UPDATE: Without Carbon Controls, We Face Many More Dust Bowls; 2002-2004 Western Drought Was Worst In 800 Years


Last week, the NY Times online asked me to contribute to their “Room for Debate.” The questions were “Is the current drought raising the possibility of another Dust Bowl? If so, what can we do to prevent it?”  My response is below, followed by a terrific new video by Peter Sinclair on “2012 Drought Update.”

UPDATE: At the very end, I’m adding the news release for a new study that makes clear the West is facing, “a new climatology that would make the 21st century climate like mega-droughts of the last millennium,” as the lead scientist put it.

Only one thing can stop ever-worsening Dust Bowls here and around the world — slashing carbon pollution.

Climate scientists have predicted for decades that man-made global warming would worsen droughts and dust storms in the Southwest and around the world because of the combined effects of warming, drying and the melting of snow and ice.

The warming directly dries the soil out. It also leads to earlier snow melt, so less water will be stored on mountain tops for the summer dry season. It also shifts precipitation patterns, expanding the dry subtropics.

All of these predictions are being observed right now and some are occurring faster than scientists expected.

Now, studies project “extreme drought” conditions by midcentury over much of the most productive and densely populated areas on Earth — including southern Europe, Southeast Asia, Brazil, the southwest United States and large parts of Australia and Africa. One study found that those areas would see drought indices far worse than those of our Dust Bowl.

And, by century’s end, we would be 10 degrees or more warmer than the 1930s if we fail to act soon.

A 2009 study found that carbon pollution levels projected after midcentury would lead to “dry-season rainfall reductions in several regions comparable to those of the ‘dust bowl’ era” that are “largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop.”

The scientific “debate,” such as it is, is how far into the northern Great Plains and Midwest these Dust Bowl conditions will extend.

What can we do about this? The climatologist David Rind, who did pioneering work on drought projection with NASA, said back in 2005 that “if you get drought indices like these, there’s no adaptation that’s possible.”

The fact is human adaptation to prolonged, extreme drought is virtually impossible. Historically, the primary adaptation to dust-bowlification has been abandonment. The word “desert” comes from the Latin desertum for “an abandoned place.”

We aren’t doing a great job of feeding the 7 billion people we have now. How can we lose much of the most productive farmland here and around the world and feed another 2 billion people?

The only sane response is to reduce carbon pollution sharply. To avert the worst of dust-bowlification, we need global carbon pollution to peak early next decade, drop 50 percent below current levels by 2050, and stop entirely by century’s end. Every year we delay adds $500 billion to the cost of action.

My 2011 Nature article last year on “The next dust bowl” is here. Sinclair’s video follows:

Here is the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) release, “Turn of the century drought worst in 800 years, study says“:

A new scientific study indicates the turn-of-the-century drought in the North American West was the worst of the last millennium—with major impacts to the carbon cycle and hints of even drier times ahead.

The study, titled “Reduction in carbon uptake during turn of the century drought in western North America,” indicates that the major drought that struck western North America from 2000 to 2004 severely reduced carbon uptake and stressed the region’s water resources, with significant declines in river flows and crop yields. It was published on July 29 in Nature-Geoscience. NSIDC scientist Kevin Schaefer is a co-author on the study, along with Christopher Williams of Northern Arizona University (NAU). The study was led by Christopher Schwalm of NAU, formerly at Clark University.

Researchers found that the turn-of-the-century drought was the most severe region-wide event of its kind since the last mega drought 800 years ago. “The turn-of-the-century drought may be the wetter end of a new climatology that would make the 21st century climate like mega-droughts of the last millennium,” said Schwalm.

Under normal climate conditions North America absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere due to plant growth, offsetting to anthropogenic carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. “Our study shows the turn-of-the-century drought reduced plant uptake by half in western North America,” said Schaefer.

The current drought that has currently engulfed country is as intense in the western United States as the turn of the century drought, but also includes large portions of the Midwest and Eastern United States.

Climate models indicate drought conditions in the American West may be the new normal as the planet warms, expanding the region that is already chronically dry. “This will not only reduce carbon uptake,” says Schaefer, “but will also would trigger a whole host of significant water resource challenges in a region already subject to frequent water shortages.”

And so mega-droughts join the long list of amplifying carbon-cycle feedbacks (see “Forest Feedback: Rising CO2 In Atmosphere Also Speeds Carbon Loss From Forest Soils, Research Finds” and links therein).

Pinyon pine forests near Los Alamos, N.M., had already begun to turn brown from drought stress in the image at left, in 2002, and another photo taken in 2004 from the same vantage point, at right, show them largely grey and dead. (Credit: Photo by Craig Allen, U.S. Geological Survey via Science Daily)

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26 Responses to UPDATE: Without Carbon Controls, We Face Many More Dust Bowls; 2002-2004 Western Drought Was Worst In 800 Years

  1. I think it’s a great piece, and a great contribution to the big conversation. I think it will help more people understand.

    The one part that surprises me is the set of targets mentioned here: “…We need global carbon pollution to peak early next decade, drop 50 percent below current levels by 2050…”

    Of course, to literally just avoid “the worst,” almost any set of targets better than business as usual will do – since business as usual would therefore always be worse.

    But to avoid triggering multiple tipping points, and the worst in that sense, it’s hard to see how the current sensitivity science, increasing emissions levels, and accelerating warming and melting indications support continuing emissions growth into the 2020s to peak then, or allow anything near 50% of current emissions in 2050.

    Looks to me like we’ll have to do quite a bit better than that to avoid what I’d call “the worst.”

  2. Paul Magnus says:

    To put it mildly…

  3. Mark Shapiro says:

    My nomination for the scariest part of the video: the guy suggesting that the government had “radicalized” the weather with HAARP, chemtrails, ionization or some such.

    This scapegoating by magical thinking — “it’s the scientists’ fault!” — is a terrifying human frailty.

  4. Paul Magnus says:

    Even wet areas appear to be having short quick droughts then deluges.

    Must be something to do with the average higher temp warm nights and high land wind speeds.

    Look at the UK, the had as sudden drought for 6 months and then the wettest June ever.

  5. squidboy6 says:

    Reduce carbon dioxide production as well as reduce the population growth rate. The culprits for keeping the status quo are the oil companies and the religious organizations that rail against contraception.

    We don’t need another 2 billion or 3 billion people to know we’ve gone off the road. We’re in the ditch now.

  6. M Tucker says:

    I’m thinking when folks like Joe or Dr Mann say “the worst” they mean truly horrific. With these targets we will certainly see 2 to 3 degrees Celsius warming. Not good if you want to avoid a dustbowl in the American Southwest. Not good if you want to have dependable water supply (and energy supply). Not good if you want to have dependable food supply. Not good if you want to avoid sea level rise. Not good if you wish to reverse ocean acidification. Such is our current trajectory.

  7. nyc-tornado-10 says:

    On business reports, economists are calling north america the “new middle east” due to increases in recoverable oil from toxic fracturing and tar (sludge) oil technologies. Science is now telling us that north america is becoming the “new middle east” of climate. We will soon have no need for the extra oil and gas our free market is producing, we will be lucky if we can afford to eat, just like the old middle east!

  8. Ralf says:

    Yay, this going to be interesting. Pass the popcorn.
    “The Day After” isn’t half as riveting.
    We’re not going to leave those 2500+ Gt in the ground, so have fun (other peoples’) grandkids.

  9. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Mark, one of my ex-friends believes all that rubbish. He decried all claims about climate change and told me ocean acidification was a much larger problem. Turned out he didn’t even know that CO2 dissolved in water to create that problem – not a human frailty, just pure ignorance, ME

  10. Richard Miller says:

    I assume that the the 2009 study that you mention that said we would by midcentury have dustbowl conditions that were largely irreversible for 1000 years is the Susan Solomon study. I thought that study said that this could happen when CO2 levels reached 450 to 600 pm. On our current path we could reach 450 ppm by 2030 so irreversible dustbowlification could happen by 2030.

  11. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Worse than that in the UK I’m afraid. I write from a hill farm in Wales, where:

    -after a brief spell in January down to -26C (tractor diesel went waxy – again)
    February was cold and very dry;
    March was the hottest ever, scant rain;
    April was the wettest ever, and cold, killing growth started by the heat of March;
    May was wet first half with snow in third week, then dry and cold;
    June was wettest ever, and cold;
    July was very wet, and cold for three weeks, then fine.

    If anybody thinks that climate destabilization is not already the reality, they need to get out more. And if they think farms will be reliably able to grow food for them after, say, another decade of intensification,
    they’ve got another think coming.



  12. Spike says:

    The situation in Eastern Europe, central Asia, India and Russia looks pretty dry too

  13. scarecities says:

    It might just be that that area can only support a few hundred thousand people in any long term sustainable context.

  14. The Joker says:

    When speaking about drought, are we about to see yet another one-in-a-century drought in the southern parts of the Amazon Basin? According to the weather forecast, it has barly rained for weeks down there and it wont do so in the comming weeks either.

  15. ToddInNorway says:

    Perhaps we can finally reform the two-headed industrial monster fed by US Midwest corn, namely corn-based ethanol for fuel and corn-fed cattle lots and pig lots (factory meat). These two use about 70-80% of all corn produced in the US Midwest.

  16. catman306 says:

    Half of India’s population experience a black out of their electrical grid yesterday.

  17. Joan Savage says:

    The AP picked up on a climatological connection:

    “The power deficit was worsened by a weak monsoon that lowered hydroelectric generation and kept temperatures higher, further increasing electricity usage as people seek to cool off.”

  18. Joan Savage says:

    The New York Times question has an unrealistic time frame in asking how to prevent an immediately forthcoming Dust Bowl, the first stages of which seem to be upon us already.

    “If so, what can we do to prevent it?” is a stale question.

    The more realistic question is what can we do to END the developing Dust Bowl.

  19. While population growth is an issue of concern, the more important issue relative to AGW is the rate at which the living are joining the middle class and becoming consumers.

    If the entire world population acted like Americans (entitled wasteful consumers)in this regard, we would have had this environmental crisis in the 1950’s before the population got to 3,000,000,000. Our system powered by fossil fuels only worked because less than 10 percent of the world population participated.

  20. From the HuffPost article – 1/2 population is without power in blackout, 1/3 population doesn’t have access to electricity. Doesn’t that indicate 75% of the population that has electrical service is without power. Or is the story only refering to the part of the population that has access to electricity?

  21. Paul Magnus says:

    Quite accurate in some respects, but missed the boat by not breaking the temp levels down in 0.2 degrees steps instead of 1C steps….

    we just underestimated the impact of GW, even the experts….

    Mark Lynas’s Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet

  22. prokaryotes says:

    Re Deluges…

    Secular Trends of Precipitation
    Amount, Frequency, and Intensity in the United States

    Twentieth century trends of precipitation are examined by a variety of methods to more fully describe how precipita- tion has changed or varied. Since 1910, precipitation has increased by about 10% across the contiguous United States. The increase in precipitation is reflected primarily in the heavy and extreme daily precipitation events. For example, over half (53%) of the total increase of precipitation is due to positive trends in the upper 10 percentiles of the precipita- tion distribution. These trends are highly significant, both practically and statistically. The increase has arisen for two reasons. First, an increase in the frequency of days with precipitation [6 days (100 yr)−1] has occurred for all categories of precipitation amount. Second, for the extremely heavy precipitation events, an increase in the intensity of the events is also significantly contributing (about half) to the precipitation increase. As a result, there is a significant trend in much of the United States of the highest daily year–month precipitation amount, but with no systematic national trend of the median precipitation amount.
    These data suggest that the precipitation regimes in the United States are changing disproportionately across the pre- cipitation distribution. The proportion of total precipitation derived from extreme and heavy events is increasing relative to more moderate events. These changes have an impact on the area of the United States affected by a much above- normal (upper 10 percentile) proportion of precipitation derived from very heavy precipitation events, for example, daily precipitation events exceeding 50.8 mm (2 in.).

    It rains today more due to more water vapor from increased evaporation rates, but it is disproportional distributed and the higher precipitation is also affecting soil erosion. Studies on soil erosion suggest that increased rainfall amounts and intensities will lead to greater rates of erosion. Which is the opposite of the Dust Bowlification. So areas not affected by drought are likely to experience the other extreme.

  23. colinc says:

    So very astute save for one “small” detail… much earlier today I read the article in the Times of India that the number who “lost” power was 670 million making the percentage nearer to 84%. Moreover, if you take a look at Spike’s tiny-url (above), it is relatively easy to perceive that a large part of their grid’s increased load is due to pumping water, though I don’t doubt their Americanization had many of them cranking up the A/C, too.

  24. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Our food crops have been selected for production not resilience to extreme climatic instability. Weeds, however, are much tougher, so let’s investigate a diet of weeds and feral animals, rabbits being perfect. We, in Australia, have a real surfeit of feral pigs, rabbits, camels, buffalo and goats, all rather healthy, as far as meat goes.

  25. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    How did Indians survive their hellish summers for tens of thousands of years without air-conditioning?

  26. David Lewis says:

    I agree with you: Joe should update his prescription for action. This peak in the 2020s and get to 50% global by 2050 is like saying we need to avoid catastrophe by setting ourselves up for disaster.

    A more realistic concept is that of a total carbon budget as promoted by the Anderson at the Tyndall Centre, Schellnhuber at PIK, and many others, i.e. there are only so many more tonnes of CO2 that can be allowed into the atmosphere. Once it is understood, the total carbon budget concept conveys, as a peak emission date in the 2020s followed by reductions to 50% of today’s emissions by 2050 does not, that each year we put off decisive action now greatly increases the risk our descendants will face. Studies indicate it doesn’t matter so much when CO2 is added in the next centuries what matters is how much total CO2 is allowed in. When we’ve used up the budget that gave us a 75% chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees, emissions will have to go negative, never mind 50% of todays by 2050. Given that it looks impossible to grow food without emitting something, we are baking in the necessity to remove significant CO2 from the atmosphere even as many of us deride carbon capture at coal stations as ludicrous.

    Schellnhuber gave a keynote speech at the 4 degrees conference the Royal Society put on just prior to Copenhagen trying to explain the total carbon budget approach. Nature published a special issue highlighting the concept.