Sea Ice Loss, Human Warming Places Earth Under Ongoing Fire of Severe Weather Events Through Early 2014, Likelihood of Extremes For Some Regions Increases by 500%

Heat overburden at the roof of our world. It’s a dangerous signal that the first, worst effects of human-caused climate change are starting to ramp up. And it’s a signal we are receiving now. A strong message coinciding with a world-wide barrage of some of the worst January and February weather extremes ever experienced in human reckoning.

An Ongoing Arctic Heat Amplification

Ever since December, the Arctic has been experiencing what could well be called a heat wave during winter-time. Average temperatures have ranged between 2 and 7 degrees Celsius above normal winter time readings (1979-2000) over the entire Arctic basin. Local readings frequently exceed 20 degrees Celsius above average over large zones that shift and swell, circulating in a great cloud of abnormal warmth around the roof of the world.

Today is no different.

Global Temp amomaly March 4

(Global Temperature Anomaly on March 4, 2014 showing a warmer than normal world sitting beneath an ominously hot Arctic. Image source: University of Maine.)

Average temperatures for the entire Arctic are 4.16 degrees Celsius above the, already warmer than normal, 1979 to 2000 base line, putting these readings in a range about 6 degrees Celsius above Arctic temperatures during the 1880s. When compared to global average warming of about .8 C above 1880s norms, this is an extreme heat departure that places the Arctic region well out of balance with both its traditional climate and with global climate at large.

Local large hot zones with temperatures ranging between 10 and 20 degrees Celsius above average appear east of Svalbard, in the Arctic Ocean north of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, and over a broad swath of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. These zones of warmth are as odd as they are somewhat horrific, creating regions where temperatures are higher than they would otherwise be in April or, in some cases, late May.

Sea Ice Melt Over a Warming Arctic Ocean

This ongoing condition of extreme Arctic heat is a symptom of overall Arctic amplification set off by a number of strong feedbacks now underway. These include sea ice measures that are currently at or near record low values (February saw new record lows in both extent and area measures) as well as a large and growing local emission of greenhouse gasses from polar stores long locked away by the boreal cold. Arctic geography also contributes to the problem as a thinning layer of sea ice rests atop an ocean that is swiftly soaking up the heat resulting from human warming.

During winter time, the combination of thin sea ice, warm ocean, and higher concentrations of greenhouse gasses generates excess warmth over and near the Arctic Ocean basin. The warmer waters, having trapped solar heat all summer long, now vent the warmth into the polar atmosphere through the sparse, cracked, and greatly diminished sea ice. And while this increasing heat imbalance has been shown to be lengthening the melt season by 5 days per decade, it is also stretching its influence well into winter time as ocean heat now continually bleeds through a thinning and ever more perforated layer of sea ice.

Other effects include an overburden of greenhouse gasses trapping long wave radiation to a greater extent in the polar zone while the already warmer than usual condition creates weaknesses in the Jet Stream that generate large atmospheric waves. The south-north protrusions of these waves invade far into the Arctic Ocean basin over Svalbard and Alaska, transporting yet more heat into the Arctic from lower latitudes.

The net effect is the extraordinary Arctic warming we are now seeing.

Earth Under Continuous Fire of Extreme Weather

This rapidly increasing warmth at the Arctic pole generates a variety of weather instabilities that ripple on through the Northern Hemisphere. Meanwhile, the ongoing impacts of equatorial warming or such warming in concert with the far-flung effects of polar amplification and an increase in the hydrological cycle of about 6% are causing a number of extraordinary events over the Southern Hemisphere.

In short, the barrage of extreme weather is now entirely global in nature. A brutal if amazing phenomena directly associated with a human-heated climate system.

Extreme weather map

(Map of extreme weather events throughout the world from January 1 through February 14. Note that it is now difficult to find a region that is currently not experiencing exceptional weather. Image source: Japanese Meteorological Agency.)

Over the western US, Canada, and Alaska, a Jet Stream ridge that has persisted for a year has generated both abnormally warm conditions for this region, with Alaska experiencing its third hottest January on record, and an extreme drought for California that is among the worst in its history. This drought is now poised to push US food prices up by between 10-15 percent as California officials are forced to cut off water flows to farmers.

Only the most powerful of storm systems are able to penetrate the ridge. And the result, for the US West Coast, is a condition that either includes drought or heavy precipitation and flooding events. A condition that became plainly apparent as winter storm Titan dumped as much as 5 inches of rainfall over drought-stricken southern California, setting off landslides and flash floods that sent enormous waves of water and topsoil rushing down roads and gullies alike. And though the storms came, the drought still remains.

Added to the list of extremes for the Western US are a number of early starts and/or late ends to fire seasons with California, Arizona and New Mexico all experiencing wildfires during the period of December through February.

Moving east, we encounter the down-sloping trough that is the flip side of the ridge bringing warmth and drought to deluge conditions to the west. So, for the Eastern and Central United States, we see the transport of chill air down from the Arctic Ocean, over Canada and deep into a zone from The Dakotas to Texas to Maine. As a result, we have seen winter storm after winter storm surge down into these regions, dumping snow, ice, and heavy rain while occasionally coming into conflict with Gulf warmth and moisture to spark tornadoes and thunderstorms over snow-covered regions.

One cannot separate the warm air invasion over Alaska and the heat radiating out of the perforated sea ice from the numerous polar vortex collapse events that have led to this extreme winter weather over Central and Eastern parts of the US. And so, it is also impossible to ignore the warping and deleterious impacts of human-caused climate change on the world’s weather.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), in its latest extreme weather assessment notes:

In the winter a deep reservoir of cold air becomes established through the atmosphere over the Arctic because of the lack of sunlight. This is usually held over high latitudes by the Jet Stream, a fast moving band of air 10 km up in the atmosphere which drives weather. This year, a “kink” in the jet stream allowed the reservoir of cold air to move southwards across the USA. A blocking pattern meant it was locked into place, keeping severe weather systems over much of the Eastern United States extending down to northeast Mexico.

This ‘kink’ and related blocking pattern the WMO mentions is also the leading edge of the advance of cold Arctic air over the North Atlantic which combined with ocean heat and moisture to aim intense storms at Western Europe. In essence, a powerful planetary wave or Rossby Wave type feature:

Planetary Wave

(The Northern Hemisphere Jet Stream takes on Planetary Wave pattern with an extreme high amplitude ridge over the Western US, Canada, Alaska and the Beaufort Sea and a deep, cold trough digging into the Eastern US and spreading out over the North Atlantic on February 26th. Image source: University of Washington.)

For as we look yet further East we come to a North Atlantic Ocean that has been little more than the barrel of a gun firing a two and a half month long barrage of storms at England and Western Europe. For the Jet Stream, at this point, is intensified by Arctic air fleeing from a warming north coming into contact with the also warming waters of the North Atlantic. In this region, the planetary wave feature developed with severe and lasting consequences for England, France, Portugal and Venice.

The upshot was the wettest period in over 250 years for England as well as the windiest period since at least the 1960s. During February, two of these storms generated 80-100 mph winds and waves off Ireland and the UK that were the highest ever recorded for this region. Meanwhile, the powerful storm surges associated with these storms reshaped the English coastline, uncovered bombs dropped during World War II and unearthed the stumps of an ancient forest that spread from England to France before it was buried in the floods of glacial melt at the end of the last ice age. The battering continues through early March with England suffering losses in excess of 1 billion dollars.

The storms ripping across the Atlantic also resulted in the loss of over 21,000 sea birds and have heavily impacted France, Spain and Portugal with record rains, gales and tidal flooding. During early February, a series of gales also drove high tides along the coast of Italy and spurred flooding in Venice.

As storms slammed into coastal western Europe, strange fires were also burning along Arctic shores as a very dry and windy winter sparked blazes along the coastlines of Norway. These fires, some of the worst in Norway’s history, occurred during January and February, months that have never seen wildfires before. So the strange story of flood and fire that tends to come with climate change may seem yet more radical and extreme when we include what has happened over this section of Europe during 2014.

By the time we enter Eastern Europe, Turkey, Jordan, Israel and Russia we again encounter an up-slope in the Jet Stream along with related periods of heat and drought. Record highs were set throughout a zone from Germany to Slovenia to Russia. Germany experienced January temperatures that were 2.8 degrees Celsius above the 20th Century average while Russia experienced heat anomalies approaching 10 degrees Celsius hotter than normal that persisted for up to a week in length. In Turkey, farmers frantically drilled into drying lake-beds for water as both warmer and drier than normal conditions combined with ground water depletion to generate severe agricultural stress.

But the strain for Israel, which experienced lowest ever winter rainfalls and one of the worst droughts in its history, was far worse. According to the Israeli Water Agency’s March 4 Statement, water supplies across the country were now at record low levels:

“Such low supply during this period has never before been documented and is unprecedented in Water Authority records,” the agency said. “The negative records broken in February are much more dramatic and significant than those of January.”

Drought-stressed Jordan has also been forced to ration water supplies, with rainfall levels now only 34 percent of that received during a typical January and February.

Abnormal warmth and drought also extended into China as most parts of the ancient empire received between 50-80 percent below average rainfall. Temperatures averaged over the entire country were the warmest seen since at least 1961. The warmth and dryness resulted in record low river and lake levels across the country with China’s largest lake turning into a sea of cracked mud and grasses.

In Singapore and nearby Malaysia, a two month-long heatwave is now among the worst ever recorded for this region. The situation has been worsened as nearby forest fires have combined with industrial pollution to produce a kind of all-encompassing smog. A nasty brew that cut visibility in the region to less than one kilometer.

Smoke Smog Singapore Maylaysia

(Smoke and smog from fires and industrial activity visible over Singapore and Malaysia. Image source: Lance-Modis.)

One would think that, with major heat anomalies occurring over the Arctic, the far removed Southern Hemisphere would be somehow insulated from impacts. But whether from far-reaching Arctic influence or simply from other factors related to human-caused climate change, austral regions were among the hardest hit by the, now global, spate of extreme weather events.

Australia’s record 2013 heatwave didn’t miss a beat as a hottest ever summer continued on through January and February. A period in the middle of January showed exceptionally severe high temperatures with World Meteorological Agency reports noting:

One of the most significant multi-day heatwaves on record affected southeast Australia over the period from 13 to 18 January 2014. The major area affected by the heatwave consisted of Victoria, Tasmania (particularly the western half), southern New South Wales away from the coast, and the southern half of South Australia. Over most parts of this region, it ranked alongside the heatwaves of January-February 2009, January 1939 and (from the limited information available) January 1908 as the most significant multi-day heatwaves on record.

A number of site records were set during the summer, including:

• Melbourne had seven 40ºC days; annual average is one day

• Adelaide had 11 days of 42ºC or above; annual average is one day

• Canberra had 19 days of 35ºC or above; annual average is 5.4 days

While Australia was sweltering under its hottest summer on record, south-central Brazil was suffering its worst-ever drought. By mid February, Brazil had been forced to ration water in over 140 of its cities. The result is that neighborhoods in some of Brazil’s largest cities only receive water once every three days. During this, extraordinarily intense, period of heat and dryness, untold damage was done to Brazil’s crops. But, by early March, a doubling of prices for coffee coming out of Brazil gave some scope to the damage. January was also Brazil’s hottest on record and the combination of extreme heat and dryness pushed the nation’s water reservoirs for southeastern and west-central regions to below 41 percent of capacity driving utility water storage levels to a critically low 19 percent.

In near mirror to the US weather flip-flop, northern Brazil experienced exceptionally heavy rainfall, apparently gaining back the lion’s share of moisture lost in the south and stalling a two year drought affecting north-eastern regions.

In combination, these crazy weather extremes are thought to have done nearly $5 billion in damages to Brazil’s crops so far this year, on top of $9 billion in losses last year. Losses run the gambit from coffee to beef, soy, citrus, and sugarcane. It is worth noting that Brazil is the largest producer of all these foodstuffs with the one exception being soy.

The same drought impacting Brazil also damaged crops in Paraguay and Argentina with soybeans among the hardest hit.

Given the ongoing extreme weather impacts, it is worth noting that world soybean prices are now up by more than 9 percent over the 2012-2013 period with almost all foodstuffs seeing price increases in the global marketplace. The UN FAO food index remained over 200 through late January, a dangerously high indicator that shows numerous countries having difficulty supplying affordable food to their populations.

Extremes Cover the Globe

The above list does little justice to the depth and scope of extremes experienced, merely serving to highlight some of the most notable or severe instances. In general, it could well be said that the world climate crisis is rapidly turning into a world severe weather crisis. January and February are usually rather calm months for the globe, weather-wise. So the fact that we are seeing record storms, rainfall, snowfall, floods, fires, droughts, winds, and heatwaves in every corner of the globe during what should be a relatively mild period is cause for serious concern.

And many scientists are taking notice. For example, Omar Baddour, Chief of the WMO’s data division observes an amazing ramping up of extreme weather events worldwide, citing preliminary model assessments in an interview with The Guardian, he notes:

“We need more time to assess whether this is unusual [on a global level] but if you look at the events in individual regions, like the heatwave in Australia or the cold in the US, it looks very unusual indeed. Next month we will publish a major report showing the likelihood of extreme heatwaves is increased 500% [with climate change].”

The shadow climate change casts has grown very long and there is little that has not now been touched by it. But, sadly and unfortunately, even under a regime of full mitigation and adaptation, the worst effects are yet to come. If we are wise, we will do our best to mitigate as much as we can and work together to adapt to the rest.

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

Links:

The World Meteorological Organization

University of Maine

University of Washington

Japan Meteorological Agency

Lance-Modis

UK Endures Endless Barrage of Storms

Ice-free Season Getting Longer by Five Days Per Decade

Mangled Jet Stream Sparks Drought, Winter Wildfires in California

For Arizona and New Mexico, Climate Change and a Mangled Jet Stream Means Fire Season Now Starts in February

World Food Security in the Cross Hairs of Human-Caused Climate Change

Arctic Wildfires in Winter

California Storms Didn’t End Drought

The Biggest Disaster You’ve Never Heard of

Haze Shrouds Malaysia

Brazil Rations Water in Over 140 Cities

World Begins 2014 With Unusual Number of Extreme Weather Events

Brazil Loses Billions as Crops Reduced By Wacky Weather

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63 Comments

  1. I can’t help but feel that the conditions in the Arctic are setting up nicely for another remarkable (but predictable) melt record (and possibly nearly total loss) later this year. I suspect this year has the potential to be rather interesting weather wise – but instinctively – if things play out as one suspects they could – next year will be relatively devastating.

    The reason I say that is that the effects of the excess heat in the Arctic are felt most strongly in the fall and spring – and whatever happens up there this year therefore has the bulk of impact at the end of this year into the earlier portion of next year.

    If food prices should rise due to ongoing constraints (supply vs demand) and a reasonable expectation of bad weather, we will start to see more large scale widespread social disorder filtering through next year (it also remains to be seen how the Ukraine situation will resolve and how much economic damage will be done to Europe and Russia in the process – the economic aspect being an important driver of social stress in itself).

    I believe the opportunity to avoid all this effectively expired several decades ago, but in terms of what most of us still currently experience as normality I think it’s fair to say –

    Time is running out.

    Reply
    • This is the real long emergency. Unfortunately, it appears we’ll have a chance to see to what degree humans happen to be resilient or fragile, compassionate or brutal.

      We still have choices. But they grow more narrow and limited, it seems now, with each passing season.

      Reply
      • I like that …. “the real long emergency” –too true. There are no alternatives to a stable climate.

        Reply
      • mikkel

         /  March 5, 2014

        Christchurch is facing consequences for its poor (and common) planning. The flooding is really bad in areas that also had very bad earthquake damage — both caused by building on top of drained wetlands. The earthquake caused liquefaction and made the ground sink, which furthered the flooding. Of course, like New Orleans, this area was the poorer part of the city and now there is a huge socioeconomic angle to the rebuild.

        I fear that a significant portion of cities will eventually need to be abandoned due to excessive cost of reacting to “natural” disasters. There was talk of reverting most of eastern Christchurch back to wetland/flood barrier but I haven’t heard if that is going to actually happen.

        Unfortunately the immediate response has been to build massive American style subdivisions on more solid ground, leading to soaring energy needs and much more inequality (the homes are priced at $450-$500k!). That’s a major reason why my partner and I moved from Christchurch a bit over a year ago.

        Reply
      • I think even a casual glance at history and how things have played out in socially stressed situations in the past has substantial predictive power for what will happen – we are intrinsically the same animals as then – and the foreseeable future is a rather dark place.

        While we still have choices, the time horizon and the scope of those choices is ever dwindling as you note. Technically the starving family in Ethiopia that decides to eat their seeds to survive today at the risk of being unable to grow food next year has a choice – and makes it. As our horizons shrink the ambition and scope of our choices thus diminishes too. I think most of us (and hence our collective behaviour at the macroscopic level) are driven largely by short term evolutionary imperatives which are unsuited to longer term and bigger picture challenges. Thus we fail to act appropriately.

        On a positive note though, we do still have choices – and most of us still have far have more options than whether we eat our seeds or not. Our most important choice is not any given one but rather that we do take a choice, rather than continuing to squander the opportunity to do so. If enough people back enough different horses – at least one will statistically win through (wherever you decide to draw your battle lines).

        Too many people look to the collective – at the emergent behaviour of their society – forgetting that this is the product of individuals and there can be no new emergent paradigm if individuals do not forge it.

        Maybe therefore the first choice (and it is really a sequence of little morsels of choices, not a giant unpalatable lump) for most people is simply to stop mindlessly following the herd over the cliff?

        The direction of history is changed by those who forge a new path – not so much by those blindly trampling along it behind them.

        Reply
        • The individual, working alone, and failing to take part in a larger action, has only a very few options at this point. Coordinated action, either inspired by leadership or consensus, has more leverage to influence outcomes.

          Would you rather face a growing tide of troubles alone and without aid? Or would you rather be with a group of people who share your concerns and have your back? If someone chooses the former, then they are about to receive a lesson in the mythology of supermen.

        • If there is nobody to work with you, then what though? Do you just give up in the absence of such support or do you persevere regardless?

        • Well, I guess then you have to go it alone. Always better if you can find at least one buddy/friend/spouse to watch your back.

        • With the important caveat that they must be the right person for the job – and sometimes there just aren’t many “right people”. The wrong person can rapidly become an additional liability and problem – rather than a source of support.

        • All too true! It can be tough to find someone helpful to work with. But it’s well worth the effort.

        • “The wrong person can rapidly become an additional liability and problem – rather than a source of support.” This is a substantial problem, competent people getting played by narcissists and space cadets. This culture encourages such behaviors, alas.

        • I honestly can’t stand gamesmanship. Pretty much wrecks everything.

      • mikkel

         /  March 5, 2014

        Yup, this is why my partner and I have started doing things that are in our power (not relying on convincing many people in order to get started) but can also be copied.

        We need to get better heating and decided that doing anything other than a rocket thermal mass heater made no sense. The problem is that you can’t get a permit for them because they haven’t been proven to be safe. I contacted a local councilor that is environmentally oriented and informed her she was going to walk me through the process and get what is needed so the building people would sign off. I met with her and a building guy, and the first thing he said was, “I’ve never heard of these but was looking at the concept and it’s brilliant.”

        Turned out she knows people with them and so she knows how great it is. She put me in touch with some engineering students and they are taking the lead to do all the design and documents to satisfy the requirements. Within a year we should have the bureaucracy worked out and then de facto, anyone in New Zealand will be able to build one.

        It just took asking and putting up with some bureaucratic hassle. Then the next step is going to go around and build them for people en mass. I figure we can have it take off quite quickly once a few are built.

        This is why I moved from the US. There the standards are prescriptive and we’d have had to make an entirely new standard that would have cost millions and had political headaches.

        Reply
        • Highly efficient wood burning has serious hurdles in the US? Why is it that we seem to over-regulate everything that helps while under-regulating the things that are bound to hurt? This is what I mean by captive consumer…

      • mikkel

         /  March 5, 2014

        Your framing is too specific. Everything that has powerful interest groups is regulated against new participants and under regulated towards the interest group. Entirely new industries are not regulated until they have oligarchy status and then they are quickly regulated in the same fashion.

        I know someone that designed a new type of hoop house http://www.tunnelvisionhoops.com/

        In order to start installing them, they had to get someone that was registered as a full construction worker and submit building plans. There was no distinguishing between some metal tubing and plastic vs. a house or commercial greenhouse. This nearly derailed their whole company.

        Reply
  2. We’re right in the middle of the event here in Wellington – less extreme than Christchurch, which by the way, last week experienced a tornado – something that NEVER happened in the era of stable climate when I was growing up there. Until now NZ seems to have experienced some of the most equitable weather on the planet and escaped the heat that Australia has been experiencing. Now I’ve learned to look at the jet stream I can see why.

    I am so grateful for this little community of people “with little dust in their eyes”

    Reply
    • Ah, well said. I like that:

      “People with little dust in their eyes.”

      A tornado? Goodness. Now that’s weather instability for you…

      Reply
  3. appaling

     /  March 5, 2014

    When is an emergency not an emergency? The word implies a sudden, major deviation from “normal” that requires more or less immediate action to counter and return the balance. For example, if someone collapses on the street, they will need immediate medical attention to get back to normal.

    However, if the climate and the effects on the weather will not only continue, but get worse, when is it no longer an emergency but instead a new situation to adapt to? If California’s drought continue for decades (hopefully not but not unlikely), can they live in a state of “permanent emergency”? At some point the “emergency” becomes “adaptation”.

    So, if 2013/1014 marks the start of recurring extreme and unusual (unprecedented) weather events, how will be able to adapt and at what cost? As more money is being used to counter all disasters, the global economy will take a major hit.

    “May you live in interesting times” – (fake) Chinese curse.

    Interesting indeed…

    Reply
    • When nature goes to war with us it’s an emergency. If it lasts for one year, it’s a one year emergency. If it lasts for ten thousand years it’s an age of darkness. Something like Fimbul Winter, only much worse.

      Reply
      • … and on the side of hot.

        Reply
      • I’ve never heard or read anyone say that “climate change is the real ‘long emergency'”. I thought that was a brilliant play on Kunstler’s long emergency of peak oil and a much more apt use of the term. Ten thousand years indeed!

        Reply
        • Cheers Mike! I’ve enjoyed Kunstler’s work and writing but had always felt fossil energy depletion would be minor compared to climate impacts. I’d partly wished the damn things would peak and force us to make the hard choices sooner, so as to avoid the real crisis. One man’s peak oil/coal/gas is another’s hope for a halfway decent climate future and a dodge to wrecked weather then ecological meltdown. No such luck.

      • By the way, Kunstler is pretty well ignorant of the facts on climate change.

        Reply
      • Actually, it’s probably going to last a lot longer than ten thousand years.

        I don’t think it automatically has to be an indefinite age of darkness though – at least – not for ten thousand years. If even small civilisation seeds can make it, that’s more than enough time for them to grow into something bigger again – and they will have no choice but to do so in the context of the new planet.

        As I see it the challenge is to make them grow within a paradigm that gives our species a meaningful future and a sustainable foundation. That’s preferable to repetitive iterations of ever smaller collapses where we repeat the mistakes of our ancestors with an ever dwindling resource base (and prospects) each time.

        Reply
      • appaling

         /  March 5, 2014

        I guess the deniers today can take comfort in the fact they will probably not be maligned and cursed by coming generations: our descendants will be far to busy surviving to worry about history, probably even learning to read may be a rare luxury…

        Dark ages indeed.

        Much has been written about tipping points, but there is one seldom mentioned. So far we can (theoretically) act in order to limit the coming damage, but the longer we wait we run the risk of passing a political/socioeconomic tipping point: we will lose the ability choose as we start seeing climate refugees and significant political instability or breakdown in many parts of the world, by then we will completely have lost control over the situation.

        Reply
  4. I have been following the Climate Reanalyzer and watching temperature anomalies in the northern hemisphere and the incredible 44,000 heat wave in the Arctic – 20C above normal at the North Pole. No one seems to notice – only that they’re freezing their arses off in the mid-latitudes. I guess its called cognitive dissonance.

    “People with little dust in their eyes.” comes from the Buddha to describe those capable of enlightenment.

    The floods in Christchurch were preceded by 100 mph winds yesterday and the tornado a couple of days before that.

    Reply
  5. The term “the long emergency”, I believe, first came from James Howard Kunstler from his eponymous book – to describe the collapse of society as a result of energy decline. I guess he’s added catastrophic climate change to his list!

    Reply
  6. Andy

     /  March 5, 2014

    This summer and beyond should prove interesting. 2015 in Egypt and other net food importers will be restive. As we passed the break-even point on renewable consumables (ie: food, water, firewood ) in the 1970’s, and are now depleting the planet at a150% per annum rate, we as a species have rendered ourselves quite vulnerable.

    All it takes is one bad year.

    Global reserves of food stocks (wheat, corn, soy) are very low and have become JIT (just in time) items. I think it was a couple of years ago when India, Russia and others put the clamps onto exports of rice, wheat and other food commodities. This generated the “arab spring”. It was hungry people, not some idealistic desire for freedoms, they just wanted to eat.

    With the weather cavorting about as it is, we look to be susceptible to reduced yields this year. Where ever that occurs, look to who buys it. Then push the marker out 6 to 18 months (depending on stored commodities). Australian wheat is hit with heat, who buys it in the tonnage? Brazilian Soy is now hit due to drought, look to china for the social impact. This summer watch US Corn (impacts china, EU), US/Cdn wheat (impacts EU/Asia/Mid East), Rice from California/Asia (impacts many regions), Russian Wheat (impacts Asia/EU/Mid East). The list goes on.

    Our food system for 7.1 billion people is truly quite tenuous. Mitigation/Adaption takes time, a lot longer than a hungry person is willing wait.

    Reply
    • We’ve had 40 or so years of making all the wrong choices. You don’t just skate away from that without consequences…

      US farming faces a drought threat in the west, flood threat in the east. If El Niño turns up, we have a potential for major drought/fire in Russia. It looks like most zones face ablation to yields due to some form of extreme. The response has been to plant more land, which just draws down the resource base faster.

      7.1 billion wouldn’t be so bad if everyone weren’t hell bent on eating meat and owning two cars per household. But with practically everything pointing in the wrong direction I feel guilty not beating the mitigation/adaptation drum.

      If only we had listened back in the 70s and managed to peak population at 6 billion all while establishing the tools needed for sustainability. Alas for the things we chose not to do.

      Reply
      • I daresay you’ll be on the mitigation/adaptation drum soon enough – it won’t be a lot longer before it’s clearly the only rational place to be…

        Even now I think most people are clinging to vague under evaluated hopes for some sort of magic transformation or solution (note AMEG and geoengineering) – yet what is happening today must be kept in the context of decades of committed further warming from existing emissions even if we totally stopped emissions instantly (we are of course continuing to accelerate in the wrong direction as we all know), and even without really taking into account natural feedback contributions (not to mention a committed significant future spike in warming from losing the sulphate aerosols in industrial pollution).

        Maybe it’s easier to think adaptation/mitigation if you’re younger? It means you come into the picture later – and over time the gap between what we would need to do and have been doing has gradually widened. At one point it would have seemed rationally possible to jump that gap – and I think many older people have got used to the notion it is a gap that can be jumped. Come along to it later (as, say a person born in the 80s or later) – and it looks too far to jump.

        Also though I find a lot of older people are depressingly happy to accept the notion of “not in my lifetime”. Once you’re young enough though – you can’t realistically hope to be dead before it happens and to leave all the suffering and responsibility to those to come later.

        Again – you are then forced to confront the question.

        I wish more younger people had a more constructive response than “we’re screwed and can’t do anything about it”. Defeat is only guaranteed by defeatism and failure to fight – and it’s cliched (but true) – the future (such as it may be) belongs to the young.

        Reply
    • Look to China – a few years ago they started to move past being able to produce enough food for themselves, and they’re quite capable of shaking the world in their own right.

      Reply
  7. This news just came in: U.S. House passes bipartisan bill to avert flood insurance premium increases which would have reflected the true (and growing) costs of flood risk to commercial and residential property. Economic interests (real estate, banking, and construction industries) lobbied hard for the bill. See: http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/03/05/us-usa-flood-congress-idUKBREA2400120140305

    No one should be happy about high insurance premiums, but this bill looks to sweep the climate change monster under the proverbial rug. How can the American public come to terms with this climate reality if its politicians play hide-and-seek?

    Reply
    • Hmm. So they are subsidizing the risk? Reminds me too much of the financial crisis.

      This is the opposite of adaptation. If we were on the Titanic, they’d be lighting the second boiler.

      Reply
  8. Tom

     /  March 5, 2014

    Another great, informative post, Robert, supported, as usual, by great comments and links from your astute readers.

    I know we’re not all on the same page with regard to climate change and what’s coming at us, but thinking that there’s “something to do” about it is what got us into this mess. Since the Industrial Revolution (actually before that) humanity tinkered with our biosphere, surpassing natural limits via chemistry (think Big Ag) and engineering (like Fukushima and many dams) without regard for the consequences (then we hear “who knew?” when catastrophes result). It’s not quitting or giving up, as RE over at the Doomstead Diner puts it, to accept the fact that we blew our one chance to get it right in favor of living large (greed) by what ever means necessary. No geo-engineering project is going to magically return the climate to a stable condition, or stop the methane from bubbling out of the peat, permafrost and Arctic sea, nor will it put the Pine Island Glacier back where it sat for millennia or bring back the species we’ve driven to extinction along the way. Well, now it’s time to pay the piper for our grand little adventure.

    All we can do now is localized adaptation – and that’s where the action will come – by necessity. Few young people are going to give up and just die without trying to adapt to conditions, but when those conditions make it impossible to find potable water or to grow crops, it’s pretty clear that society will unravel rather quickly.

    Reply
  9. Andy

     /  March 5, 2014

    “US farming faces a drought threat in the west…”

    This is a fact that has been underway for some time. It is one example. I have driven back and forth between Southern California and Denver to see in laws for over 20 years. I’ve watched this unfurl along a portion of the Colorado River during that time.

    20 years ago, in August there was significant snow pack at Eisenhower tunnel and around it to lower elevations. The Colorado River had a decent flow through the canyons and Grand Junction.

    Over the years, this snow pack has diminished, noticeable every couple of years. It is now gone. August snow pack? Non existent. Now follow the Colorado River. At Grand Junction, it is a trickle in summer. I would call it a stream, not a river. It feeds Lake Powell and Lake Mead. They are depleting as we are using them at a net deficit. Lake Mead is approximately 20 feet from shutting down the turbines. ~24 feet from exposing intake #1 for Las Vegas water supply. It contains water allotment which belongs to Mexico per treaties.
    When Mexico says “send our water down”, what will we do? All users downstream should worry including ~7 million people in the Pheonix metro area.

    Here in California, the San Joaquin valley is facing reduced crop planting, we’ve all seen it in the news. What the news does not touch on is the Imperial Valley to the south. We are told “all is ok, California can still make food”. This is due to the Imperial Valley still up and running full blast. They have 12 months of water stores, thus “damn the torpedo’s full steam ahead”.

    So if this drought continues, what occurs in the US in 14 to 16 months?

    With the ranch lands depleted, cattle stocks are below what is needed for the food chain, we will see elevated beef & pork prices this year. A good chunk of the pork will be heading to china due to recent large producer purchases.

    Almonds, Walnuts, Avocado and other water intensive trees will be closing up shop this summer. In the US the areas where they are used will get more expensive, substitute and/or cease.

    Hay, Alfalfa are being loaded up and shipped out to Asia. They get it, they understand. Our producer that depend on these are reducing herds.

    Brazil’s depleted Soy production? US Soy will go on the market to other countries. If US soy suffers, then it gets tougher for all. Same with corn.

    If our corn has a bad crop, then our feed for chickens, herds and other sections of the food assembly line suffer. All of these users pass along costs be it chicken wings or corn syrup.

    We are getting close to the vulnerable here seeing impact this year, certainly by next.

    Reply
    • 20 years of mounting stresses and, according to most model projections, in ten years the US Southwest looks like parts of Africa and the ME. If it’s not this drought, then likely the next, and almost certainly the one after. In 30 years it might be just as easy to farm in Saudi Arabia or on the moon.

      Reply
      • Andy

         /  March 5, 2014

        A strong El Nino this fall can delay this for a year. The sierras would capture snow in the 14/15 winter. However, the runoff would be quicker than the historical average. Winter storm run off generally winds up in the ocean ( coastal side of the Sierras ), it can do some surface replenishment east of the sierras.

        The downside to this is the declarations that all is well, drought is over, we now have snow pack, turn those sprinklers back on full blast.

        Where in reality we have kicked the can down the road 12 to 24 months. As the snow pack depletes quicker incrementally, we actually suffer as we do not look past our nose and do not take into account that an El Nino is not a seasonal monsoon, but rather a one-off.

        Either way, we are painted into a corner in the SW. Either in 12-16 months, or 36-48 months depending on El Nino.

        Cheesy Analogy: Very similar to loading up on personal debt because “we can afford the payments”, not taking into account that we are now spending our income at 100%. …And then the car broke, the water heater is on the fritz, property taxes went up, gas is more expensive et al. Now we don’t open those bills, we just toss them in a pile and ignore the phone calls from creditors.

        Speaking of Saudi, have you seen what they did with their Aquifer? 90 cubic miles of water left by the last ice age, 90% has been pumped out to water the desert and create farms, that are now drying up. Aquifer empty, farming experiment in the desert coming to conclusion. Fresh water gone.

        Look up : “saudi aquifer depletion”

        Reply
        • Oh, I saw the ring shaped farms expand and then slowly diminish. Great satellite/aerial shots:

          http://www.panoramio.com/photo/27314257

          Fossil water suffers a depletion curve in the same manner as fossil fuel. Just as unsustainable, but at least its use doesn’t have a lasting deleterious impact to the climate…

  10. Andy

     /  March 5, 2014

    One big item I have taken away from this winters information regarding the reordering of weather patterns.

    Such as the shift of precipitation from the Murry Basin watershed in Australia to the north, rivers will reduce / deplete / disappear and new watersheds will develop. Agriculture, commerce, habitation which has a tendency to evolve around watersheds and rivers will need to move ( high populations, high dependency ).

    If this occurs within a country ( ie: Australia ), it is a logistical nightmare and there are a myriad of fall outs. What happens when a watershed moves from country A to country B?

    We are now looking down that gun barrel, and it may not be a distant prospect. If this shift holds for perhaps 36 months then an existing watershed will suffer depletion to its ground water feed to the tributaries. The new locale will see flooding as water channels have not developed to the point of supporting the water load. It can not be used as nature has not carved out a system yet.

    And if the new watershed is in your country now, not mine I would like it back. I may want to take it back. My population would certainly like to use it regardless of what occurs.

    Reply
    • I am wondering how much of the political tension surrounding Ukraine is currently based on it status as a grain exporter?

      Water and food are the new oil.

      Reply
  11. This is the only blog I follow with comments that are worth reading in detail.

    This article by Chris Hedges discusses, among other things -like academic freedom- Avner Offer’s economic studies of how rationing has worked in the past. While I am not optimistic that there is much to be done to avert cataclysm, as mentioned above, we seem to be at least 40 years behind the curve, there might be a possibility of dealing with it compassionately. Offer’s ideas suggest a method that could work: http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/suffering_well_you_deserve_it_20140302

    Reply
    • Well, there’s choosing to ration in order to avoid worse harm down the road and I think this would be wise, especially if it involved an energy switch. There’s individual rationing out of conscientious or moral imperative (vegan, bikes not cars, less children, lowered resource use etc). And then there’s involuntary rationing once crisis points are hit — as what’s happening in Brazil, California and other places.

      As for the blog — if it’s honest discussion, problem solving, information sharing, and talking on topics of individual knowledge expertise, it’s an honor and a pleasure to facilitate. In any case, it’s great to get a positive discussion going, even if the subjects are tough.

      Reply
  12. Mark Archambault

     /  March 5, 2014

    What has happened to Joe Romm’s Climate Progress blog? Check out the comments in this article!
    http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/03/04/3360731/chipotle-guacamole-crisis/
    Looks like Koch Brothers funded trolls are out in force. I dare one of them to step into this blog!

    Today’s issue also has a great article on the public health impacts of climate change:

    http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/03/05/3332271/state-health-climate-change/

    Reply
    • Oh, I get them. I just don’t let them in the gates. If one does make it through, swiftly banned/filtered.

      Reply
    • Mark Archambault

       /  March 5, 2014

      Joe Romm’s Climateprogress site is being ‘troll bombed’. As of 3:40 pm the first story I link to above had 1,219 comments, the majority being deniers. The depth of ignorance and mean-spiritedness displayed by the trollers is alarming.

      To think that a good portion of US citizens think this way bodes very badly for us taking the needed actions to reduce emissions in time to avoid 4 – 6 C of warming this century and more beyond once the Earth system feedbacks go into overdrive.

      If anyone wants to sign up for a righteous battle and has a Facebook, Yahoo, AOL or Hotmail account, the forces of good could sure use some help over there. Slay them (figuratively) with Manjushri’s sword of wisdom!

      Reply
      • My bet is the troll brigade is, somehow, an artifice. Either paid commenters or robots. I’ve seen this happen many times before and, in my view, it’s not a good measure of public opinion. If you look closely, the same arguments are endlessly re-circulated.

        Reply
      • Mark Archambault

         /  March 5, 2014

        Robert, thanks for those observations. I wonder how much paid commentators get paid? I can see how in this economy many people would sign-up for such dirty work to get a few more bucks in their wallets. And thanks Miep for your link.

        Reply
        • You’re very welcome, Mark. I’m sure some sites are indeed attacked by paid trolls. Too many people have made the same observations Robert has.

        • If they are paid, they’re probably not even located in this country…

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