Thursday, October 15, 2009

Drought in Northwest Ohio

Another Bend of the River piece in it's original form.

Droughts of Northwest Ohio by Alan Borer

Warmer global temperatures are expected to cause an intensification of the hydrologic cycle, with increased evaporation over both land and water. The higher evaporation rates will lead to greater drying of soils and vegetation, especially during the warm season. (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2009)

While I, like many other citizens, are concerned about global warming, I only have a rough understanding of why the world is warmer than it used to be. It does seem to me warmer than it was in my childhood; whether this is because of imperfect recollection or flawed reasoning I cannot say.

As a historian of sorts, I can look back with more prescience than I can look forward. And in fact, Toledo and Northwest Ohio have suffered through some miserable dry spells in the past. That is one of the odd things about a dry spell: you only realize you are in a drought by looking back at the effects. I am not suggesting that we hide in caves because of global warming, but I think it is worth looking back and seeing how some of our forbears dealt with dry weather.

The Drought of 1838

Scientists and hydrologists may have ways of seeing back further than European settlement, through the fossil record for example. But Toledo’s written history only dates back to the first third of the nineteenth century. Not long after Toledo came into existence, the (then) village suffered its first major drought, in the summer and fall of 1838. It was dry all the way from what is now Monroe, Michigan, to the Huron River valley, where now is Norwalk. It did not rain in Toledo from July 3 to October 15; it was worse for Tiffin on the Sandusky River, which saw no rain from May 17 to well into October.

The drought had a noticeable effect on animal migration. Toledo, of course, was still very much on the frontier. Driven by thirst, animals boldly entered the city searching for water. “Wild animals of every kind found in that region, collected on the banks of the larger Rivers, and even approached the Towns. Deer and Raccoons were numerous between Toledo and Maumee City; Quails passed over the Town plat ; and Frogs of the shallow and sedgy waters of the old bed of Swan Creek, now dried up, migrated in countless numbers through the Streets of Toledo to the Maumee River.”

In addition to suffering among the animals, plants suffered as well. Smaller rivers and creeks dried to dust. Mature trees died from lack of water, and the Black Swamp itself, still alive and flourishing in 1838, suffered. The swamp, full of ponds, pools, and sloughs evaporated, and “wet prairies of the interior were dried, and the grass of the dried ones withered; the marshes and pools … of the Black Swamp, from the Maumee to Sandusky River, were evaporated, their bottoms cracked open from shrinking. . . “

The Drought of 1934

Between April 17 to June 17, 1934, Toledo received only 1.45 inches of rainfall (the average for this period was seven inches). Even when the rain finally came later that summer, it remained extremely hot. One can recover a sense of how nasty the hot and dry weather just by scanning headlines for 1934 from The Blade: “Prevailing red haze laid to dust storms (May 10);” “Temperature of 90 degrees breaks heat record (May 21);” “Drought causes heavy damage to crops and fruits in Sandusky (June 2);” “Toledo Schools closed due to heat (June 4);” “Farmers suffer heavy losses due to drought (June 22);” “Heatwave causes 7 deaths in Ohio (July 4);” “Many die of heat prostration (July 21);” “65 die in Ohio due to heat (July 24).”

The droughty conditions in 1934 and the heat of ’34 and ’36 might have been due in part to the Dust Bowl, when millions of acres of eroded farmland coupled with dry summers rearranged the landscape of North America. Keep in mind that there was no air conditioning in the 1930s!

The Drought of 1988

It is one thing to look back on droughts that occurred before you were born. The 1988 drought was personal. Many of us can remember the great drought of 1988. The drought was probably the severest since the Dust Bowl years. 36% of the United States experienced drought conditions, and Northwest Ohio had some of the driest conditions to be found. It was dry in Toledo, but even drier in the Fremont/Tiffin area, where my parents grew up. One of the worst hit farm areas was in the western Seneca County town of New Riegel, my father’s hometown. Dale Hoepf, a New Riegel area farmer, was interviewed by the Blade for an article entitled “Dry spring has farmers worried.” Mr. Hoepf “says his crops needed moisture so badly that …he mowed a message in his clover: Lord Help Us.” Other farmers sponsored the visit of Sioux tribesman, Leonard Crow Dog, to nearby Clyde, Ohio in June of ‘88. Crow Dog, a South Dakota native famous for his part in the 1973 Wounded Knee protest, performed, not a rain dance, but a “pipe ceremony.” Not open to public viewing, the dance involved a pipe, an eagle bone, and the pouring on the ground of a small bowl of water. Crow Dog predicted rain in four days. And in fact the drought did begin to ease with late summer rain.

On a personal note, I can remember suffering through the heat of 1988 in a West Toledo apartment with no air conditioning. But the most impressive sight that brought the drought home to me was seeing the Maumee River literally dry up. The river was totally dry when viewed from bridges at Waterville and Grand Rapids. I could see the gravelly, glacier-scarred, limestone riverbed. Intrepid onlookers wandered down onto the river bed to marvel at what the drought had uncovered.

There have been droughts since 1988. 1994 was a very dry year; so was 2002. And summer heat above 90 has become common, with the threat of more drought they imply. A trend? A cycle? A coincidence? Keep watching the weather!

[Thanks to Mike Lora and the Local History staff of Toledo-Lucas County Public Library for information on recent droughts and Blade clippings. The material on 1838 is from Clark Waggoner’s History of the City of Toledo and Lucas County, Ohio (1879).]

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