With Temperatures Hitting 1.2 C Hotter than Pre-Industrial, Drought Now Spans the Globe

Jeff Goodell, an American author and editor at Rolling Stone, is noted for saying this: “once we deliberately start messing with the climate, we could inadvertantly shift rainfall patterns (climate models have shown that the Amazon is particularly vulnerable) causing collapse of ecosystems, drought, famine and more.”

We are in the process of testing that theory. In the case of drought, which used to just be a regional affair but has now gone global, Goodell appears to have been right on the money.

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According to a recent report by the World Meteorological Organization, the Earth is on track to hit 1.2 degrees Celsius hotter than pre-industrial temperatures during 2016. From sea-level rise, to melting polar ice, to extreme weather, to increasing numbers of displaced persons, this temperature jump is producing steadily worsening impacts. Among the more vivid of these is the current extent of global drought.

The Four-Year Global Drought

During El Nino years, drought conditions tend to expand through various regions as ocean surfaces heat up. From 2015 to 2016, the world experienced a powerful El Nino. However, despite the noted influence of this warming of surface waters in the Equatorial Pacific, widely expansive global drought extends back through 2013 and farther.

four-year-precipitation-anomalies-updated

(The Global Drought Monitor finds that dry conditions have been prevalent over much of the globe throughout the past four years. For some regions, like the Colorado River area, drought has already extended for more than a decade. Image source: SPEI Global Drought Monitor.)

In the above image, we see soil moisture deficits over the past 48 months. What we find is that large sections of pretty much every major continent are undergoing at least a four-year drought. Drought conditions were predicted by climate models to intensify in the middle latitudes as the world heated up. It appears that this is already the case, but the Equatorial zone and the higher latitudes are also experiencing widespread drought. If there is a detectable pattern in present conditions, it is that few regions have avoided drying. Drought is so wide-ranging as to be practically global in its extent.

Widespread Severe Impacts

These drought conditions have noted impacts.

In California alone, more than 102 million trees have died due to rising temperatures and a drought that has lasted since 2010. Of those, 62 million have perished just this year. Drought’s relationship to tree mortality is pretty simple — the longer drought lasts, the more trees perish as water stores in roots are used up. California has, so far, lost 2.5 percent of its live trees due to what is now the worst tree mortality event in the state’s history.

world-vegetative-health-index

(It’s not just California. Numerous regions around the world show plants undergoing life-threatening levels of stress. In the above map, vegetative health is shown to be moderately stressed [yellow] to severely stressed [pink] over broad regions of the world. Image source: Global Drought Information System.)

The California drought is just an aspect of a larger drought that encompasses much of the North American West. For the Colorado River area, this includes a 16-year-long drought that has pushed Lake Mead to its lowest levels ever recorded. With rationing of the river’s water supplies looming if a miraculous break in the drought doesn’t suddenly appear, states are scrambling to figure out how to manage a worsening scarcity. Meanwhile, reports indicate that cities like Phoenix will require executive action on the part of the President to ensure water supplies to millions of residents over the coming years, should conditions fail to improve.

Further east, drought has flickered on and off in the central and southern U.S. In the southeast, a flash drought has recently helped to spur an unseasonable spate of wildfires over the Smoky Mountain region. Yesterday, at Gaitlinburg, TN, raging flames fed by winds ahead of a cold front forced 14,000 people to evacuate, damaged or destroyed 100 homes, and took three lives.

siberian-wildfires-july-2016

(Siberian wildfires burning on July 23, 2016 occur in the context of severe drought. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

In the upper northern latitudes, the primary upshot of drought has also been wildfires. Wildfires are often fanned by heat and drought in heavily forested regions that see reduced soil moisture levels. Thawing permafrost and reduced snow cover levels exacerbate the situation by further reducing moisture storage in dry regions and by adding peat-like fuels for fires.

From Alaska to Canada to Siberia, this has increasingly been the case. Last year, Alaska experienced one of its worst wildfire seasons on record. This year, both heat and drought contributed to the severe fires raging around the Fort McMurray region in Canada. And over recent years, wildfires running through a tremendously dry Siberia have been so extreme that satellites orbiting one million miles away could detect the smoke plumes.

Drought and wildfires in or near the Arctic justifiably seem odd, but when one considers the fact that many climate models had predicted that the higher northern latitudes would be one of the few major regions to experience increases in precipitation, that oddity turns ominous. If the present trend toward widespread Arctic drought is representative, then warming presents a drought issue from Equator to Pole.

A dwindling Lake Baikal — which feeds on water flowing in from rain and snow in Central Siberia — bears grim testament to an expanding drought over central and northern Russia. Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest and oldest lake, is threatened by climate change-related drying of the lands that drain into it. In 2015, water levels in Baikal hit record-low levels, and over the past few years, fires raging around the lake have increasingly endangered local communities and wildlife.

To the south and west, the Gansu province of China was placed under a level 4 drought alert this past summerThere, large swaths of crops were lost; half a billion dollars in damages mounted. The Chinese government rushed aid to 6.2 million affected residents, trucking potable water into regions rendered bereft of local supplies.

india-drought-baked-and-bleached-riverbeds

(Lakes and river beds dried up across India earlier this year as the monsoon was delayed for the third year in a row. Image source: India Water Portal.)

India this year experienced similar, but far more widespread, water shortages. In April, 330 million people within India experienced water stress. Water resupply trains wound through the countryside, delivering bottles of potable liquid to residents who’d lost access. A return of India’s monsoon provided some relief, but drought in India and Tibet’s highlands remains in place as glaciers shrink in the warming air.

Africa has recently seen various food crises crop up as wildfires raged through its equatorial forests. Stresses to humans, plants, and animals due to dryness, water and food shortage, and fires have been notably severe. Earlier this year, 36 million people across Africa faced hunger due to drought-related impacts. Nearer term, South Africa has been forced to cull hippo and buffalo herds as a multi-year drought continues there.

Shifting north into Europe, we also find widespread and expanding drought conditions. This situation is not unexpected for Southern Europe, where global climate models show incursions of desert climates from across the Mediterranean. But as with northern Russia and North America, Northern Europe is also experiencing drought. These droughts across Europe helped to spark severe wildfires in Portugal and Spain in the summer, as corn yields for the region are predicted to fall.

drought-wildfires-peru

(During November, drought spurred wildfires that erupted along the Amazon Rainforest’s boundary zone in Peru. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

Finally finding our way back into the Americas, we see widespread drought conditions covering much of Brazil and Columbia, winding down the Andes Mountains through Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. In sections of the increasingly clear-cut and fire-stricken Amazon Rainforest and running on into northeastern Brazil, drought conditions have now lasted for five years. There, half of the region’s cities face water rationing and more than 20 million people are currently confronted with water stress. From September to November 2015, more than 100,000 acres of drought-stricken Amazonian rainforest has burned in Peru. Meanwhile, Bolivia has seen its second-largest lake dry up and critical water-supplying glaciers melt as hundreds of thousands of people fall under water rationing.

Impacts to Food

Ongoing drought and extreme weather have created local impacts to food supplies in various regions. However, these impacts have not yet seriously affected global food markets. Drought in Brazil and India, for example, has significantly impacted sugar production, which in turn is pushing global food prices higher. Cereal production is a bit off which is also resulting in higher prices, though not the big jumps we see in sugar. But a Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) Index for October of 2016 (173 approx) at 9 percent higher than last year’s measure for this time of year is still quite a ways off the 229 peak value during 2011 that helped to set off so much unrest around the globe.

food-index

(Rising food prices during 2016 in the face of relatively low energy prices and significant climate-related challenges to farmers is some cause for concern. Image source: FAO.)

That said, with energy prices falling into comparatively low ranges, relatively high (and rising) food prices are some cause for concern. Traditionally, falling energy prices also push food prices lower as production costs drop, but it appears that these gains by farmers are being offset by various environmental and climate impacts. Furthermore, though very widespread, drought appears to have thus far avoided large grain-producing regions like the central U.S., and central and east Asia. So the global food picture, if not entirely rosy, isn’t as bad as it could be.

Conditions in Context — Increasing Evaporation, Melting Glaciers, Less Snow Cover, Shifting Climate Zones

With the world now likely to hit 1.5 C above pre-industrial temperatures over the next 15 to 20 years, overall drought conditions will likely worsen. Higher rates of evaporation are a primary feature of warming, meaning more rain must fall just to keep pace. In addition, loss of glacial ice in various mountain ranges and loss of snow cover in drier Arctic and near-Arctic environments will further reduce river levels and soil moisture. Increasing prevalence of extreme rainfall events versus steady rainfall events will further stress the vegetation that aids in soil moisture capture. Finally, changes to atmospheric circulation due to polar amplification will combine with a poleward movement of climate zones to generally confuse traditional growing seasons. As a result, everything that relies on steady water supplies and predictable weather patterns will face challenges as the world shifts into a state of more obvious climate change.

Links:

Global Drought Monitor

Global Drought Information System

LANCE MODIS

#ThankYouNASA 

India Water Portal

FAO

The World Meteorological Organization

Hat tip to ClimateHawk1

Hat tip to June

Hat tip to Ryan

Hat tip to Griffon

Hat tip to Suzanne

Hat tip to Cate

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

Hat tip to Greg

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It’s Not Just Sao Paulo — Much of South America and Caribbean Swelters Under Extreme Drought

In Sao Paulo today, a Latin American megalopolis that is now home to 20 million people, public water supplies are cut off for as long as three days at a time. But despite this draconian rationing, the Cantareira Reservoir sits at 9 percent below dead pool. A level so low that utility managers had to install new pipes into the reservoir bottom to tap water supply dregs. A controversial policy due to the fact that drawing water from so low in the pool both results in fish kills and in much more polluted water going into rivers (like the foaming Tiete) and the drinking and bathing supply.

Cantareira Reservoir bone dry

(The Cantareira Reservoir has been bone dry for more than a year and a half now. Severe water rationing has managed to keep levels about steady for the time being. Image source: UOL.)

At least the dramatic cuts in water usage appear to have slowed to a near halt further water declines from the key reservoir. Levels have remained at around -9 percent below dead pool volume ever since the rainy season ended two months ago. But Sao Paulo still has at least four months of dry season ahead. And the weather for Brazil’s largest city, for most of Brazil itself, for Colombia and for the Caribbean remains exceptionally dry.

Drought Extends Over Much of South America, Caribbean

Much attention has been paid to the Sao Paulo drought. This is likely due to the very dire water situation immediately threatening 20 million people with severe water rationing, increased risk of waterborne illness (see Dengue Fever strikes Sao Paulo), and spurring migration to less water stressed regions. But the quiet truth, less widely reported, is that a massive swath of Latin America is also suffering major drought.

Latin American Drought

(South American precipitation deficits and surpluses over the past six months shows widespread, severe drought. Image source: NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.)

The drought centers over the tree-depleted and human settlement invaded Amazon Rainforest. There half year moisture deficits are in the range of 400 millimeters or greater (16+ inches). A level of extraordinary drought in a region that supplies critical moisture to the surrounding states and nations. Years of clear cutting, slash and burn agriculture, and ramping temperatures due to human-caused climate change have taken a terrible toll on the Amazon. Now its resiliency is compromised with drought a common-place occurrence even as hundreds of wildfires burn away at the forest understory every year.

The warming climate (greenhouse emissions based), the water cycle disrupting clear cutting, and the fires all take their toll, resulting in a declining rainforest health and related moisture levels. The worst years of all are El Nino years — when warming Equatorial Pacific waters enhance drought potentials all throughout the Amazon of Northern Brazil. And the 2015 El Nino is no exception, with worsening drought conditions building at center mass over the Amazon River Basin and its related rainforests.

Prevailing and intensifying drought in the Amazon has far-flung impacts. The region acts as a kind of atmospheric moisture reservoir — sending out streams of flying rivers toward the North, South and East. In this way a healthy Amazon rainforest pumps up the clouds over vast regions, enabling rainfall from Colombia to the Caribbean and throughout Brazil. But an ailing, warming, drought-sweltered and clear-cut rainforest loses its ability to send out flying rivers. Instead, it dries out at its heart.

Amazon Water Vapor

(Often visible from the air, the trees of the Amazon release vast clouds of water vapor into the air. These ‘flying rivers’ are now drying up as the Amazon is warmed by human climate change, burned by understory fires, and clear cut by human development. Image source: Climate News Network.)

For some places in Colombia, this has meant residents suffering through drought for more than three years. In La Guajira, some residents are suffering loss of life due to lack of water and related food stores. The situation is complicated due to the fact that most of the water from depleted aquifer supplies for the region now goes to industrial uses like irrigation-fed international farms or the largest open pit coal mine in the world. This leaves very little water left for residents and what supplies remain are often brackish and polluted.

In the Caribbean, more than 1.5 million people are now affected by drought with many also facing severe water rationing. Water shortages, withering crops, dead cattle, and disruption to tourism has impacted far-flung island nations from Puerto Rico to St Lucia to Cuba to the Dominican Republic. In the Dominican Republic, the situation is rapidly worsening with civil engineers stating that many of the island nation’s towns have less than thirty days of water left. Reports from other regions like Haiti are more spotty but indications are that these are also heavily impacted (Haiti is terribly deforested and, as a result, has very little resiliency to any form of extreme weather).

With El Nino still ramping up and with global temperatures likely to continue to hit new record highs (due to the heating effect of excessive fossil fuel emissions and CO2 levels hitting above 400 parts per million [above 480 CO2e] for the first time in at least 3 million years) throughout 2015, drought conditions for the Amazon, for Brazil, for Colombia and for the Caribbean will likely continue to worsen for at least the next six months. And to this point it is worth re-stating that crushing drought conditions are not confined to Sao Paulo but instead range from Uruguay through Brazil, Venezuala, Colombia and on into much of the Caribbean Island Chain.

Links:

Brazilian Drought Woes

The Tiete River is Foaming With Pollution

UOL

SABESP

Dengue Fever Strikes Sao Paulo

NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center

Tropical Forests Release 2 Gigatons of Carbon Each Year

The Amazon’s Flying Rivers are Drying Up

Climate News Network

Drought and Corruption Result in Loss of Life in Columbia

Caribbean Facing Worst Drought in Five Years

Hat Tip to Greg

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

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