Nature Publishes My Piece on Dust-Bowlification and the Grave Threat It Poses to Food Security

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"Nature Publishes My Piece on Dust-Bowlification and the Grave Threat It Poses to Food Security"

“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.”

The journal Nature asked me to write a Comment piece after they read one of my posts on prolonged drought and “Dust-Bowlification.”  The article is here (subs. req’d).

This is my first piece ever in the journal itself.  I did have an online piece, “Nature publishes my climate analysis and solution.”  This is not a peer-reviewed article but rather a “Comment” piece.

I sent it to five of the world’s leading authorities on climate change and drought and the hydrological cycle:  Kevin Trenberth, Aiguo Dai, Michael Mann, Peter Gleick and Jonathan Overpeck.  I endeavored to incorporate their comments, but unfortunately Nature has a 10-reference limit for their Comment pieces so I wasn’t able to include as many references as they suggested or as I would have liked.  I will probably do a later piece with more references.  If you want links to most of the articles I refer to, go here.

I was particularly delighted that Overpeck liked the term “Dust-Bowlification.”  He really was an inspiration for me to begin studying this topic many years ago when I saw a 2005 presentation of his, “Warm climate abrupt change–paleo-perspectives,” that concluded “climate change seldom occurs gradually” (see The “global-change-type drought” and the future of extreme weather).

I am equally delighted Nature has basically endorsed this term through its multiple appearances in this article and felt that the overall issue warranted more attention.

I do not believe that most Americans — and that includes most policymakers and the media — understand the convergence of the recent scientific literature on the extreme threat posed directly to this country of Dust-Bowlification.

During the last Dust Bowl era, hundreds of thousands of American families fled the impacted regions. Now, those same type of arid conditions could stretch all the way from Kansas to California within the next forty years.  America’s financial future and the health and safety of our people are at serious risk if greenhouse gas pollution is not brought under control.  The food security of all of humanity is at risk. Denial is simply not an option, the time for action is now.

Here are some key excerpts:

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE OR COMMENT

Which impact of anthropogenic global warming will harm the most people in the coming decades? I believe that the answer is extended or permanent drought over large parts of currently habitable or arable land — a drastic change in climate that will threaten food security and may be irreversible over centuries.

A basic prediction of climate science is that many parts of the world will experience longer and deeper droughts, thanks to the synergistic effects of drying, warming and the melting of snow and ice.

Precipitation patterns are expected to shift, expanding the dry subtropics. What precipitation there is will probably come in extreme deluges, resulting in runoff rather than drought alleviation. Warming causes greater evaporation and, once the ground is dry, the Sun’s energy goes into baking the soil, leading to a further increase in air temp- erature. That is why, for instance, so many temperature records were set for the United States in the 1930s Dust Bowl; and why, in 2011, drought-stricken Texas saw the hottest summer ever recorded for a US state. Finally, many regions are expected to see earlier snowmelt, so less water will be stored on mountain tops for the summer dry season. Added to natural climatic variation, such as the El Niño–La Niña cycle, these factors will intensify seasonal or decade-long droughts. Although the models don’t all agree on the specifics, the overall drying trends are clear.

I used to call the confluence of these processes ‘desertification’ on my blog, ClimateProgress.org, until some readers pointed out that many deserts are high in biodiversity, which isn’t where we’re heading. ‘Dust- bowlification’ is perhaps a more accurate and vivid term, particularly for Americans — many of whom still believe that climate change will only affect far-away places in far-distant times.

Prolonged drought will strike around the globe, but it is surprising to many that it would hit the US heartland so strongly and so soon.

The coming droughts ought to be a major driver — if not the major driver — of climate policies. Yet few policy-makers and journalists seem to be aware of dust-bowlification and its potentially devastating impact on food security. That’s partly understandable, because much of the key research cited in this article post-dates the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Raising public awareness of, and scientific focus on, the likelihood of severe effects of drought is the first step in prompting action.

I first heard of the risks in a 2005 talk by climatologist Jonathan Overpeck of the Uni- versity of Arizona in Tucson. He pointed to emerging evidence that temperature and annual precipitation were heading in oppo- site directions over many regions and raised the question of whether we are at the “dawn of the super-interglacial drought”.

The idea wasn’t new. As far back as 1990, scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York projected that severe to extreme drought in the United States, then occurring every 20 years or so, could become an every-other-year phenom- enon by mid-century.

Events are starting to bear out these worrying predictions. Snowpack reduction, early snowmelt and a decrease in dry-season river flow in the American West, forecast more than two decades ago, have now been measured. In much of the northern Rockies, the peak of the annual stream runoff is up to three or four weeks earlier than it was half a century ago.  Heat and drought — coupled with the greater impact of destruc- tive species, such as bark beetles, aided by warming — have increased forest die-off and the risk of wildfire.

The palaeoclimate record dating back to the medieval period reveals droughts lasting many decades. But the extreme droughts that the United States faces this century will be far hotter than the worst of those: recent decades have been warmer than the driest decade of the worst drought in the past 1,200 years.

And much warmer conditions are pro- jected. According to a 2009 report of the US Global Change Research Program, warming over mid-latitude land masses, such as the continental United States, is predicted to be higher than the forecast average global warming: much of the inland United States faces a rise of between 5 °C and 6 °C on the current emissions path (that is, ‘business as usual’) by the century’s end, with a substantial fraction of that warming occurring by mid-century.

A 2007 analysis of 19 climate projections estimated that levels of aridity comparable to those in the Dust Bowl could stretch from Kansas to California by mid-century. To make matters worse, the regions at risk of reduced water supply, such as Nevada, have seen a massive population boom in the past decade. Overuse of water in these areas has long been rife, depleting groundwater stores.

Of course, the United States is not alone in facing such problems. Since 1950, the global percentage of dry areas has increased by about 1.74% of global land area per decade. Recent studies have projected ‘extreme drought’ conditions by mid-century over some of the most populated areas on Earth—southern Europe, south-east Asia, Brazil, the US Southwest, and large parts of Australia and Africa. These dust-bowl conditions are projected to worsen for many decades and be “largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stopped”….

In the past six years, the Amazon has seen two droughts of the sort expected once in 100 years, each of which may have released as much carbon dioxide from vegetation die-off as the United States emits from fossil-fuel combustion in a year. More frequent wildfires also threaten to increase carbon emissions.

The key worry, as Climate Progress has spelled out this year, is food insecurity — how will we feed the world and where will people live if their land turns to dust:

Most pressingly, what will happen to global food security if dust-bowl conditions become the norm for both food-importing and food- exporting countries? Extreme, widespread droughts will be happening at the same time as sea level rise and salt-water intrusion threaten some of the richest agricultural deltas in the world, such as those of the Nile and the Ganges. Meanwhile, ocean acidification, warming and overfishing may severely deplete the food available from the sea….

Human adaptation to prolonged, extreme drought is difficult or impossible. Historically, the primary adaptation to dust-bowlification has been abandonment; the very word ‘desert’ comes from the Latin desertum for ‘an abandoned place’. During the relatively short-lived US Dust-Bowl era, hundreds of thousands of families fled the region. We need to plan how the world will deal with drought-spurred migrations (see page 447) and steadily growing areas of non- arable land in the heart of densely populated countries and global bread-baskets. 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.

These predictions are not worst-case scenarios: they assume business-as-usual greenhouse-gas emissions. We can hope that the models are too pessimistic, but some changes, such as the expansion of the subtrop- ics, already seem to be occurring faster than models have projected10. We clearly need to pursue the most aggressive greenhouse-gas mitigation policies promptly, and put dust-bowlification atop the world agenda.

That’s how the piece ended.

What does the future look like?  Dai laid it out in a 2010 study from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, “Drought under global warming: a review,” the best review and analysis on the subject I’ve seen — see the figure below (click to enlarge, “a reading of -4 or below is considered extreme drought”):

drought map 3 2060-2069

The PDSI [Palmer Drought Severity Index] in the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl apparently spiked very briefly to -6, but otherwise rarely exceeded -3 for the decade (see here).

The large-scale pattern shown in Figure 11 [of which the figure above is part] appears to be a robust response to increased GHGs. This is very alarming because if the drying is anything resembling Figure 11, a very large population will be severely affected in the coming decades over the whole United States, southern Europe, Southeast Asia, Brazil, Chile, Australia, and most of Africa.

The National Center for Atmospheric Research notes “By the end of the century, many populated areas, including parts of the United States, could face readings in the range of -8 to -10, and much of the Mediterranean could fall to -15 to -20. Such readings would be almost unprecedented.”

For the record, the NCAR study merely models the IPCC’s “moderate” A1B scenario — atmospheric concentrations of CO2 around 520 ppm in 2050 and 700 in 2100.  We’re currently on the A1F1 pathway, which would takes us to 1000 ppm by century’s end, but I’m sure with an aggressive program of energy R&D we could keep that to, say 900 ppm.

The time to act is now.

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64 Responses to Nature Publishes My Piece on Dust-Bowlification and the Grave Threat It Poses to Food Security

  1. todd tanner says:

    I don’t currently have a subscription to Nature. Is there a way to view the entire article online? If possible, I’d like to read the piece itself rather than the excerpts. Thanks.

    • Brian R Smith says:

      I emailed Nature some time ago with a request to consider allowing free online access to articles related to climate (otherwise $32 bucks per read!), but got no reply. Seems appropriate that Nature find a way to bend it’s business model to reflect the obvious need to spread important news, such as Joe’s evaluations, as far & wide & quickly as posible. I’ll give it another try, to the London office.

    • petronelle says:

      Many public libraries have online access to “subscribe only” journals. Some university libraries may let you log on as well.

      A lifelong librarian.

    • Edith Wiethorn says:

      Good question: Who owns the Nature Publishing Group & other science publishers (subs. req’d)?
      http://www.today.ucla.edu/portal/ut/PRN-uc-libraries-faculty-protest-proposed-160117.aspx

  2. Former Skeptic says:

    Nice work, Joe, and a pleasure to read. And if ‘Peck gives it his approval, then it’s legit.

    I look forward to the usual complaints from you-know-who (i.e. the idiot who runs his mouth at his blog before actually reading the paper he’s criticizing).

  3. Jeff Huggins says:

    Congrats, and ‘Bound For Glory’

    Congrats, Joe! That’s super.

    Speaking of dustbowlification, and some of the many human problems it involves, I’d suggest that folks read ‘Bound For Glory’, by Woody Guthrie. It’s a great book about life during the bad economic years, and dustbowl years, and the years leading up to them, through the eyes and life of Woody Guthrie.

    Be Well,

    Jeff

  4. prokaryotes says:

    NASA’s Hansen: “If We Stay on With Business as Usual, the Southern U.S. Will Become Almost Uninhabitable.”
    http://thinkprogress.org/romm/2011/09/29/332369/nasa-hansen-the-southern-u-s-will-become-almost-uninhabitable/

  5. Joan Savage says:

    Good to see your comment reach the Nature readership.

    For the rest of us, the citation includes:

    Desertification: The next dust bowl
    Joseph Romm
    Nature 478, 450–451 (27 October 2011)
    doi:10.1038/478450a
    Published online 26 October 2011

  6. Raul M. says:

    Thanks Joe and friends,
    By the way my one unit of hydroponics is still doing fine, though it’s time to change out that 5 gal. of water and that teaspoon and a half of fertilizer water.
    You guys sure do much to help.

  7. Steve Funk says:

    It’s hard to visualize that much drought when everyone agrees that precipitation and average humidity will increase. Dai mentions the 82-83 el nino as a drought producing event. I guess this is true, but it was the second wettest year in history where I live, in Northern California, which gets a -6 to -8 rating on his map.

  8. Foppe says:

    Have you seen this story in The eXile about how a bunch of billionaire farmers and the governor etc. are trying to push through the building a new water canal that would allow those farmers to buy lots of water at heavily subsidized rates, and then sell that water at 10x the price elsewhere, pocketing the difference?

  9. Tom Lenz says:

    The desert wind would salt their ruins and there would be nothing, no ghost or scribe, to tell any pilgrim in his passing how it was that people had lived in this place and in this place had died.
    -Cormac McCarthy

  10. Robert Nagle says:

    First,here’s a free link to the 2010 Dai Study
    http://www2.ucar.edu/news/2904/climate-change-drought-may-threaten-much-globe-within-decades

    A clarifying question. I noticed that in that 2060 graphic many areas of the Mediterranean have a PDSI of 15-20. What the heck does that mean? What does it mean to have a score in the double digits like this? Is this merely a maximum condition (like a record high of the year) or a description of an overall climate in a region? Is that a condition where people can actually survive over time?

    I see in this source http://earlywarn.blogspot.com/2010/11/should-you-trust-pdsi.html that PDSI is a scale relative to the geographic area, so you can’t really compare different regions. But what does a 15-20 PDSI mean? (DOes it roughly correspond to standard deviations)? Is it possible for a land with 15-20 PDSI to have enough variation so that in later years it could bounce back to 0?

    • Joe Romm says:

      Dai is in the process of revising his analysis and dropping those numbers by about 20%. No, that doesn’t save anybody, but I thought I would report it.

      I interviewed Dai over the summer and he explained that the PDSI is a relative term compared to the existing soil moisture. So the numerical comparisons I give you work for the United States because we know what the PDSI’s were in the dust bowl era in the states around Oklahoma. What exactly those numbers in the Mediterranean mean aren’t clear, but it is quite safe to say that a PDSI above 6 is an unimaginable calamity.

  11. Joan Savage says:

    Dust-Bowlification brings up the peculiarities of trading in water.
    When we buy food, or for that matter any product, we buy the water that it took to generate the food or product.
    M. Palaniappan and Peter Gleick have a chapter on “Peak Water.” http://www.worldwater.org/data20082009/ch01.pdf

    “Those who control power prefer to mask water wars as ethnic and religious conflicts.” -Vandana Shiva, “Water Wars.”

  12. M Tucker says:

    Continued inattention to the problems and continued procrastination of the solution ensures we will indeed experience dust-bowlification of the American Southwest and I think that region will begin to suffer significant water related issues in the next 20 years.

  13. Wes Rolley says:

    I studied the dust bowl era working on a project related to the photography of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), a part of the Dept. of Agriculture in the 1930’s. That is where Dorothea Lange’s photo of the Migran Mother entered the public domain.

    Those days were bleak. But not like we are going to see. Maybe the accurate view is from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. We will survive by any means possible, even though the consequences are almost unthinkable.

    And it is all because we did not think of the consequences of what we do today.

  14. Solar Jim says:

    It would appear that the four fuels-of-war (uranium, coal, petroleum oil and gas) are propelling the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Pestilence, Famine, War and Death) to our doors. There shall be no “adaptation,” only wastelands.

    Yet western economics and security (cautioned by Eisenhower as a military-industrial complex) continue to define these forms of matter perversely as economical “energy resources.” Not to mention that the global climate seems to be “spring loaded” for abrupt transformation via unfolding, cascading, self-reinforcing feedbacks.

    Cry oh sphere.

  15. prokaryotes says:

    The dust storm last week in Lubbock was 8 miles high.

    Lubbock dust storm: 8,000 feet high rolls through Texas (VIDEO) http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Latest-News-Wires/2011/1018/Lubbock-dust-storm-8-000-feet-high-rolls-through-Texas-VIDEO

    8 Miles high dust storms are considered a new dimension and different to past storms.

    • Joan Savage says:

      The report’s in feet, not meters.
      8000 feet is about 1.5 miles.

      • prokaryotes says:

        Correct. Though 8000 “feet” high haboob’s are still unprecedented in compare to past Dust-Storm’s and locals cannot recall anything like it.

        Quote

        City Councilman Paul Beane said, ‘my wife and I have lived in Lubbock for 49 years and in West Texas for 52 years, and I have never seen a dust storm like this. [28] Even by Texas standards the dark, dense, 8,000-foot-high behemoth of a dust storm that enveloped Lubbock had folks making comparisons Tuesday to the great Dust Bowl of the 1930s. It was “Steinbeck-ish in its arrival,” said 71-year-old Paul Beane, a Lubbock city councilman, who watched the storm roll in Monday evening from his front porch. http://newsfeedresearcher.com/data/articles_n43/dust-lubbock-storms.html

      • prokaryotes says:

        Thank you for pointing this out.

      • a face in the clouds says:

        On October 20, during a commercial jet flight between Dallas and Austin, we briefly flew through a dust cloud near Waco. This was about an hour before sunset. After exiting the cloud we were looking down on the dust (it was not very far below) for perhaps another minute. The dust extended as far as we could see to the west and partially obscured the sunset. I grew up watching the unmistakable color of dusty sunsets and could taste it when we landed in Austin. Dust has an unmistakable taste too. (There’s not enough BBQ sauce in the world.) However there were no reports of blowing dust in Austin.

        Anyway, I am not sure how high we were flying at the time. It was only a one-hour flight, and Waco is at the halfway point.

    • a face in the clouds says:

      Nobody Minds
      Dust storms in Lubbock;
      They don’t create havoc,
      Just hubbubbock
      But I’m so full of
      Holy Texas,
      I’ll be hallowed ground
      When they annex us!

      Ogden Nash wrote that during a lecture stop in Lubbock in 1950. Sounds prophetic. We all may be Hubbubbockites and Texsands before long.

  16. Michael Barnes says:

    Sorry to be a stick-in-the-mud. but that nice Dorothea Lange photo needs a credit.

    • Joe Romm says:

      OK. I didn’t see it in the mag, but I’ll find it.

      • prokaryotes says:

        Florence Thompson with two of her seven children in a California migrant camp

        Dorothea Lange — Library of Congress

        http://folkwaysnotebook.blogspot.com/2011/04/for-people-and-by-people-dorothea.html

        • prokaryotes says:

          Dorothea was soon photographing folks that were the homeless and unemployed. The above 1936 photograph known as “Migrant Mother” is one of a series of photographs that Dorothea Lange made of Florence Owens Thompson and some of her children in a California migrant camp.

          In 1960, Lange gave this account of the experience:
          I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two.
          She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children
          killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean- to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of a quality about it.

          ( From: Popular Photography, Feb. 1960).

        • prokaryotes says:

          Lange was funded by the federal government when she took the picture, so the image was in the public domain

          As one of the most powerful images of the Depression era, Migrant Mother reflects the victims who suffered the most in the United States during the 1930s.

          As if a character from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Thompson represents the backbone to the family unit as she supports (literally) her three children in the photo. Emily Hahn, a writer for The New Republic, covered the issues and difficulties of women during the Great Depression in her 1933 article “Women Without Work”. Upon interviewing several women at unemployment agencies, she discovered that they were not afraid or ashamed to do anything for the sake of their families’ well being. Hahn wrote that they would try everything else first and “to admit failure [was]…the greatest shame of all.”[9] Many women who had families to support did anything to survive and were not afraid to take any type of challenge. Thompson worked in a ‘penny-a-dish kitchen’ for fifty cents a day and leftovers so that she could feed her children. In an interview with CNN, Thompson’s daughter, Katherine McIntosh, recalls how her mother was a “very strong lady”.

          While the image was being prepared for exhibit in 1941, the negative of the famous photo was retouched to remove Florence’s thumb in the lower-right corner of the image.

          In the late 1960s, Bill Hendrie found the original Migrant Mother photograph and 31 other vintage, untouched photos by Dorothea Lange in a dumpster at the San Jose Chamber of Commerce.

          After the death of Hendrie and his wife, their daughter, Marian Tankersley, rediscovered the photos while emptying her parents’ San Jose home. In 1998, the retouched photo of Migrant Mother became a 32-cent U.S. Postal Service stamp in the 1930s Celebrate the Century series.[18] The stamp printing was unusual since daughters Katherine McIntosh (on the left in the stamp) and Norma Rydlewski (in Thompson’s arms in the stamp) were alive at the time of the printing and “It is very uncommon for the Postal Service to print stamps of individuals who have not been dead for at least 10 years.”[19]
          In the same month the U.S. stamp was issued, a print of the photograph with Lange’s handwritten notes and signature sold in 1998 for $244,500 at Sotheby’s New York.[20] In November 2002, Dorothea Lange’s personal print of Migrant Mother sold at Christie’s New York for $141,500.[5] In October 2005, an anonymous buyer paid $296,000 at Sotheby’s New York for the rediscovered 32 vintage, untouched Lange photos—nearly six times the pre-bid estimate.
          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florence_Owens_Thompson

  17. Robert In New Orleans says:

    This means a complete reversal of the trend of Americans moving from the rust belt to the sunbelt.

    The political, cultural and social implications of this future diaspora in the US are mind boggling. I predict this internal migration will be alot like climate change itself, occuring sooner and at a faster rate than anticipated.

    It is not suprising that politicians will not touch the subject with a tem meter pole.

  18. Could someone help me understand the tangible difference between 900 ppm and 1000 ppm in 2100, perhaps in terms of biodiversity loss, average surface temperature, coral bleaching, or something else I can relate to?

  19. what a powerful story–many thanks for doing it!

  20. M Tucker says:

    “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.”

    Yes it will take a doubling of our food production, according to many experts, to keep pace and that does not seem to be in the cards. The increased demand for water to supply our cities, provide electricity, and to keep industry running will compete directly with increased water demand from agriculture and agriculture usually loses.

    To continue without a national plan is criminal and to continue without global cooperation is a prescription for disaster.

  21. prokaryotes says:

    Food insecurity can in part be tied to the Arab Spring. Especially of interest for EU & US officials, in light of the unprecedented drought in europe (Germany had it’s driest spring since records keeping begun and the situation in other european countries was similar this year).
    Dust-Bowlification will greatly push tipping points and accelerate food shortages, states of scarcity.

    Climate Progress reported at the time, here are some takes from the main stream media.

    Failure to act on crop shortages fuelling political instability, experts warn
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/feb/07/crop-shortages-political-instability

    Europe’s dry spring could lead to power blackouts, governments warn
    River levels may cause nuclear reactors to go offline, while dry weather in northern and eastern Europe will raise food prices
    …the UN warned that rising food prices risked riots in developing countries.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/may/31/europe-dry-spring-power-blackouts

    Living Planet: Climate wars
    Doctors partner with soldiers to warn of climate conflictsIn recent years, military planners have begun taking the threat of climate change seriously.
    http://www.ardmediathek.de/ard/servlet/content/3517136?documentId=8533736

    Population growth and the tied Co2 footprints within our current systems, will likely be catastrophically impacted by climate disrupting processes. Hence the trend in population growth is likely to stall or reverse sooner than previously projected.

  22. prokaryotes says:

    What is more? Biotechnology, drought resistance is not a panacea. Because genetical modification of plant genome, and the drought related genes are many magnitude more complex to assess and alter, than to “introduce” a herbicide producing gen into the plant genome.

    On the bottom line is the fact, that plants – no matter how much genetically engineered, do not grow without of water.

    • Artful Dodger says:

      Many plants grow in salt water, of which there is no shortage. The creation of a cereal crop that could be irrigated with sea water would be a game changer, and a possible life-line for Humanity. I fear we will yet need it.

      • Al says:

        What makes you think this is possible?

        • Merrelyn Emery says:

          Al, seaweed is a great crop, has many varieties, and is eaten in many countries. Also there are plants such as salt bush which we used to chew when we were kids in the desert and which is used to keep animals alive for milk and an occasional bit of meat. And I am sure there are plenty I don’t know of, ME

        • Joan Savage says:

          Several crop regions have been salting up from minerals in irrigation water from upstream, not from sea water incursion. There are publications out on developing salt-tolerant crops for California’s Southern Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley, for example.

          In one of the first irrigation systems of the world in ancient Mesopotamia, crops were shifted from salt-intolerant wheat through other crops to more salt-tolerant barley.

          That doesn’t make me complacent.
          As prokaryotes pointed out, it’s not possible to grow crops without water.

          Besides, we don’t all have the kidneys of a marine fish or a desert lizard that can handle high salt content in our food.

      • Wyoming says:

        Artful Dodger,

        A limiting factor in the development and planting of a salt water cereal crop is where the crop could be planted.

        The only suitable locations would be the salt water marches and estuaries of the sea coasts of the world. Many of those are already undergoing severe environmental degradation by being used for other agricultural uses like fish farming and such. To take even more of them and convert them to human food production will exacerbate the problem significantly. On top of that there is going to be a significant impact on those coastal areas due to the constant rise in sea level that is coming. If the sea level rise is as fast as some calculate then it will be a constant fight to create new growing areas as others succumb to the advancing water. There is also the potential impact of severe coastal storms flooding the growing areas and damaging them. Of course these same problems are already baked in for the fish farming industry.

        I do not think it would be possible to irrigate arable land with salt water to grow the salt water cereal crops as there would be an unmanageable problem with concentrating the salt over time due to evaporation. To see where this problem can lead all we have to do is look around the at the large expanses of largely dead soil due to salinization from poor irrigation practices. Salt water tolerant plants does not mean that they will not die if the salt levels are high enough.

        Development of such crops may be useful to some extent, but it is not likely to be of major assistance.

        • prokaryotes says:

          A freshwater algae, but this sounds promising …

          If you’ve heard about duckweed (the pollution-cleaning, climate change-fighting super food) then maybe you’ve also heard of azolla, a family of seven species of edible water-dwelling ferns that grows lightning-fast and is packed full of nutrients. Scientists are now studying azolla’s potential in space agriculture as a super food crop for Mars habitation.

          So what does a super plant taste like? Fascinated by the humble plant but stymied by the lack of actual gastronomical data, Stockholm-based artist Erik Sjödin set out to discover the possibilities in a hybrid art and organic agriculture project called “Super Meal”, which aims to develop a “delicious, nutritious and sustainable Azolla meal, the fast food of the future.”

          Azolla’s incredible ability to double its biomass every couple of days and fix nitrogen has meant that Asian farmers have been already using it alongside their crops as a fertilizer for millennia. At the same time, azolla is a promising candidate as a biofuel alternative and as sustainable food crop.

          Like duckweed, it seems that azolla has vast potential, leading Erik to rightfully characterize azolla as a “green gold mine”:

          In the 70ʼs and 80ʼs renewed interest in Azolla was shown by the demand for a less fossil energy-dependent agricultural technology that came after the 1973 and 1979 oil crisis. Today Azolla is used around the globe as animal fodder and as a biological fertilizer on rice and many other crops. Other more or less explored uses for Azolla are wastewater treatment, control of weeds, algae and mosquitoes, medicine and production of biofuels such as biogas, bioethanol and hydrogen.

          Azolla is also very effective at capturing and fixating CO2. The plant is believed to have had a significant role in reversing a greenhouse effect that had caused the region around the Arctic Ocean to turn into a hot, tropical environment around 49 million years ago. This episode that turned the earth towards itʼs present icehouse state is known as the “Azolla event”. (Also see Mike’s article about azolla being stored as 400 billion barrels of oil in the Artic here)

          Apparently, azolla has a crisp texture, has a mossy fragrance and tastes like lettuce. According to various azolla food experiments around the world, azolla has been featured so far in recipes like salads, Chinese spring rolls, dumplings, azolla “meat”- balls, omelets and burgers. So perhaps we’ll soon see some European additions to the list: Erik’s ongoing scientific and culinary experiments are now being exhibited at Färgfabriken (a center for contemporary art and architecture) and its café in Stockholm, Sweden.
          http://www.treehugger.com/files/2010/07/experimental-recipes-azolla-super-plant-space-food.php

          Also read this

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Azolla_event

  23. dick smith says:

    Wow. Great article. Great reader comments. Keep up the focus on food–because their ain’t no way they can turn that into a wedge issue.

  24. Ron Taylor says:

    Joe, thank God you are hanging tough! I have been depressed by the near total dropout of the NY Times, capped by today’s special section on energy. Reading that, I thought, well, the game is over. “They” are going to pump and burn every last drop of oil, no matter how dirty, no matter what. Why, because it will make money, since the cost of the damage is not factored in. That money buys Congress, and maybe Obama.

  25. BBHY says:

    That is fantastically great Joe!

  26. David B. Benson says:

    JOe Romm — Well done.

  27. Mike Roddy says:

    I really liked your Dust Bowl piece when it came out, Joe, and am glad it’s finding a bigger audience.

    Arizona will be the first state to go down. Summers in the Phoenix area now see daytime highs in the 120f range. A 3C increase means close to 5.4F globally, 7F over land (roughly).

    People drop dead in the high 120’s. Even if they figure out a way to live inside, grow GM crops hydroponically, and genetically engineer freak species protein sources, what kind of life is that?

    Phoenix will not be abandoned, but will be squatted by the desperate, including violent refugees and the criminally insane. They will inhabit abandoned buildings, and prey on passersby. Those who stayed and died or even those who left could not take all their guns with them. It will be Afghanistan with asphalt, and no rules.

    We will have Koch, Fox, Peabody, and Exxon to thank.

    • AlanInAz says:

      I don’t want to minimize the bad prospects for Phoenix however we should be accurate about the current weather. There were no days in Phoenix reaching 120 this year. Most days were between 100-112 with one at 118 and a few about 116. I live in Tucson and this summer was hot but I can’t remember any day that was a scorcher, at least for this area. The monsoon rain was below normal except for September that was way above normal.

      http://www.wunderground.com/history/airport/KPHX/2011/7/26/MonthlyHistory.html#calendar

    • Wyoming says:

      Mike,

      I would in no way want to minimize the harmful effects of increasing temperatures and drought in the southwest. But there is more to this story.

      I have extensive experience in North Africa and the Middle East. I have personally experienced 131 degrees in the shade in Khartoum in the 1980’s. Except for 4-5 hours in the afternoon life went on as usual. Colleagues of mine reported temperatures as high as 140 in the shade in the deep Sahara at the same time. They did struggle for a number of hours in the mid-afternoon. If the humidity is very low these are survivable conditions. If the humidity goes high at extreme temps (120 and above) then survival is dependent on some form of air conditioning for everyone, not just the young, old and weak.

      Growing food in those conditions, should they be persistant, is another matter entirely of course. And the matter of spending huge sums of resources to keep inside living conditions at comfortable levels would, of course, make no sense either.

  28. Steve L says:

    Congrats Joe. I’m curious, though — in previous interglacials warmer than now, were terrestrial climates generally drier or wetter than at present? Is the past (long before the 1930’s) a good analog for where we’re headed, why or why not, and what does the analog suggest?

  29. This is a huge civilization-wrecker. I don’t think people realize what they’re consigning us to. We need to end coal consumption this decade. Oil and nat gas need to go in the 2020s. Otherwise, we are wrecked.

  30. Roger says:

    Interesting how the PDSI map ssems to show the US as much worse off than China. This seems to undermine the theory that the US is in some type of secret game of climate brinksmanship with China. It looks like we’ll have a tougher time than they will.

  31. gus says:

    Normally, Joe, you’re really good about not understating the problem, but here you do. You wrote “levels of aridity comparable to those in the Dust Bowl could stretch from Kansas to California by mid-century.” The map you use, however, shows such levels stretching from the Pacific to about Chesapeake Bay! If that comes to pass, central North America will basically be another Sahara, with the only US places harboring much life being mountain valleys, Alaska and maybe the coasts (what hasn’t been flooded). I can’t see Canada being too happy about getting 300 million refugees ….

    Tucker wrote “it will take a doubling of our food production, according to many experts, to keep pace and that does not seem to be in the cards.” Agreed. But those experts usually don’t question the concept that, if we can address technical food production issues, we SHOULD keep growing. We can’t. Given all the other issues we face, I’d be very surprised to see our population exceeding 5 billion (probably notably less) by 2050, never mind 9B or, the UN’s latest delusion of 15B by 2100. I just hope the pop. decline happens sanely without pushing the Button; that’s the only feasible way we’re going to survive as a species long-term. Continued exponential growth WILL exterminate us.

    Also, have any of you seen the “Climate Extremes and Length of Gestation” study in Envir. Health Perspec.? What’s your thought on that? It seems to hint that, as things get warmer, humans are likely to be born more and more prematurely, with all the developmental issues that entails (but I’d guess probably without the high-tech medical infrastructure we now rely on to save them).

    • Joan Savage says:

      Thanks for the EHP link.

      The abstract correlated high heat&humidity the day before birth to an increase in number of premature births, over a period of five years (2001-2005 inclusive).
      They “estimated a 5-day reduction in average gestational age at delivery after an unusually high heat–humidity index on the day before delivery.”

      I don’t think we can stretch the inference to being born ‘more and more prematurely’ during climate change at this level of information.
      It might be worth comparing the study to premature births in areas that had high heat but not humidity, and to locations where with other stress stimuli for early labor.

  32. Colorado Bob says:

    This is the Dallas/Ft. Worth area :
    Water district braces for North Texas drought crisis

    The North Texas Municipal Water District, which serves hundreds of thousands of North Texans, says it’s preparing for the possibility that it could run out of water.

    The district fears it may not be able to pump from Lake Lavon in two years; that’s the worst-case scenario.

    http://www.wfaa.com/news/local/water-district-prepares-for-drought-crisis-132665443.html

  33. Paul Magnus says:

    Great Stuff.

    Now the NYT has to take you seriously!

  34. Brian Dodge says:

    Soylent Green

  35. Peter Mizla says:

    Dust bowl conditions could stretch from California east to Indiana by mid century.

    Temperatures rising 2 degrees C above PI levels will revert the entire region to what was seen in the mid Pliocene, or perhaps the Miocene.

    The continental US west of the Appalachians, south of the Great lakes, south of NYC along the east coast, further west- to just 50 miles of the Pacific coast could be a very nasty hostile place to live, by 2050.

    The area of the dust bowl in the 30s could see virtually uninhabitable conditions in the 2020’s. Happy upcoming holidays.

  36. Trevor Porter says:

    Excellent piece in Nature Joe!

  37. Spike says:

    The opposite side of the coin – OItaly joins the nations experiencing intense downpours and flooding in the recent weeks.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/oct/26/flash-floods-hit-italy

  38. Spike says:

    Major increases in European drought were also predicted in this paper a few years ago

    “Results: Our projections show pronounced increases in all drought measures in Southern Europe, especially
    around the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, in the second half of the 21st century. They also project strong
    drying in NW Europe including the south of England. The frequency of droughts of between 5 and 12
    months in duration is projected to rise from fewer than 5 events per 50-year period, to greater than 30 in
    southern and central Europe, whilst the number of months of a 50 year period during which droughts in
    excess of 12 months in duration are being experienced is projected to increase from 50 to over 300 (which
    means that year-long drought is projected to occur for more than 50% of the time) in the worst affected parts
    of Southern Europe if no emission reduction occurs.”

    http://iopscience.iop.org/1755-1315/6/29/292012/pdf/1755-1315_6_29_292012.pdf