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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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Climate Change Has Left Bolivia Crippled by Drought

“Bolivians have to be prepared for the worst.”President Evo Morales.

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Like many countries, Bolivia relies on its glaciers and large lakes to supply water during the lean, dry times. But as Bolivia has heated with the rest of the world, those key stores of frozen and liquid water have dwindled and dried up. Warming has turned the country’s second largest lake into a parched bed of hardening soil. This heat has made the country’s largest lake a shadow of its former expanse and depth. It has forced Bolivia’s glaciers into a full retreat up the tips of its northern mountains — reducing the key Chacaltaya glacier to naught. Multiple reservoirs are now bone-dry. And, for hundreds of thousands of people, the only source of drinking water is from trucked-in shipments.

Drought Emergency Declared for Bolivia

After decades of worsening drought and following a strong 2014-2016 El Nino, Bolivia has declared a state of emergency. 125,000 families are under severe water rationing — receiving supplies only once every three days. The water allocation for these families is only enough for drinking. No more. Hundreds of thousands beyond this hardest hit group also suffer from some form of water curtailment. Schools have been closed. Businesses shut down. 60,000 cattle have perished. 149 million dollars in damages have racked up. And across the country, protests have broken out.

The city of La Paz, which is the seat of Bolivia’s government and home to about 800,000 people (circa 2001) has seen its three reservoirs almost completely dry up. The primary water reservior — Ajuan Kota — is at just 1 percent capacity. Two smaller reserviors stand at just 8 percent.

bolivia-drought

(Over the past year, drought in Bolivia has become extreme — sparking declarations of emergency and resulting in water rationing. It is the most recent severe dry period of many to affect the state over the past few decades. President Morales has stated that climate change is the cause. And the science, in large part, agrees with him. Image source: The Global Drought Monitor.)

In nearby El Alto, a city of 650,000 people (circa 2001), residents are also suffering from water shortages. The lack there has spurred unrest — with water officials briefly being held hostage by desperate citizens.

As emergency relief tankers wind through the streets and neighborhoods of La Paz and El Alto, the government has established an emergency water cabinet. Plans to build a more resilient system have been laid. And foreign governments and companies have been asked for assistance. But Bolivia’s larger problem stems from droughts that have been made worse and worse by climate change. And it’s unclear whether new infrastructure to manage water can deal with a situation that increasingly removes the water altogether.

Dried out Lakes, Dwindling Glaciers

Over the years, worsening factors related to climate change have made Bolivia vulnerable to any dry period that may come along. The added effect of warming is that more rain has to fall to make up for the resulting increased rate of evaporation. Meanwhile, glacial retreat means that less water melts and flows into streams and lakes during these hot, dry periods. In the end, this combined water loss creates a situation of drought prevalence for the state. And when a dry period is set off by other climate features — as happened with the strong El Nino that occurred during 2014 to 2016 — droughts in Bolivia become considerably more intense.

Ever since the late 1980s, Bolivia has been struggling through abnormal dry periods related to human caused climate change. Over time, these dry periods inflicted increasing water stress on the state. And despite numerous efforts on the part of Bolivia, the drought impacts have continued to worsen.

bolivia-satellite

(In this NASA satellite shot of northern Bolivia taken on November 6, 2016, we find very thin mountain snow and ice cover in upper center, a lake Titicaca that is both now very low and filled with sand bars at upper left, and a completely dried up lake Poopo at bottom-center. Bolivia relies on these three sources of water. One is gone, and two more have been greatly diminished. Scientists have found that global warming is melting Bolivia’s glaciers and has increased evaporation rates by as much as 200 percent near its key lakes. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

By 1994, added heat and loss of glaciers resulted in the country’s second largest lake — Poopo — drying up. The lake recovered somewhat in the late 1990s. But by early 2016, a lake that once measured 90 x 32 kilometers at its widest points had again been reduced to little more than a cracked bed littered with abandoned fishing hulls. Scientists researching the region found that the rate of evaporation in the area of lake Poopo had been increased by 200 percent by global warming.

Bolivia’s largest lake — Titicaca — is also under threat. From 2003 to 2010, the lake is reported to have lost 500 square miles of surface water area. During 2015 and 2016 drought near Titicaca intensified. In an act of desperation, the government of Bolivia allocated half a billion dollars to save the lake. But despite this move, the massive reservoir has continued to shrink. Now, the southern section of the lake is almost completely cut off by a sand bar from the north.

In the Andean mountains bordering Bolivia, temperatures have been increasing by 0.6 degrees Celsius each decade. This warming has forced the country’s glaciers into full retreat. In one example, the Chacaltaya glacier, which provided 30 percent of La Paz’s water supply, had disappeared entirely by 2009. But the losses to glaciers overall have been widespread and considerable — not just isolated to Chacaltaya.

Intense Drought Flares, With More to Come

By December, rains are expected to return and provide some relief for Bolivia. El Nino has faded and 2017 shouldn’t be as dry as 2015 or 2016. However, like many regions around the world, the Bolivian highlands are in a multi-year period of drought. And the over-riding factor causing these droughts is not the periodic El Nino, but the longer-term trend of warming that is melting Bolivia’s glaciers and increasing rates of evaporation across its lakes.

In context, the current drought emergency has taken place as global temperatures hit near 1.2 degrees Celsius hotter than 1880s averages. Current and expected future burning of fossil fuels will continue to warm the Earth and add worsening drought stress to places like Bolivia. So this particular emergency water shortage is likely to be just one of many to come. And only an intense effort to reduce fossil fuel emissions can substantially slake the worsening situation for Bolivia and for numerous other drought-affected regions around the world.

Links:

Bolivia Declares National Emergency Amid Drought

Bolivia Schools Close Early as Drought Empties Reservoirs

Is the World Running out of Water? Bolivia Declares National Emergency Due to Drought

Hothouse Turns Bolivia’s Second Largest Lake into Withered Wasteland

The Global Drought Monitor

LANCE MODIS

Climate Hot Map — Chacaltaya Glacier

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

Hat tip to ClimateHawk1

The Human Hothouse Turns Bolivia’s Second Largest Lake into a Withered Wasteland

Lake Poopo in Bolivia has dried up. And Climate Change has been named as the top cause of the disaster.

After decades of drought and depressed rainfall related to a human-forced warming of the globe, the once-massive lake is now gone. Once measuring 90 by 32 kilometers and covering an area of over 1,000 square kilometers this second largest lake in all of Bolivia has turned into a dried out disaster zone. Cracked, baked earth, overturned and abandoned boats, and the desiccated remains of lake life are all that are left as sign to the fact that a giant lake once existed. The flamingos, fish and other wildlife that relied on the lake are now dead or long gone. Yet more lonely casualties of a climate changed radically by an incessant burning of fossil fuels.

(Human-forced climate change is implicated in Bolivia’s loss of Lake Poopo. Video source: TeleSUR English.)

Rainy Season Undone

About a decade ago, the rainy season in this region of the Altiplano Mountains began to dry up. Rainfall became less regular and the great Lake Poopo — important to locals for its supply of fish and wildlife — began to fade away. By 2015, record global temperatures and El Nino conditions had again pushed the rainy season back. By January of 2016, one month into the typical rainy season, no rains had yet fallen and the great lake had dried up completely.

According to NASA, ongoing drying impacts related to warming have been impeding the flow of water into Lake Poopo for decades. The first time the lake dried out was back in 1994. The lake subsequently took more than three years to re-fill. But it has never fully recovered.

Rates of Evaporation Increase by a Factor of 3

Rising global temperatures are increasing the rates of evaporation and precipitation worldwide. But Lake Poopo sits in an evaporation and water loss hot spot. Scientists researching this drying event indicate that impacts to the hydrological cycle as a result of a human-forced warming of the globe have increased rates of evaporation for the Lake Poopo area by 3 times that of the 20th Century average.  And this greatly intensified baking of the lands there has resulted in a profound loss of reliable water supply for the lake.

Lake Poopo BeforeLake Popoo Dried Up

(Lake Poopo before and after. A merciless and ongoing decadal drought has caused lake Poopo to turn into a dried up desert. Image source: Earth Observatory.)

Long-term Outlook Looks Pretty Amazingly Bad

Since Bolivia occupies a region very vulnerable to the human-forced warming of our world, the current drying of Lake Poopo may last longer than the 1994 event or, perhaps, indefinitely. Bolivian officials seem determined to restore water to the lake — estimating that such a project would require the diversion of other sources along with a 150 million dollar investment.

But the situation is now far more challenging than during the time following the initial drying event of 1994. Global temperatures are in the range of 0.5 C hotter. Meanwhile, trends toward drying are settling in all over this region of South America. Bolivia’s first largest lake — Titicaca — is also under threat, require a half a billion dollars to preserve its own falling water levels. Sao Paulo, to the east, is still undergoing its own severe water crisis. And to the north, the loss of moisture due to a deforestation and warming of the Amazon Rainforest is further exacerbating extreme drying events throughout South America.

Given this changing local and global environment, any lake restoration efforts will meet with extremely severe challenges. Over the next two decades, global temperatures may spike above 1.5 C above 1880s averages and the Amazon may be well on its way to collapse. It’s difficult to imagine that many lakes and rivers would survive such brutal conditions, much less the very vulnerable Lake Poopo.

Links:

Earth Observatory

TeleSUR English

Lake Poopo

Bolivia’s Second Largest Lake Lost to Climate Change

Bolivia and Peru Sign 500 Million Dollar Deal to Preserve Lake Titicaca

Hat Tip to Andy in San Diego

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