of statistical bull’s-eye of severe weather events.
While debate continues about the connection between warming
temperatures and storm activity, the extreme weather thunders on.
In October 2012, the European insurance firm Munich Re released
a report stating that extreme weather events in North America had
almost quintupled in the period between 1980 and 2011. In total,
there were fourteen billion-dollar weather events in 2011 alone,
the most ever recorded in a single year in the U.S. One storm
in April spawned 343 individual tornadoes. But the year’s most
destructive storm came in May, when an EF5 tornado cut a furrow
through the town of Joplin, Missouri (150 miles southwest of the
2010 centroid), reducing neighborhoods to rubble and killing at
least 160 people. In 2012, there were more than ten billion-dollar
events, including the year’s most devastating, Hurricane Sandy.
There is also the threat of crippling aridity. By the end of
the summer of 2012, more than 65 percent of the country was
found to be in a state of “moderate to exceptional” drought, the
highest percentage ever recorded in a twelve-month period. In
parts of New Mexico and Colorado, vast stands of pinyon and
juniper—no strangers to heat and dryness—have been perishing from a lethal cocktail of high temperatures and thirst,
mottling dry mesas rust and brown. Jonathan Overpeck, a geosciences professor at the University of Arizona and IPCC author,
has suggested that there is better than a one in ten chance that
the Southwest may experience a crippling “megadrought” by
2100, the sort of event that has visited the region at least three
times in the last two thousand years. Such a scenario could result
in mass tree die-o=s, colossal fires (like those that burned over 9
million acres last year alone), and a significant decrease in snowpack and water delivered to the Colorado River, a key source of
drinking water for 30 million Americans living in the West.
Meanwhile, the northern tropics appear to be advancing toward the pole — by as much as eight degrees, according to some
researchers. A report released in 2012 by scientists from the University of California, Riverside, speculates that this expansion is
fueled by emissions from the industrialized world—as well as
by soot from forest fires and wood-burning stoves in developing
countries—and may trigger a corresponding advance of subtropical deserts.
A shift of a few degrees in the edges of the Sonoran or Mojave could nudge cities now at the margins of habitability into
the midst of unconquerable deserts. What might such a scenario
hold for cities such as Phoenix, Tucson, San Antonio, El Paso, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, and San Diego, places made habitable by
great water engineering projects now threatened by prolonged
drought? The human fallout is hard to imagine. But the capitulation of a string of large, southern cities would doubtlessly have a
marked e=ect on the centroid.
The ozark mounTainS spread to the blue horizon like
concentric ripples thrown from a droplet hitting still water.
We’ve left Junior Harris’s front lawn in Edgar Springs and are
pressing southward, winding over Highway 32 to Plato, Missouri
( 37° 31´03˝ N, 92° 10´ 23˝ W). A small village of 109 people (up from
74 in 2000), Plato lies roughly 175 miles southwest of St. Louis.
Upon arrival, the first duty of the team, made up of workers
from NOAA, the Census Bureau, and the Missouri Division of
Geology and Land Survey, is to scout a suitable place to fix the
2010 commemorative marker. In a town as small as Plato, the
task is quickly accomplished. On a prior scouting trip, Doyle had
found a small park near the center of town. The bulk of Plato’s businesses—a post o;ce, a bank, a café, and a farm supply store— are visible from the proposed site. A nearby granite
monument tells of the town’s founding in 1858. The name Plato,
as several of us had wagered, was taken from the ancient Greek
philosopher. (Mike Ratcli=e, a cultural and historical geographer
with the Census department, jokes that in addition to being in the
middle of Missouri we are also “at the center of The Republic.”)
A small group of locals begins to congregate as Doyle
launches into an impromptu presentation about the calculation
and demographic significance of the centroid. From a gray duffel, he retrieves the twelve-inch steel disc along with hand-drawn
plans for the marker’s housing: a squat pillar of Missouri red
marble. Doyle hands the thirty-pound marker to Bob Biram, village councilman and liaison for the upcoming ceremony. Biram,
clad in a camouflage ball cap, grunts lightly as he takes the metal
disc in hand, holding it edgewise against his belly to steady the
weight. “That is pretty,” he says with a smile.
But Biram bears bad news. Though he agrees the park would
be an ideal place for the marker, he can’t grant permission because the village does not own the land. The parcel, the footprint
of a former pharmacy, remains in the estate of the Tilley family,
which once owned and operated the store. Ms. Tilley died a few
years ago, but Biram believes that some of her relatives remain
in the area. He o=ers to make some calls.
While waiting, the party decides to take lunch at Weber’s
Café, Plato’s lone eatery (which also doubles as its sole grocery
store). Over heaping servings of chicken-fried steak and mashed
potatoes, resident Barbara Pinkston asks Mike Ratcli=e about
the precision of the count. Specifically, she wonders how the bureau knows with certainty that everyone has been included.
Ratcli=e explains the various protocols used by census takers to ensure an accurate count, including making repeat visits
to households. “They are instructed to make six visits,” Ratcli=e
explains. “After that, it becomes very expensive. So if they can’t
get you in person, they’ll go to the neighbors to try to get a count
of how many people live in your household.”