Podcast Episode 19

The Climate and Water Management

With Guest:
  • Paul Douglas, Meteorologist, Entrepreneur, and Author

We are talking to nationally respected Meteorologist, Entrepreneur, and Author, Paul Douglas. With over 40 years of watching and analyzing weather patterns and the climate, he has incredible insight into the effects of climate change on the weather we are experiencing today. He shares his thoughts on what the future will hold for weather and how that will affect water management on the farm.

Episode 19 | 22:12 min

Guest Bio

Paul Douglas is a nationally-respected meteorologist, with 40 years of broadcast television and radio experience. Douglas, age 59, continues to volunteer his time for charitable fundraisers and speaking engagements on such topics as his entrepreneurial career and climate change. He serves on the Climate Science Rapid Response Team (CSRRT), providing meteorological input, along with 130+ climate scientists delivering highly accurate science information to media and government representatives.

Jamie Duininck:
This is The Water Table.

Kent:
The chance to hear the agricultural side of these issues.

Jamie Duininck:
A place for people to go find information and education.

Matt Helmers:
Water management is going to become even more critical in the future.

Jamie Duininck:
How misunderstood what we do is.

Kent:
I would encourage people to open their minds to listen to this dialogue.

Jamie Duininck:
Welcome to the water table podcast. Today. I have a great guest, Paul Douglas. And Paul’s been a meteorologist for over 45 years. He’s worked in the Minneapolis Twin Cities markets, most of that time for CBS and NBC affiliates. Paul is a business owner. He’s owned, I think, seven or eight businesses throughout his career. He’s an entrepreneur. He’s a meteorologist that likes to get into the science and likes to understand how it works within the market. So I thought it would be great. I’m really honored to have Paul with and have a time to just talk about how does climate change intersect with agriculture and where are we at today.

Jamie Duininck:
So welcome, Paul.

Paul Douglas:
Thank you, Jamie. It’s great to be with you.

Jamie Duininck:
So today, let’s talk a little bit. Well, let’s actually right now, we’re in the middle of summer of 2021 and a lot of our upper Midwest is in a pretty significant drought. And let’s start there. What do you think about where we’re at in a drought? Do you have any predictions? And let’s talk about how that maybe is affected by climate change and why we’re in such severe drought.

Paul Douglas:
Sure. The worst drought for the Western US in probably 20 years based on the data we’re seeing. Here in Minnesota, the worst in eight years and we’re already at 15 days above 90. At the rate we’re going, it’ll probably be 30, 35 days above 90 in the Metro and the Twin Cities. By comparison, 1988, that was the granddaddy of heat and drought, 44 days in the 90, back in 1988. I don’t think it’s going to be as bad as 88, but I think it’s going to be close in terms of the duration and the severity of the drought. And out West, I’m really concerned about wildfire season.

Paul Douglas:
It’s getting off to an early start. The drought, the worst in 20 years. And as I described to you and your team in today’s presentation, the West is really in the midst of a 1,200 year mega drought. It’s been exceptionally dry for the better part of a millennia. The past couple of hundred years have been a little bit wetter giving people the false impression that, hey, this is the way it’s always been. And yeah, we’ll have enough water. Well, some years maybe not so much.

Jamie Duininck:
So often in these times I talk to some of our older customers and they’ll say things like it takes a long time to get dry and only one day to get wet, which is, I obviously liked to repeat that because I’m in the water management business. But we are in a law of averages. And when you get to the averages, if you get really dry for a period of time, that means you probably got to get double the amount of rain to catch up at times, but that also intersects with volatility in our climate. So talk a little bit about how does climate change and this whole volatility thing intersect and why that’s even worse today than what it probably was 50 years ago, the volatility.

Paul Douglas:
Yeah, what we’re really seeing is more climate volatility and that’s leading to more weather disruption. But you brought up averages and averages are changing. We track the weather in 30-year chunks, 30-year averages. NOA keeps track of that, but it keeps changing. It keeps morphing as the climate warms and that’s just measuring thermometers. That’s measuring the temperature, not in the cities because you have the urban heat island, which taints the temperatures. But we have quite a thermometer network nationwide. We have satellite data.

Paul Douglas:
We have ocean buoys. So there’s a fire hose of data that shows that it’s warming and it’s warming faster at the Northern latitudes. Couple of things, the climate models 50 years ago said that wet areas will get wetter, dry areas will trend drier. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing in the data. Theory has become our new climate reality. And I think climate change hits home when it hits home. For many people, that means the frequency and intensity of flooding. People who aren’t even in the flood plain, who didn’t realize that their home or business was vulnerable, are seeing more flooding from the Midwest, the Mississippi Valley to the East Coast.

Paul Douglas:
The trend is definitely wetter. And the problem is, and back to what you said, one wet day can counteract a series of dry days. That’s true, but the rain is falling harder now. We’re seeing more of these extreme rainfall events, these downpours. The problem with that is you realize much of the water runs off into streets and storm sewers and rivers. It isn’t soaking into the soil where corn producers, soybean producers need that moisture. So when it does rain, it tends to rain harder. And as I’ve been saying now for a couple of years, the dries are trending dryer, the wets are trending wetter.

Paul Douglas:
I miss average weather. We ricochet from one extreme to the next. And it reminds me of that old saying, if you have one foot in boiling water and the other foot in ice water, do you feel average? Probably not.

Jamie Duininck:
I don’t think I’m going to answer that. So if you look at, and you talk about averages and just changes, one of the things in the agricultural world that we’ve seen the last five years is a lot of longer, drier, really nice falls and a cold wet spring. And if you’re in agriculture, I actually talked to you back in early June of 2019, and at that point we had a crop in the upper Midwest that was going in really late due to a cold wet spring. And I think it’s after you get past, there’s some people in the room that are going to tell me I’m wrong because they know more than I do, but at somewhere around May 10, when you get past that day and you haven’t planted your corn, you’re losing about a percent or a bushel a day after that.

Jamie Duininck:
So if it’s 20 days, that’s 20 bushels. Talk a little bit about why, if there is a reason or a correlation to climate change, why are we seeing these different, these kind of weird swings and it seems like we don’t have a spring and we have a much longer fall or summer last, longer, and starts later. Those kinds of things.

Paul Douglas:
Sure. You bring up some great questions, Jamie. Some of them have no easy answers, but certainly the seasons are shifting. As you warm up the temperature, the background temperature, we see the greatest warming signal during late winter and early spring. February and March considerably warmer than they were a generation ago or two generations ago. And springs from the Midwest to the East Coast and much of the south, springs are trending wetter. No question about that. That doesn’t mean every spring, but a majority of springs are now wetter than they were a generation ago, cooler and wetter.

Paul Douglas:
Longer growing seasons, fall warmth, 60s, 70s extending deeper into October, even November. So we do have a longer growing season. In theory, good news to help with the harvest, but that brings up some new problems when it comes to pests, managing pests, because we simply have a longer season for pests to cause problems. But we’re seeing a lot of shifts and there’s little doubt that a rapidly changing climate is showing up in the weather. The symptoms are showing up. It’s a little like if you have a fever of 100, 101 degrees, okay, what’s two degrees?

Paul Douglas:
Well, chances are you feel miserable and there are visible symptoms to your fever. You may be flush. You may be nauseated. There are symptoms, and we’re seeing those symptoms with greater frequency. And I think it’s getting harder to dismiss and deny the fact that something is happening, and the most likely conclusion is it’s because of the warming that we’re seeing. In the US, it’s an average of about two degrees, but Northern tier states, Washington, Montana, Minnesota, Maine, Michigan, the M states, more like three, four degrees warming since the mid 1800s.

Paul Douglas:
And a warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor, simple physics, more fuel, when it does rain, that rain comes down harder and much of it is going to be running off. And that again is a threat. It’s an opportunity for companies like Prinsco to reinvent how Ag producers, how everybody looks at managing water, excess water, not enough water. How do we make sure we have the water we need in an increasingly fickle and volatile pattern?

Jamie Duininck:
Yeah. And I’m glad you said that in our business, Prinsco, in the water management business, springtime is really important. I mentioned that earlier on when you can get into the field. But two weeks here or two weeks there makes a pretty big difference at the end of the year if you can manage that water, have a proper water management system in the ground, and you can get in the field in, say, April, and then it’s cold and wet for two, three weeks before the next guy can get into his field that doesn’t have the proper drainage in it, you can see a significant benefit to that.

Jamie Duininck:
And with all the volatility, think that’s why we’re going to continue to see opportunity in our business and opportunity in all of our business, in storm sewer too where we convey, treat and store water because of the heavy downpours and the heavy rains. Talk a little bit about, let’s just go way back a minute to the elementary questions around what is really the cause of all of this change and of climate change.

Paul Douglas:
It’s us.

Jamie Duininck:
Okay.

Paul Douglas:
It’s us.

Jamie Duininck:
Not me and you specifically?

Paul Douglas:
No. Everybody else, except for you and me, Jamie.

Jamie Duininck:
Yeah.

Paul Douglas:
The amazing growth that we’ve had in our economy and not just in the United States, but worldwide and the GDP and lifting people out of poverty. I mean, we’ve done amazing things as a civilization. Look how far we’ve come in 200 years. But to do that, to accomplish that, we burned a lot of fossil fuels. Just since 1960, it’s something like 50 trillion metric tons of CO2, 50 trillion hot air balloons of planet-warming, atmosphere-warming CO2 and methane. So every time you burn fossil fuels, every time you drive down to the grocery store, you flick on your thermostat, you’re burning fossil fuels or somebody is burning fossil fuels to produce that power.

Paul Douglas:
Shifting is changing as we get into more renewables, but we’ve seen almost a doubling of CO2 since the beginning of the industrial revolution in the mid 1800s, a doubling. It’s not volcanoes. It’s not solar radiation. If anything, solar radiation has been flat-lining and even decreasing slightly. It’s not the sun. That’s the first thing the scientists look at. The most likely explanation is the doubling of greenhouse gases.

Jamie Duininck:
So, let’s agree to that, I think we agree to that. So if we are in that trend and we continue to go that way, what are the new climate requirements? Explain how this impacts our industry and how should we think differently about our opportunities that we have and not think of doom and gloom as much. What kind of opportunities do we have to be somebody that can be one of the solutions?

Paul Douglas:
We’re going to need … I mean, the need for water is not going away anytime soon and the need to manage water will never go away. And I think the need is going to be amplified in the years to come. We’re just getting a taste of what’s to come. This is the tip of the iceberg, the rapidly melting iceberg. Managing water, whether it’s rising sea levels for coastal areas, increased flooding for much of the Eastern and Central US and increased drought and just managing water, preserving water in the Western US. We can’t make assumptions.

Paul Douglas:
The assumptions we made in the 20th century, we just can’t make those same assumptions this century. Best case scenario now, three degrees celsius of warming, four or five degrees. If we continue business as usual, it would be closer to eight degrees fahrenheit of warming, and the implications of that are frightening. So now the question is, can we avoid a worst case emissions scenario and only keep the warming down to two, three degrees celsius? Which is still going to produce disruption, but assumptions that people make about the water.

Paul Douglas:
Water is our greatest natural asset and resource, and people are going to be reminded of that over and over again. But managing too much water. All weather like politics is local. We care about what’s happening in our yards, our fields, our hometowns. And I think people who keep their eyes wide open are going to see the changes if they haven’t already witnessed those changes. Don’t look at your thermometer for evidence of climate change. Look at new stuff that’s growing in your yard that wasn’t there 30, 40 years ago.

Paul Douglas:
Look at how long the ice season. Here in Minnesota, we used to always have ice suitable for ice hockey by Thanksgiving. Now, maybe mid late December, if we’re lucky, is the ice thick enough. So we’ve got all these telltale signs that things are shifting and I’m still an optimist. Some of the gloom and doom is warranted. Some of it is, I think, over the top. But we need everything that we do has to be water-resilient, drought-proof, flood-tolerant. The assumptions we made in the 1960s and 1970s are changing, and it’s a brave new world out there.

Paul Douglas:
And we need companies like Prinsco that have the talent, that have the intellectual capital and the engineering prowess to make sure that no matter what mother nature throws at us, we have a solution. We can keep the wheels on the tractor. We can keep those record yields. It’s not going to be straight forward. It’s not going to be easy. My hope is that those innovations come here in the United States and that we don’t sit on our hands and debate the science to the point where China and Finland and other nations eat our lunch, and they are the ones that have the solutions and provide a volatile world with the solutions that we’re going to need.

Paul Douglas:
I hope they come here in the United States. And I sense a shift just even in the last few years. There are always going to be people who deny the science, who think it’s a liberal scheme, a plot. It’s not. It’s data.

Jamie Duininck:
So you talked a little bit earlier about politics, and just want to, before we end, so we can end on this note. If it’s not a good one, I don’t mean it that way. But the politics a little bit and I’m a conservative guy. I know you’re a conservative guy. And any tricks of the trade or how have you navigated as a conservative your views on climate change? I think it’s changing in the conservative world, but it certainly seemed to be more of a polarizing topic in the past. And how have you navigated that? Do you have any advice?

Paul Douglas:
Boy, that is a loaded question. Conservatives conserve. I take that to heart. I think I’m a Christian and the ethos that we’ve been loaned something remarkable and we should probably take care of it. And I think we do have a responsibility to our kids and their kids to pay attention and actions have consequences. My dad, Reagan Republican, taught me that we have rights and we have responsibilities. And actions have consequences and doubling the amount of CO2 to get to where we are today has some consequences. And we’re seeing those consequences now with the warming.

Paul Douglas:
It’s not the end of the world, but the world certainly has some challenges when it comes to climate volatility. Every other day, there’s a headline somewhere, extreme historic flooding, extreme historic drought, wildfires, water shortages, too much water, not enough water. That is going to be a recurring theme in the 21st century. And the companies that can figure out solutions to make sure that we have the water we need and we can get rid of the water we don’t want during flood scenarios, those are the companies that are going to do very, very well.

Jamie Duininck:
Well, Paul, it’s been a pleasure to interview you on The Water Table podcast. Thank you for taking time out of your day to do this. And we like to end our podcast by giving you the floor. And what would you like to leave our listeners with? We call it The Water Table Takeaway.

Paul Douglas:
Be optimistic, be cautiously optimistic. I think things are moving in the right direction. The arc of technology, clean energy, don’t be afraid to change. I think it’s probably the number one thing that people are afraid of other than public speaking is fear of change. But I think all of us need to embrace change and understand that we have the technology to solve this challenge or to avoid a worst case scenario. And I think we disagree about a lot of things these days politically. I think the one thing we can agree on is we love our kids.

Paul Douglas:
We love our grandkids. Why would we do anything to make it harder for our kids and our grandkids? And by ignoring this or denying it or saying it’s some sort of plot, a scheme to enlarge government, we’re making it harder for our kids. The solutions will not come from big government. The solutions will come from thousands of entrepreneurial American companies who rise up and provide the solutions we need no matter what Mother Nature throws at us. So again, long story short, I am cautiously optimistic and I hope your listeners are cautiously optimistic, and I hope they’re part of the inevitable solution because it’s coming.

Jamie Duininck:
Thank you, Paul, for being here. We really appreciate.

Paul Douglas:
It’s been my pleasure. Thank you, folks.

Jamie Duininck:
If you enjoy what you’re listening to, you can find us on your favorite podcast platform. You can find us on Twitter or Facebook, and you can also find us at watertablepodcast.com. Thanks for listening.