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:
- In 2007, Science (subs. req’d) published research that “predicted a permanent drought by 2050 throughout the Southwest” — levels of aridity comparable to the 1930s Dust Bowl would stretch from Kansas to California. And they were also only looking at a 720 ppm case.
- In December 2008, the Bush Administration quietly released a US Geological Survey stunner: SW faces “permanent drying” by 2050, which found:
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.
- NOAA: Climate change “largely irreversible for 1000 years,” with permanent Dust Bowls in Southwest and around the globe. This January 2009 PNAS paper finds
… 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.
- Michael Wehner et al., “Projections of Future Drought in the Continental United States and Mexico” (2011). A good PDF of a PowerPoint presentation ia here.
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….