May 20, 2024

Farm & Food File: The red-hot hounds of summer are still on the loose

To ancient Greeks and Romans, the “dog days of summer” began when Sirius, the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major — Latin for “big dog” — “appears to rise alongside the sun.”

That Sirius-and-sun pairing, they believed, always delivered the hottest days each mid- to late summer.

The ancients were on to something. Typically, the highest temps of the year happen after the sky’s two big dogs join forces.

This year’s “dog days” run from July 3 through Aug. 11, according to that book of all things wise and farm-tested, the Old Farmer’s Almanac.

And right on cue, the dogs hit their stride in July and continue to run wild today. For example, the wildfires of Canada — whose smoke has affected an estimated 70 million Americans in 32 states — have burned 25 million acres, or “an area roughly the size of Kentucky,” reported the New York Times on July 18.

By the end of July, that unofficial number was nearing 31 million acres, and the fires, like the dogs, aren’t finished yet.

No matter when the fires end, 2023 will likely double the previous 1989 record of “over 18 million” acres destroyed.

Phoenix, the nation’s fifth largest city, actually isn’t on fire. It just feels that way.

The good news — if there is any good news from a baking desert in early August — is that temperatures at the city’s main airport on July 31 hit only 108 degrees to end its burning-hot, 31-days-long record streak of daily temperatures of 110 degrees or more. The previous record had been a relative walk-in-the-park 18 days set 49 years ago.

Southern Europe has also experienced record temperatures this summer. In mid-July, daily temperatures “topped 104 degrees in parts of Spain, France, Italy, Greece and Bosnia. Sicily saw temperatures as high as 115 degrees,” reported the Washington Post on July 18.

The heat wave was given the all-too-perfect name “Cerberus” that, in Greek mythology, is the “multiheaded dog that guards the gates to the Underworld to prevent the dead from leaving” their blistering hot eternity. In short, Cerberus is the hound from hell.

Greek myths aside, there’s nothing mythical about Europe’s recent history of heat. A month ago, the journal Nature Medicine estimated that 62,000 people around Europe died from “heat-related illnesses” in 2022.

This year, the estimated death toll is pegged at 68,000, and if that two-year streak becomes a trend, 94,000 people a year could die by 2040 across Europe.

And it’s not the only part of the world baking in unprecedented heat. One of history’s oldest cultures, China, was slammed with record heat already in May.

That month, 446 weather stations around “the nation registered temperatures that were the same as, or greater than, the highest ever recorded for the month of May,” reported The Guardian on June 2.

As if to prove the point, the Shanghai Meteorology Bureau reported “that the city had recorded a temperature of 36.1 degrees Celsius,” or nearly 97 degrees Fahrenheit, for the month. Another record.

All of this arrives on the heels of last year’s major drought, the worst in 60 years, that clipped 15 million acres of Chinese farmland with “economic losses reaching billions of yuan.”

In early June, China reported that about 7.5 million acres had already been hit by drought in 2023.

As overwhelming as this short, incomplete weather review is, I left out the record flooding that recently clobbered the northeast United States, Japan and India — it’s only the nose of the really big, growling dog, climate change, dominating today’s global weather and tomorrow’s global agriculture.

The trouble, of course, is that we appear to be perfectly happy to fund and operate a food production system more suited for 1923 or 1973 than one for 2023 or 2053.

When exactly are the world’s leading food growers and sellers going to adopt a more weatherproof agriculture?

We need to hurry because the dog days of summer are a lingering, steamy reality, not a myth.

Alan Guebert

Alan Guebert

Farm & Food File is published weekly through the U.S. and Canada. Source material and contact information are posted at www.farmandfoodfile.com.