiker found dead from heat exhaustion exposes a serious flaw in the system.

Those bodies aren’t supposed to be moved without permission from a medical examiner. The nearest medical examiner office is 220 miles away in Woodward. The next nearest is 379 miles away in Oklahoma City. Temperatures climb well past 100 degrees in the summer.
“By law, I’m supposed to either embalm, bury, or cremate someone within 24 hours unless there’s refrigeration,” said [funeral director Mark] Axtell. “The closest refrigeration is in Oklahoma City. The nearest crematory is in Dodge City, Kan. or Amarillo, Texas. I can’t cross state lines with a dead body without a permit from the medical examiner’s office.”

There is one group of visitors, however, who like the Kenton area just the way it is!

June 03, 2013

High Plains Aquifers, Crop Changes, and the 'Secret Government'

I posted recently about the galloping depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer ("We're on the last kick," he said. "The bulk water is gone").

Chad Love explains how modern agricultural methods also make it harder for the aquifer to recharge itself: "The Ogallala is Ogaleavin' "

Here in Colorado, agriculture traditionally takes about 80 percent of the water and municipalities 20 percent, but that balance is changing as farmers sell or lease water to cities. Consequence: A shift to dryland crops, just as will probably happen on the High Plains where groundwater has been going to corn crops for ethanol, feedlots, and hog barns.

John Orr at Coyote Gulch links to a Greeley Tribune story on how winter wheat is supplanting other thirstier crops.

Back on my last newspaper job, my beat included the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District. I always felt that "the water beat" was like being asked to cover the secret government — where decisions are made and court cases are fought that, years down the road, constrain what more visible government bodies can do.

Coyote Gulch is my go-to blog for secret-government news these days.