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Since 1864, the Sisters of the Humility of Mary have operated the 759-acre Villa Maria Farm less than a mile from the Pennsylvania-Ohio border. And while much has changed over the last century and a half, like hiring people from outside the convent to till the land and manage its forests, to this day the farm still gives half its yearly harvest to local food banks.
But lately, a different sort of change has become increasingly difficult to ignore.
Too much rain.
Farmers need rain to water their crops, but too much of it renders fields impassable. “When you have a farm at our scale, you have to use tractors,” says John Moreira, director of land management for the Sisters of the Humility of Mary. “You’ve got to be able to put an 8,000-pound piece of metal on that ground.”
Take potatoes. To avoid frost, the ideal time of year to plant the vegetable is mid-May. But this year, it rained all the way through May. And it didn’t let up in June. “You might get three to four days of sun in a row, but that’s not enough to dry the soil so that you can put a tractor on it,” says Moreira.
By July, he had to make a choice: plant the root stock he had or throw it all away. (Potatoes grown specifically for others to plant for a crop are known as seed potatoes. Unlike regular seeds, seed potatoes can’t be stored for long before they start to decompose.)
Moreira went ahead and put three-quarters of an acre’s worth of potatoes in the ground to try to salvage some of the season. “Then, of course, it rained and rained and rained afterwards,” straight through July, “and most of that rotted,” he says. By the time everything was said and done, Moreira ended up with a quarter of a crop—so little, it nearly cost him more to pick the potatoes than they were worth.
“The last couple years have been really bad,” he says. “Every farmer’s in the same boat as I am this year. Every farmer is not making the usual income they used to be able to make.”
The Pittsburgh region saw more rain in 2018 than ever before in recorded history, a fact that might have been an outlier if it hadn’t also been true for cities throughout the Midwest and Northeast. Sioux Falls, Green Bay, Louisville, Asheville, Columbus, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Scranton—in all, 22 cities experienced record-breaking rainfalls last year. In the month of June alone, rescue workers had to perform 66 swift-water rescues across Allegheny County to save people stranded by floods. And that’s just one year in an overarching trend. Since 1958, major precipitation events in the Northeast have increased by 55 percent—the largest such shift of any region in the U.S.
While they often get less media coverage, rural areas were underwater, too.
“On June 20th of 2018, we had a historic flood in Ligonier, the greatest flood that anybody can remember,” says John Wenzel, director of Powdermill Nature Reserve, Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s biological field station about 60 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. “Nothing like that’s happened in 100 years. And not very long after, we had another flood.”
Up north, it’s been the same story.
“We’re getting all kinds of flooding questions,” says Jay Russell, district manager of the Mercer County Conservation District. Sometimes the calls come from people who can’t mow their lawns because they’re too wet or from people with trees dying off because they’ve drowned. Other times it’s a whole community looking for solutions to problems they never had before.
“I was just out this morning at a township that had seven inches of rain in about two hours. And that was just one storm,” says Russell. “They’ve had multiple storms now, and there are three four-foot gullies in the side of the road. How many roads have we had to close in Mercer County this year?”
By all accounts, the world around us is changing. The evidence is both anecdotal—Russell has a picture of his son holding a bright yellow dandelion plucked from his yard on December 15—and also rooted in data—Powdermill’s records indicate that birds now breed about two weeks earlier than they did in 1961.
Of course, a single thread connects it all. But for some, saying those words aloud—climate change—can feel provocative or, frankly, like more hassle than it’s worth. And that’s where Carnegie Museum of Natural History hopes to come in.
The climate is changing
Eight in 10 Americans now believe not only that climate change exists but that human actions are fueling the shift, according to a new poll conducted by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation. Another study from Yale and George Mason Universities discovered that 69 percent of Americans are “worried” about the effects of climate change, while another 29 percent describe themselves as “very worried.” A third poll, this one conducted by Muhlenberg College and the University of Michigan in October 2019, found that only 13 percent of Americans said they saw no evidence of climate change, the lowest level of skepticism seen out of 21 such surveys dating back to 2008.
But far too often, people living in rural areas are left out of the climate conversation, despite the fact that they, too, are feeling its impacts, says Laurie Giarratani, director of education at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. And it’s time to bring them to the table.
“We all have to be part of the solution,” says Giarratani. “And having polarization between the city and rural areas, it’s an impediment to actually solving problems.”
This past July, the museum was awarded more than $1.2 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF)—the largest NSF award the museum has ever received—to develop a path forward.
Known as the Climate and Rural Systems Partnership (CRSP), the idea is to create a network of educators, scientists, and community leaders all over western Pennsylvania that can foster relationships and serve as a resource for rural communities coming to grips with the effects of climate change, as well as think together how rural areas can help lead solutions.
“We all have to be part of the solution. And having polarization between the city and rural areas, it’s an impediment to actually solving problems.”
– Laurie Giarratani, Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s director of education
The partnership will build off the successes of an earlier museum program aimed at the city of Pittsburgh. Dubbed the Climate and Urban Systems Partnership (CUSP), it continues to nurture relationships with several dozen civic-minded organizations, such as the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, CommuteInfo, Nine Mile Run Watershed Association, Green Building Alliance, Tree Pittsburgh, and Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse.
For the rural iteration, the museum’s hope is to grow the network out of places that are already wrestling with the issue, such as Powdermill Nature Reserve and Munnell Run Farm, which is owned by the county of Mercer and operated in conjunction with the Mercer County Conservation District.
By holding workshops, collaborative design sessions, and community events, the hope is not just to bring different groups of people together but also equip them to better engage with community stakeholders who are already seeing climate impacts. The museum is the perfect umbrella with which to do this work because it’s already viewed as a trusted resource and space for learning, says Giarratani, who is spearheading the initiative along with Nicole Heller, the museum’s curator of the Anthropocene.
Heller sees the collaboration as a learning opportunity. “I’ve been doing climate communication for a long time, and early on it was all about just delivering the information,” she says. “And for so many reasons, that didn’t work.”
Study after study has shown that people aren’t moved by data alone, says Heller. Which is why the museum’s proven approach values things like relationships and trust building, context and humility. Yes, humility. “We can’t act as if we have all the answers,” she says.
The forest for the trees
“You see that stump over there?” Russell asks as he walks through a 10-acre stand of sustainable timber on Munnell Run Farm, which is about a mile north of downtown Mercer. “That was an ash tree that was about 80 to 100 years old.”
The tree had to be cut down this year, as did countless other ash trees in the area, thanks to an influx of shimmery green insects known as emerald ash borers. They feed on the leaves of ash trees as adults, but it’s the insect’s babies, or larvae, that really damage the trees by eating their inner bark and cutting off the supply of nutrients. The beetles, which are native to Asia, were transported to Michigan in the early 2000s. They’ve since radiated outwards as far as New Hampshire and Georgia. Worse still, experts previously thought that cold winters could hold the borers at bay, but a study published in 2018 estimated that climate change may enable them to spread as far north as the Canadian cities of Winnipeg and Calgary.
Invasive species are an important talking point for the Munnell Run Farm and Mercer County Conservation District. In addition to producing crops, cattle, and even trout destined for local streams, the farm serves as a year-round education hub for anyone who wants to learn about forestry management, more holistic agriculture, pollinator services, and a litany of other practices that hover around a central theme: How can we reduce our impact on the environment while also sustainably benefiting from all it has to offer?
Water chestnut is another invasive species Russell hates to see, because of the way the Eurasian plant can dominate a body of water. Water chestnuts create dense mats of floating leaves that choke out native species by monopolizing the access to light and oxygen. The plants can also make boating and swimming dangerous, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to remove. The increases in precipitation and flooding events brought about by climate change give invasive water chestnuts more opportunities to spread.
And then there are the ticks.
Black-legged ticks, or deer ticks, aren’t an invasive species—they’ve always been here. But now they’re occurring in densities bordering on plague proportions.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, milder winters and higher humidity levels that are part and parcel with climate change in western Pennsylvania are allowing the arachnids to prosper like never before. Talk to anyone who spends time in the outdoors and they’ll tell you, things are just different now.
“It’s crazy,” says Jacqueline McCullough, environmental education coordinator for the Mercer County Conservation District. “I used to love playing in leaves as a kid, but now I’m out there yelling at my own kids, ‘Don’t jump in that pile of leaves!’”
Apart from feasting on the blood of mammals, ticks can transmit various pathogens to humans, most notably the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. Russell has family members with Lyme disease, he says. As do two of McCullough’s relatives. In fact, a study from 2018 found that Pennsylvania has racked up more Lyme disease diagnoses than the next four states combined.
The closer you look, the more changes you’ll find.
“Spring wildflowers and trees are blooming earlier,” says Wenzel of Powdermill. “We’ve got that measured and demonstrated by our own data.”
“These sorts of things are absolutely, demonstrably real,” he says. “We’re living the climate change right now.”
Back at the farm, as they swat at mosquitoes, Russell and McCullough admit that they run into people who are still wary of talking about climate change. But they’ve learned the best thing you can do is connect the issue to the changes people are already seeing around them and give them access to the information they need to make up their mind for themselves. Whether it’s at the educational booth they set up at the county fair or at the hayrides, bonfires, monarch butterfly banding workshops, and archery classes hosted at Munnell Run Farm, every interaction is an opportunity not to give a lecture, but to have a conversation about where we go from here.
“Spring wildflowers and trees are blooming earlier. We’ve got that measured and demonstrated by our own data. These sorts of things are absolutely, demonstrably real. We’re living the climate change right now.”
– John Wenzel, director of Powdermill Nature Reserve
Adapting to the new normal doesn’t have to just be about sacrifice, says Russell. People can benefit, too. Managed forests, for instance, can both help sequester carbon and soak up precipitation, as well as provide bigger payoffs for landowners. And cover crops are also essential, says Russell. This is the practice of farmers planting standing rye, grasses, or legumes in their fields instead of leaving them barren between plantings. Such crops aren’t planted for the money they’ll fetch at the market, but for the nutrients they can fix back into the soil. Cover crops also prevent dirt and other sediment from running off into streams, so they’re environmentally valuable. A farmer may have to put a little more time and money into planting something with no immediate return, but they still benefit—just in different ways.
Because they steward so much of the region’s landscape, rural communities are poised to be leaders in the push to adapt, mitigate, and change.
“You don’t know what problems will be in the future,” says McCullough. “But if you can help teach people critical thinking skills, how to process something, then we can work on things together.”
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1906774. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
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