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Friday, December 18, 2009

Droughts & Global Warming – What’s The Connection?

Water levels are down to virtually unprecedented levels all over the world, threatening agriculture and creating tinderbox conditions. Potable water is scare and getting more scarce. Hot seasons are getting hotter every year, and dry seasons are not only getting drier, they are also lasting longer and doing more damage than every before.

Isn't it time that we acknowledged that this very well may not be natural? Global warming is real, it is caused by man-made CO2 emissions, and we need to do something about it. However, at this point, we don’t need action that makes us feel good. We need action that actually does good.

Scientific research indicates that these drought conditions are exactly what we should expect from human-caused global warming. Global warming is arguably the most significant environmental concern of this or any other decade. Some argue that greenhouse gas emissions (a consequence of human activity) are resulting in global warming and that this will lead to environmental catastrophes in the next century. Some believe that we are already experiencing catastrophic climate change, with any unusual weather patterns (be it record high or low temperatures, storms or snowfalls) being attributed to human-induced climate change. The Kyoto Protocol (to which the United States is NOT a signatory), drafted at the Kyoto conference in late 1997, sets various countries mandatory targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

Rising temperatures will alter global weather patterns that have a direct effect on water supplies and agriculture. Deserts will expand, the frequency and severity of droughts and deadly heat waves will increase, and snow will disappear in most areas—except on the very highest mountain peaks. If you don’t believe this, take a good look at pictures of Mount Kilimanjaro. Where there used to be ice and snow, there is now cracked mud. Look at Glacier National Park, where the glaciers have shrunk from 50 to 30 in just the last 20 years. Chart the rainfall in California and the western states. Yes, those states are dry – and this year, they are drier than they’ve ever been. Water is starting to be a commodity to be traded; it’s no longer a resource that can be counted on.

Scary, isn’t it? And there’s even more:

Global concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, which are three of the most notable greenhouse gases, have increased significantly over the past 250 years as direct result of human activities. Concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases now far exceed any found during ice core research spanning the last 650,000 years. These increases are due primarily to the use of fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, and changes in land use, such as cutting down forests to make way for farming, housing and other development. Increases in methane and nitrous oxide are primarily due to agriculture.

OK, you’re saying, and this has exactly WHAT to do with drought? So the polar ice caps melt faster, and the seas move miles inland. So what? If the ice caps melt faster, that means that there’s actually more water available, not less, right? The answer to this is, not surprisingly, no. There will be more water available, but not for either agriculture or consumption.

Take what’s happening in California right now, as a prime example. New space observations reveal that since October 2003, the aquifers for California's primary agricultural region, the Central Valley, and its major mountain water source, the Sierra Nevada, have lost nearly enough water combined to fill Lake Mead, America's largest reservoir. The findings, based on satellite data, reflect California's extended drought and increased pumping of groundwater for human uses such as irrigation.

UC Irvine and NASA scientists detailed the state's groundwater changes and outlined research on other global aquifers conducted via twin satellites called the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment. GRACE monitors tiny month-to-month differences in Earth's gravity field primarily caused by the movement of water in the planet's land, ocean, ice and atmosphere. Its ability to "weigh" changes in water content provides new insights into how climate change is affecting Earth's water cycle. Combined, California's Sacramento and San Joaquin drainage basins have shed more than 30 cubic kilometers of water since late 2003. A cubic kilometer is about 264.2 billion gallons, enough to fill 400,000 Olympic-size pools. The bulk of the loss occurred in the state's agricultural Central Valley. The Central Valley depends on irrigation from both groundwater wells and diverted surface water.

Recent California legislation decreasing the allocation of surface water to the San Joaquin basin is likely to further increase the region's reliance on groundwater for irrigation. This suggests the decreasing groundwater storage trends seen by GRACE will continue for the foreseeable future. The California results come just months after Matt Rodell of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Isabella Velicogna of UCI, and Jay Famiglietti, UCI Earth system science professor and director of the UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling found groundwater levels in northwest India declining by 17.7 cubic kilometers per year between October 2002 and August 2008, a loss attributed almost entirely to pumping and consumption of groundwater by humans.

Aquifers are being depleted much faster than they are being replenished in many places, wells are drying up, massive lawsuits are already erupting and the problems have barely begun. Aquifers that took thousands of years to fill are being drained in decades, placing both agricultural and urban uses in peril. Groundwater that supplies drinking water for half the world's population is now in jeopardy. In Idaho people drawing groundwater are being ordered to work with other holders of stream water rights as the streams begin to dwindle. Mississippi has filed a $1-billion lawsuit against the City of Memphis because of declining groundwater. You're seeing land subsiding from Houston to the Imperial Valley of California. This issue is real and getting worse.

So, why is this important? It’s real simple. The more ground water that we use up, the less that there is to evaporate. The less water that is evaporated, the less rain will fall in season. The less rain falling in season means that there will be enormous floods at the wrong times of year, and the more that there is flooding, the worse the climate becomes – drier and drier, and hotter and hotter. The hotter and drier the climate is, the more drought there is.

What we can do about this is stop denying that climate change is happening and quit saying that global warming isn’t all that important. What we can all do is work together to get the alternative energy industries and the green tech revolution up, running and prospering. The less CO2, methane and nitrous oxide we produce as a global society, the more that we can reduce our carbon footprints, the faster we can reverse the trends that are creating this serious and life-threatening problem. Yes, we can desalinize sea water, and we will – but that is, at best, a stop-gap measure, and it does not address the real problem, which is to STOP heating the earth to the point that we all die either of dehydration or a bullet, as the water wars start.

So, let’s get going on the green revolution – and let’s do something positive to stop the earth from drying out beneath our feet. Trust me, this is going to happen in OUR lifetimes, if we don’t do something about it RIGHT NOW.

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