I’ve always been a weather watcher, even as a small child. One of my first memories of the weather was my Dad putting the finishing touches on cutting the front lawn just as the first raindrops would fall from the sky. When I grew up and had my own home, the scent of an impending thunderstorm would send me outside frantically to mow my own lawn. I finally asked Daddy why he always mowed just before the storm.
He replied, “It’s too hard to mow when the grass is wet and the ground is soggy.” I thought to myself, “Why don’t we just pick a sunny day, but that might be too easy, or we’re off doing fun things on that time.”
In Arkansas, our farm communities pay close attention to the weather, for the crops which are their livelihoods depend on it. In ancient times, keeping track of the seasons and knowing weather lore was important. Today we depend on weather forecasters for this arcane knowledge, but if we follow basic science, we learn about global patterns which affect our weather: El Niño, La Niña, the Polar Vortex, as well as the extremes brought on by climate change, such as more active hurricane seasons and intense temperatures, both hot and cold.
My parents grew up during the Great Depression. Their grandparents were the first generation off the farm, working either in town or on the railroad. When mom and dad first started out in a one room garage apartment, they practiced frugality. Later on, they always bought an extra can of whatever was on sale at the grocery store. They were always prepared for the emergency of another mouth at the table or a sudden ice storm, not that one often happened. Since I was following the national news, I had stocked up ahead of time on rice, beans, mixed veggies, chicken, and coffee. If snowmageddon were to arrive, I would meet it on a full stomach. It was only after the streets thawed several days later and I ventured out that I saw the stark emptiness of the grocery store shelves. Starbucks was out of many products also, since their suppliers are based in Texas.
Gary Joiner of the Texas Farm Bureau estimated damages to the agriculture sector alone could exceed $500,000,000 statewide. “The bulk of that will be in the Rio Grande Valley where the fruits and vegetables grown there really took a hit. Consumers will see an absence of some Texas products for a period of time because of the freeze.”
Texas cattle ranchers were in the midst of calving season, so to protect the newborns, they built hot boxes with heat lamps or brought the animals into their homes. Extreme weather calls for extreme acts of compassion.
Let’s contrast our modern views of Nature with the views presented in the Wisdom book of Job. In the book of Job, we hear one of his friends tell him, “God thunders wondrously with his voice; he does great things that we cannot comprehend. For to the snow he says, ‘Fall on the earth’; and the shower of rain, his heavy shower of rain, serves as a sign on everyone’s hand, so that all whom he has made may know it” (37:5-7). This friend wants Job to understand God’s ways are inscrutable to mere human beings and neither Job, nor any of us, should question why bad things happen to good people.
Of course, Job won’t have any truck with this argument, and must have given his pals the look that says, “You boys take me for some kind of fool?” This sends his friends into a tizzy, so they keep piling on:
“From its chamber comes the whirlwind,
and cold from the scattering winds.
By the breath of God ice is given,
and the broad waters are frozen fast.
He loads the thick cloud with moisture;
the clouds scatter his lightning.
They turn round and round by his guidance,
to accomplish all that he commands them
on the face of the habitable world.
Whether for correction, or for his land,
or for love, he causes it to happen.” (Job 37:9-13)
His friends remind Job how God uses even natural events for God’s purposes. God can cause a snow storm to humble us (correction), to refresh the water supply (for the land), or to bring a community together (for love). We saw evidence of this during our recent snowstorm, which impacted not only Texas, but also the Lower 48 states, where by the morning of February 16, 73% of the continental USA was blanketed by snow. This was the most widespread snow cover in the contiguous U.S. since 2011. If we say “Mother Nature hit us with a whammy,” I wonder why we weren’t also blaming Old Man Winter. This is International Women’s Month after all, and we ought not to blame only the women for bad things!
Lots of bad things did happen, just from the back to back winter storms named Uri and Viola. In Texas alone, estimated losses from the extended freeze and power outages in Texas could reach $90 billion, with around $20 billion of those losses covered by insurance. Compare that to the entire 2020 Atlantic hurricane season. According to a new report from AccuWeather, the 2020 hurricane season was responsible for $60-65 billion in economic damages. This figure includes property damage as well as wage losses, business losses and bankruptcies, contamination of drinking water, municipal and state costs, federal assistance, cleanup costs and health costs.
One of the local electric providers, Just Energy, has sought bankruptcy protection due to unexpected costs. “The weather event caused the ERCOT wholesale market to incur charges of $55 billion over a seven day period, an amount they ordinarily incur over four years.” Brazos Electric Power Company has filed for Chapter 11 and Griddy is out of business, since its 10,000 customers have been given to other companies due to its violating the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act. The Texas Attorney General is seeking refunds for customers. Other utility companies are considering bankruptcy, or perhaps amortizing the high bill across ten years and letting their customers pay for it on time. Since these same companies failed to make the suggested winterizing changes to their physical plants a decade ago, I wonder why their problem is now their customers’ problem?
In this instance, everyone points a finger at everyone else. People died due to the cold weather and the utilities failure to prepare for it. Insurance rates are going up, not just in Texas, given that some of these companies have a national portfolio. Food costs are going up, due to scarce supplies and longer distances for delivery. Citrus will cost more for years until the orchards recover. So it’s an object lesson for the rest of us. As my old nannie used to say, “A stitching time saves nine,” while my daddy took the Texas plan of “Don’t fix what ain’t broke.” Unfortunately, his plan could leave me stranded on the side of the highway in a broke down car. I tend to take better care of my vehicle. He also never realized my brothers were fixing his car on the sly because he had that ornery streak.
Of course, current temperatures are now in the mid 70’s and low 80’s, so everyone is using the air conditioning. They went from the dead of winter into springtime. For parts of California and Arizona, this spring leaf out was the earliest in the 39-year record. Every one to four years, Texas has an early spring, whereas central Arkansas has a late spring every five to ten years. The further south you go toward the equator, the more pronounced the seasonal extremes become.
Of course back in biblical times, folks had weather lore, but no satellites to observe the land from on high. They could keep oral and written accounts of the past weather events, so the memories of the elders were treasured. Job’s friends try to make the events of nature the result of God’s actions, but then God answers Job out of the whirlwind:
“Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail, which I have reserved for the time of trouble, for the day of battle and war?” (38:22-23)
I’d never accuse God of mansplaining to his creatures, but maybe “Godsplaining” is a better term: “Are you competent to answer this question? How do you know for certain? What experience have you had that allows you to speak of things you can’t possibly know?” We human beings haven’t been privileged to walk among the clouds or to know the hidden halls where the frozen treasures are stored. Yet we persist in talking about the hidden wisdom of God as if we were initiates to privileged information. We can’t know God fully as yet, for God is fully spirit and we are both body and spirit. As Paul reminds us, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
The amazing climax of this book is God’s appearance to Job and his affirmation of Job’s understanding of God’s nature. Job tells God:
“I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6).
Job might have said today: My bad. I’m just saying words. Many words. The best words. Now I know it’s all just a word salad. Don’t listen to my friends. They mean well. Just trying to help. What do they know? Like me—not much.
Since we in Arkansas didn’t get the brunt of this storm, our emotional reaction to it wasn’t strong or deep. This might have been different if we had gone through an extended period of time without power. Many of us noted only the closings of local businesses or the lack of certain products on the shelves. My utility bill wasn’t much higher than last month. Our paintings of the recent snowstorm reflected this experience. I asked our group to bring a photograph of the snow from their home life. Mike brought his backyard deck and Gail brought her tree filled landscape. I worked on a traditional landscape as seen from my window high above the lake, looking out over the bridge. Our snowscapes were calm, quiet, and serene. There wasn’t a sign of trauma anywhere, unlike the ongoing mass trauma event still affecting the state of Texas.
However, the extreme weather changes aren’t just limited to Texas, for currently about 1% of the world’s population lives in a hot zone that scientists expect to expand to affect about 19% of the world’s people. Already people in Guatemala are leaving land that is getting too hot and too unpredictable for rainfall to grow enough to feed their families. Climate change is bringing them northwards. We can expect our crop plantings to move northward as the temperatures warm, even though this may take decades. We can prepare to welcome climate migrants or we can help restore and renew the face of the earth so they can live in their homelands and be able to raise and feed their families in peace.
In the map above, we can see the temperature difference between summer and winter months (per decade) from 1979-2016. Red shows a large temperature difference between the seasons, while blue shows a small temperature difference.
God’s promise in Genesis 8:22 after the destructive flood still holds true: “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” God doesn’t promise us the world will always stay the same, for we have the freedom to change our world for good or ill. We can work in cooperation with God, or against God’s desires. As the Psalmist reminds us:
“When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” (104:30)
Winter Storm Uri
Texas insurance losses Uri
Historic Hurricane Losses in 2020
Just Energy Seeks Bankruptcy After Texas Loss
Extreme Impact on Texas Agriculture
The Great Climate Migration Has Begun
Temperature Map Source: Randel (2018) Data source: Santer et al. (2018)
Carbon Brief: Powerful evidence of global warming’s effect on seasons found in troposphere
USA National Phenology Network: Status of Spring