I was looking at the hemlock we used for a Christmas tree the first year in this house and then planted outside. It does not seem that it has grown much, but they are slow growers. I also thought about winter kill. People often have the misconception that winter kill means that shrubs and trees don't green up in spring due to harsh temperatures when it reality it has a lot more to do with lack of precipitation.
After learning this tidbit in school, I have always paid attention to how much rain or snow we have gotten each month in the winter.
Just like any other month of the year, the trees, shrubs, and all things dormant in the soil need moisture. When the precipitation is low in winter, I wait for a warm day and then water the shrubs and small trees. The extra water helps them better survive the cold temperatures and dry winter months. As I was looking at the hemlock, I wondered about how much bigger it might be if we had gotten more rainfall and snow over the last few years. I decided to research how much we were really down in precipitation and my findings were quite surprising.
According to Climate.Missouri.edu, if you look over the last century since 1895, there were five years during the growing season (May – August) in which the precipitation data reflects significant drought events. These years were, 1901 (total precipitation over the four months, 7.65 inches) 1913 (9.61) 1936 (6.47) 1953 (8.24) and 2012 (8.08), the third driest year on record. Granted, these are not winter months, but growing months are even more important not only to the agricultural crops but also to the trees, forests, understory, shrub layer, prairies, and all levels of plant life and wildlife.
Looking at the precipitation more closely, let us say by year over the last 10 years. I was fairly surprised to see a greater variance in rain and snowfall than what I expected. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the third wettest year for the Kansas City area on record was 2001 with 53.5 inches. Then, according to the US Department of Agriculture, in 2002-2003, precipitation ranged between 31 – 38 inches; another 53 inches in 2004; 44, 37, and 43 inches for years 2005, 2006, and 2007 respectively; 53 inches in 2008, 47 in 2009, another 50 in 2010, and the decline begins in 2011 with 41 inches and then 27 inches in 2012.
It was interesting to me to see that there were so many years with such heavy rainfall throughout the last decade. Sure, I remember the floods of the early '90s, and even 2004, but I did not remember all of these years with 50 and 53 inches of precipitation; or even that we had 50 inches in 2010.
January's storms helped quite a bit staging off what is termed "extreme" drought that our near neighbors are experiencing in the eastern Kansas counties such as Jefferson, Douglas and Franklin. Most of eastern Kansas and western Missouri is now in "severe" drought, one step down from the extreme. A monthly rain event such as occurred in January will help a lot in overcoming the drought conditions.
Page 2 of 2 - You can make a new impact in your life. Remember the mantra, "think globally, act locally." Although, it may be easy to feel overcome by the drought and other events in the environment today; you can make things happen around you. On warm day, water the small trees and shrubs in your own little world. This spring, when your shrubs and trees start greening up, living green may have a whole new meaning for you.
Lynn Youngblood is a Kansas City-based naturalist.
who writes for Gatehouse Media.