No-Water-Gate: Scandalous NY Times Piece On Dust-Bowlification Never Mentions Climate Change

On Sunday, I wrote about the real scandal of the century that the media is ignoring or misreporting — unchecked global warming (see “Worse Than Watergate“).

Now I have a name for this growing scandal — No-Water-Gate. It is increasingly clear that the gravest climate threat to the most people in the coming decades will be Dust-Bowlification and the impact that has on food security (see Oxfam: Extreme Weather Has Helped Push Tens of Millions into “Hunger and Poverty” in “Grim Foretaste” of Warmed World).

As I wrote in my 2011 Nature article, “The next dust bowl,” which reviewed some of the vast literature on the growing threat of prolonged warming-driven drought, “Feeding some 9 billion people by mid-century in the face of a rapidly worsening climate may well be the greatest challenge the human race has ever faced.”

You’d think that a New York Times front page story on our current return to Dust Bowl conditions — and how farmers need to adapt — would discuss some of this vast literature. Or at least mention climate change. Once.

You’d be wrong. And so this NY Times story is one of the inspirations for naming the greatest scandal of our time No-Water-Gate:

The failure to discuss climate change renders the piece less than useless — it is scandalously misleading. The article focuses on how the drought has accelerated the depletion of the High Plains Aquifer by Kansas and Texas farmers:

Kansas agriculture will survive the slow draining of the aquifer — even now, less than a fifth of the state’s farmland is irrigated in any given year — but the economic impact nevertheless will be outsized. In the last federal agriculture census of Kansas, in 2007, an average acre of irrigated land produced nearly twice as many bushels of corn, two-thirds more soybeans and three-fifths more wheat than did dry land.

Farmers will take a hit as well. Raising crops without irrigation is far cheaper, but yields are far lower. Drought is a constant threat: the last two dry-land harvests were all but wiped out by poor rains.

In the end, most farmers will adapt to farming without water, said Bill Golden, an agriculture economist at Kansas State University.

No, no, a thousand times no: Farmers aren’t going to “adapt to farming without water”!

Farmers might adapt to farming without water from the aquifer for irrigation — but only if the climate is not changing for the worse!

An important, if under-reported, 2012 study from the The National Center for Atmospheric Research “strengthened the case” that, unless we reverse emissions trends soon, we risk having a situation by the end of the century where “most of southern Europe and about half of the United States is gripped by extreme drought” a great deal of the time:

[Author Aiguo] Dai’s new work stresses that the drying effect of human-produced greenhouse gases should overwhelm natural variability by later this century.

The U.S. may never again return to the relatively wet conditions experienced from 1977 to 1999,” he says.

How will farmers adapt to no aquifer water and dwindling precipitation and rising temperatures (see We’re Already Topping Dust Bowl Temperatures — Imagine What’ll Happen If We Fail To Stop 10°F Warming).

Worse, how will they adapt to no aquifer water and dwindling precipitation and rising temperatures — and the media and other opinion-makers ignoring the latter two irreversible (but not unstoppable) trends?

The No-Water-Gate scandal is that the nation and the world has chosen not to heed decades of warning by climate scientists that unrestricted emissions of greenhouse gases would cause ever-worsening droughts.

A 1990 Journal of Geophysical Research study, “Potential evapotranspiration and the likelihood of future drought” projected that severe to extreme drought in the United States, then occurring every 20 years or so, could become an every-other-year phenomenon by mid-century.

Aiguo Dai of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, in his 2010 study, “Drought under global warming: a review,” had a similar conclusion. Here is a rough representation of where his analysis projects the PDSI [Palmer Drought Severity Index] will be soon after mid-century, again, if we don’t dramatically reverse greenhouse gas emissions trends:

The PDSI in a moderate emissions scenario soon after mid-century. In the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl, the PDSI apparently spiked very briefly to -6, but otherwise rarely exceeded -3 for the decade (see here).

Dai found that:

By the end of the century, many populated areas, including parts of the United States and much of the Mediterranean and Africa, could face readings in the range of -4 to -10. Such decadal averages would be almost unprecedented.

In the 1930s, you could certainly make a case that people didn’t know just how destructive their land management practices were. But we have been warned again and again that we face ever-worsening warming and drought conditions. Here are a few more studies:

The serious hydrological changes and impacts known to have occurred in both historic and prehistoric times over North America reflect large-scale changes in the climate system that can develop in a matter of years and, in the case of the more severe past megadroughts, persist for decades. Such hydrological changes fit the definition of abrupt change because they occur faster than the time scales needed for human and natural systems to adapt, leading to substantial disruptions in those systems. In the Southwest, for example, the models project a permanent drying by the mid-21st century that reaches the level of aridity seen in historical droughts, and a quarter of the projections may reach this level of aridity much earlier.

… the climate change that is taking place because of increases in carbon dioxide concentration is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop….   Among illustrative irreversible impacts that should be expected if atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations increase from current levels near 385 parts per million by volume (ppmv) to a peak of 450-600 ppmv over the coming century are irreversible dry-season rainfall reductions in several regions comparable to those of the “dust bowl” era.

And these studies don’t generally even consider the impact of the increasingly early loss of the winter snowpack (see “U.S. Geological Survey: Warmer Springs Causing Loss Of Snow Cover Throughout The Rocky Mountains.”

What greater scandal could there be than ruining the breadbasket of the world — and large tracts of arable land around the planet — just as we are adding another 2 billion people to the planet? Other than not reporting on it, that is….

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33 Responses to No-Water-Gate: Scandalous NY Times Piece On Dust-Bowlification Never Mentions Climate Change

  1. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Ag researchers, biologists etc are scrambling to adapt with new varieties but in the long run it will be the utter unpredictability of where drought, floods, hail and fire will hit that will beat us, ME

  2. BBHY says:

    There is a word for “adapting to farming without water”. The word is “moving”. See “Grapes of Wrath”.

  3. Good telling of a bad narrative, Joe.

    I keep thinking about the Central Valley of CA where a significant portion of the US food supply is grown. They have fought over water since California became a state.

    Now, CA is poised to spend over $20 Billion to build water infrastructure that will not be needed, because there won’t be enough water to transport. Even the Gov. Brown’s Bey Delta head admits that the project will not provide any additional water. We should never underestimate the political power of big ag, especially when it comes to water policy.

  4. Michael Dowd says:

    Another fabulous and important post, Joe. Thanks! “No-Water-Gate”… brilliant!!

  5. BobbyL says:

    Looking at this situation the only bright spot that I can see is that for property owners in the northeast real estate values should skyrocket as people in hotter drying regions to the west and south seek to escape. Maybe rooftop gardens in the northeastern cities and vertical farms in skyscrapers will have to supply most of the food. In any case, it looks like a challenging situation to say the least if emissions are not dramatically reduced very soon.

  6. Lou Grinzo says:

    The Fourth Coast (the land along the Great Lakes) will become quite popular in the coming decades.

  7. rollin says:

    “Men and nations do act wisely when they have exhausted all the other possibilities.”

    Abba Eban

  8. prokaryotes says:

    I was surprised about this post by Revkin today

    As with hurricanes, I think frequency needs to be separated from intensity.

    Climate change increases the available energy for tornadoes through a warmer and moister atmosphere. Wind shear decreases in the global mean, but this might be irrelevant locally when the jet stream dives southward like it did last weekend across the Plains.

    I believe there is evidence that the strongest tornadoes are getting stronger. They are certainly getting longer and wider.

  9. Mike Roddy says:

    Yep, and abandoned homes in Detroit will be squatted by Texans and Oklahomans. Watch out-they have guns!

  10. Mike Roddy says:

    Another excellent post, Joe. Many of us have been battered by NYT, and most others are worse.

    What do you suggest we do about our media problem? My own plan went nowhere, but maybe you have a better one.

    It’s clear that this is at the root of our inability to effect change. All you have to do is go inland from any coastal state, and you’ll hear the same climate Rush Limbaugh talking points you do in the center of the country. People there have not been told the truth. We must find a way to break through here, since our cycle is self perpetuating. The people are lied to, and elect Congressmen who keep it up.

  11. BobbyL says:

    And it’s probably just a matter of time before Alaska passes California as our most populated state.

  12. BobbyL says:

    How much do the mainstream media like the NY Times really matter? The right thinks it is completely controlled by liberals (except for media owned by Murdoch which they believe gives them the real truth) and the left thinks it is under total corporate control and simply a tool of the big bad capitalists. The only people who therefore might trust the MSM are those more in the political center, at least those who actually follow the news and can see how politics connects to their lives.

  13. jyyh says:

    :-), now there’s a thought.

  14. Colorado Bob says:

    ALBUQUERQUE — New Mexico is slipping further into drought, having marked the driest two-year period in nearly 120 years of record-keeping.
    National weather forecasters and water managers shared the latest statistics on New Mexico’s devastatingly dry conditions during a meeting Tuesday. They say the last 12- and 24-month periods have eclipsed even those dry times of the early 20th century and the 1950s.
    For the first four months of this year, New Mexico has seen less than half of its normal precipitation, with communities in the south and along the Rio Grande Valley seeing even less.
    Forecasters say the Santa Fe and Socorro areas have received just 17 percent of their normal snow and rainfall so far this year.
    And with the snowpack now melted, officials say there is nothing to replenish the state’s reservoirs.

  15. Colorado Bob says:

    Most of the snowpack in southwest Colorado has already melted, contributing to ongoing severe drought conditions in the San Juan Mountains and much of the Western Slope.

    Extreme and exceptional drought conditions continue to plague southeast Colorado.

  16. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    As usual capitalists find a disaster afflicting others to be a great ‘profit opportunity’. So the ghouls of the genetically engineered crops industry, aided as ever by the MSM, valiantly seeking ‘balance’ leap and caper and promise that their highly expensive, toxic and low-yielding products can be engineered to produce higher yields in the changed climatic conditions we are entering. It is, of course, PR balderdash, but the MSM, those ‘even-handed’ champions of truth, justice and the American Way, lap it up and regurgitate it like the pros that they are.

  17. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    You’re so correct, Mike, but we still see those who quote Rush Limbaugh and his ilk and their ludicrous argument that the MSM is of the Left, and thereafter assume a position of ‘even-handedness’ between easily discernible truth and lurid, ideologically driven, mendacity, that is almost beyond belief. The argument that the truth lies halfway between utter falsity and glaringly onbvious facts is reminiscent of certain ‘concern’ denialists. You know, if only we tried to understand the Rightwingers, maybe they’d be less rabid. In your dreams!

  18. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    One wonders how much has been turned into toxic sludge by the fracking racket.

  19. Merrelyn Emery says:

    I hope you didn’t think I meant GMOs Mulga because I didn’t. They are a pestilence, ME

  20. Sam Carmalt says:

    The reason climate change deniers have as much traction as they do is first, because the differences between weather and climate require explanation and careful documentation, and second, because the climate system is so complex that our best models are not as predictive as we might wish.

    For example, recent weeks have seen considerable coverage on how the temperature records of the past decade, which do not show the temperature increases predicted in the 1990s, nevertheless do not undermine the overall trends of global warming.

    The US drought is a long-term weather pattern. Those of us who are very worried about climate change can’t have things both ways. Therefore, it is unhelpful and premature to castigate the NY Times for failing to use the drought as evidence for climate change.

  21. BillD says:

    The NYT should be castigated for not even mentioning that a sharp increase in drought is expected and predicted under climate change.

  22. Raul M. says:

    How much co2 is sequestered from a dust storm? Does the dust storm drop the co2 level even more if there is rain? Not that rain is expected and if a dust storm comes into a rain storm how is the co2 level affected. Certainly, molds and fungus would bloom when brought in by a dust storm. Would the Bahamas be a good place to study the dust storm coming in from Africa and the rain storm affects to co2 concentrations?

  23. Raul M. says:

    Doesn’t the analogy of cigarette smoking match weather more than climate, for one doesn’t live long enough anyway to be analogous to climate? Also the non-smoker only has to move a short distance away or even to object to the smoking, and weather is so much more inclusive of the population. There are several ways that the analogy doesn’t match up to the realities of life in modern society. Maybe it is all about smoking being bad and that through public maneuvers that people have reduced the acceptance of smoking.

  24. Mal Adapted says:

    And as the drying trend continues, New Mexico and Texas (Mexico too!) will increasingly depend on San Juan drainage water, piped under the continental divide to the Rio Grande drainage:

    As Mark Twain didn’t actually say, “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over.”

  25. M Tucker says:

    Yes, we know the High Plains aquifer is dwindling, at least those of us who pay attention. In fact the important agricultural aquifers around the world are dwindling. India and China are both seeing dramatic lowering of the aquifer levels. It is a world wide problem.

    In many places dry land farming will become a thing of the past. The only way to adapt is to irrigate. When a farmer gives up on his farm and moves he does not set up farming in a new location. It is climate changes impact on the water cycle and the coming prolonged droughts and the dwindling aquifers that pose the greatest threat.

    The scandal of No-Water-Gate is that no one in the media is talking about it. It has been in the forefront of local politics in California, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico for years but never a national news story. We all know about what the Mississippi went through. We see a decline in the water levels of the Great Lakes (see NOAA Great Lakes water level dashboard). We all know about the Colorado River and its historic water troubles. Well, a new report this year listed the Colorado as the most endangered river in America. I would estimate that agriculture in Southern California, in the Coachella and Imperial valleys will not be around by mid-century. Dry land farming will be gone in Western Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada. We have a severe crisis and no one is talking about it but a few concerned activists and the occasional public servant. Some of those public servants give their best and most emphatic talks after leaving office. Every state that has an important agriculture industry also has a state climatologist, maybe every state does. We don’t hear anything from them about climate change impacting weather and water. Recently the Colorado state climatologist, after the droughts and wildfires of last year, is beginning to bring it up in a very gently way. Even Colorado farmers go into irrational hysterics when someone tries to talk about climate change and its impact to agriculture.

    We have no national climate change policy. We have no national energy policy. Virtually all state climatologists refuse to discuss climate change. Not only are we heading toward the cliff at 100 mph but no one is at the wheel.

  26. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Good thinking! Let’s just wait another decade or three, and see if the evidence keeps tracking the science. Oh, but I guess that, even then, you’ll be there, or someone like you will, urging us to just wait a little longer to see if it is all just ‘..a long-term weather pattern’-or not.

  27. Joan Savage says:

    What’s very troubling is lack of cover crop. Likely choices would be plant varieties that survived the previous prolonged drought in the middle 12th and late 13th centuries. Drought-resistant cover crops would help keep the topsoil in shape, or what’s left of it, while the farmers get a grip on what else has to change.

    No more aquifer withdrawal is as tough as call as no more fossil fuel combustion.

  28. Dave S. Nottear says:

    Bad Dream

    Standing on a giant “Hill” looking out over huge valley mostly scrub brush and a river far down in the middle winding east to west (???)

    “old man” (couldn’t see well) said the river allowed life to remain in the valley.

    He asked, “Do you know the name of the river?”

    – “life river ???”

    old man smiled and said, “no – do you know the name of the river”

    – No –

    Old man said, “Yes you do – You called it Lake Superior.”

  29. SecularAnimist says:

    Sam Carmalt wrote: “… the temperature records of the past decade, which do not show the temperature increases predicted in the 1990s …”

    That is just plain false.

    The “reason climate change deniers have as much traction as they do” is that they relentlessly and shamelessly repeat blatant falsehoods like that one.

  30. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    No M-the Kochs et al are, as ever at the wheel, but only by proxy. The real death-drivers are their political stooges, foot flat to the floor, whose brains are controlled by implants of silver, thirty pieces each, that the Kochtopus uses to determine their every move.

  31. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Could not agree more. And I refuse to call then ‘modified’. They are ‘genetically engineered’ as far as I am concerned, and always will be.