Mats of bright green duckweed undulated in the slow current of the La Crosse River, reminding an observer of the shape shifting in a lava lamp. Watching the duckweed show was every bit as mesmerizing as gazing at the puffy summer cumulus clouds changing shape as they float by.
The high water in the river, out of its banks almost all spring and well into the summer, has flushed billions of tiny duckweed, the smallest flowering plant known, out of the marsh and sent them downriver where they will eventually eddy in places and provide food for migrating waterfowl.
The duckweed parade riding the long-flooded river is part of what may be the new normal as a result of climate change. According to climate scientists in the latest U.S. climate assessment, as the Earth warms more rain is falling in more intense storms. That will mean rivers will remain higher for longer periods.
The mayors of Mississippi River communities this spring reminded us that "Americans are now seeing the nightmare unfold that mayors throughout the Midwest have warned about for years... Midwesterners are used to intense storms, but this extreme weather overwhelmed us. Torrential rains throughout the region washed the deep layer of snow into the rivers, causing record-breaking river rise and catastrophic flooding starting upstream and rushing downstream on the region’s major waterways. Our river infrastructure is no match for what scientists predict is the new normal."
In late July, Greenville, Miss., reported that the Mississippi River had dropped below flood stage for the first time since February -- some 141 days, the longest period of flooding on record.
Watching the La Crosse River, just one of the host of watersheds contributing to the long period of flood on the Mississippi River this year, has provided a daily reminder of the climate assessment and the truth of its warnings about climate change.
We see the evidence written in our daily lives, and we hear a constant flood of responses such as that from insurance companies: "Insurers are at the vanguard of a movement to put a value today on the unpredictable future of a warming planet," reads a Wall Street Journal headline. Or this from a member of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission: “It’s abundantly clear that climate change poses financial risk to the stability of the financial system," said Rostin Behnam, a Democrat Trump appointee to the five-member commission, which by law must have one Democrat member.
The New York Times quoted Behnam saying that “If climate change causes more volatile frequent and extreme weather events, you’re going to have a scenario where these large providers of financial products — mortgages, home insurance, pensions — cannot shift risk away from their portfolios."
States, businesses, municipalities, including the city of La Crosse, set goals on reducing carbon emissions in the cause of fighting climate change. And the mayors fret about re-engineering our watersheds.
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The list goes on.
Yet the Trump administration and the GOP-led Senate continue in denial of the urgency to deal with climate change and its effects on our lives.
Bill McKibben, author of "The End of Nature," in 1989, in his latest book "Falter" raises the question of whether the "human game has begun to play itself out" or, in other words, come to an end.
He cites a study that by 2100 the warming of oceans could make it too hot for phytoplankton to photosynthesize. Floating in the ocean, phytoplankton constitute half of the organic matter on earth and produce two thirds of Earth's oxygen.
While waiting, a bit anxiously, I'll admit, for the climate change scenario to play itself out, one can muse on the sex life of the duckweed floating by.
The microscopic flowers of the plant -- a single tiny floating leaf -- are usually pollinated by tiny flies, mites, small spiders and even bees "after being attracted by sticky secretions from the stigma," according to an online USDA article by Walter Fertig. But sometimes the pollination is caused by collision, Fertig said, which seems a vegetative version of bumper cars. When duckweed collide they may jar pollen loose and on to a receptive stigma nearby.
I find that amusing, a bit of comic relief in the grim context of climate change. But the duckweed story also reminds us of the intricate and complex beauty of nature and what is at risk if climate change goes unabated to some hot end game. McKibben believes there is a chance that won't happen given the growing awareness of the problem and the rapid advance of solar power, but that chance becomes more slim as the years go by without U.S. support at home and abroad for dealing with global warming.