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Brazil’s Great Amazon Rainforest Burns as Parched Megacities Fall Under Existential Threat

One need only look at today’s satellite image of Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest to notice something’s terribly wrong. A vast 1,000 mile swath of what should be some of the wettest lands on the globe running south of the world’s largest river is covered by a dense pall of smoke. Scores of plumes boil up out of the burning and sweltering forest. Pumping dark clouds into the sky, the fires’ tell-tale streaks out over a drought-parched Brazil, across the Atlantic, and over to Africa where the plume is again thickened by yet more wildfires.

Amazon Rainforest burns

(Massive wildfires belch smoke over a vast section of Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest. These fires are occurring as much of the country suffers from drought. In the north, the current drought is the worst in at least 50 years. In the southeast, drought is now said to be the worst in at least 85 years. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

The greatest rainforest in the world, sometimes called Earth’s lungs, is burning, blackening, and belching out a thick pulse of carbon dioxide into an atmosphere that is already greatly over-burdened with industry-emitted greenhouse gasses. The world’s largest watershed and remaining largest rainforest combined now finds itself in a crisis of human making. A set of insults that may not now be reversible as the forest begins to succumb to both drought and fire.

It’s a crisis that threatens to turn South Brazil into a desert, to turn one of the world’s vast carbon stores into a carbon emissions source, and to eventually convert the great rainforest itself into dry grasslands. Such a transition would result in yet one more major contributor to increasing global greenhouse gas concentrations even as it puts Brazil’s mega-cities under threat of collapse. And it’s a transition that’s happening now. A violent transformation that likely started during the early 2000s. One now reaching catastrophic new intensities.

Human-Forced Warming, Slash and Burn Agriculture, Godzilla El Nino

The causes for the fires are three-fold and all too often missed in the sparse mainstream media reports of the ongoing catastrophe. First, human-caused warming of the globe is pushing the great rainforest to slowly heat up and dry out. Alone, such warming would be enough to take down the great rainforest if the Earth warmed by between 2 and 4 degrees Centigrade. Since we’ve already seen Earth System warming on the order of 1 degree Celsius above 1880s values, the great forest is now feeling the stress of this added heat. But the forest is now also suffering the insults of what amounts to a half century of slash and burn agriculture. Immense swaths of the forest have been cut and burned away, converted into farmlands. Increasingly, large sections of the forest are isolated into smaller, less productive islands. In addition, the ongoing burning of vast tracts of woodland adds a fire pressure to an already heat-stressed rainforest.

Carbon dioxide hotspots Copernicus

(The Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring System [CAMS] shows a significant carbon dioxide plume rising up off of the fires now burning in the Amazon Rainforest. It was a prediction made by global climate models that human forced warming could turn the Amazon into a net carbon emissions source by the middle of this Century. For the period of Fall 2015, heat and drought have done exactly that. Image source: CAMS.)

Finally, this year, Brazil is experiencing the effects of what is likely to become the strongest El Nino ever recorded. Such Pacific Ocean warming events have a tendency to push the rainforest to dry. And with the great Amazon already suffering from at least a decade of drought, the new, extremely intense El Nino is providing yet one more severe insult on top of all the other damage inflicted by both human warming of the atmosphere and by slash and burn agriculture.

Megacities Suffering Severe Water Shortages

As the Amazon rainforest suffers clear cutting, wildfire, and drought, it pumps less and less water into the atmosphere. Its once massive ‘flying rivers’ are drying out. The loss of these immense atmospheric moisture flows has a particularly acute impact on lands bordering the Amazon — especially in the region of Brazil’s coastal cities. Over the past two decades, the massive cities of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have suffered from increasingly frequent droughts. However, over the past three years, drought has been particularly extreme.

In Sao Paulo, unofficial water rationing began about two years ago and has remained in effect ever since. Today, the region’s largest reservoir — the Cantariera — remains below dead pool levels even as other reservoirs have fallen under increasing stress. The result is that many of the area’s 20 million people are starting to migrate to cities with better water security. Cities like Jundiai where water conservation policies have prevented shortages despite an ongoing drying of the surrounding countryside.

Brazil Drought NOAA El Nino

(In the July-September 2015 rainfall graphic measure provided by NOAA, we see the Amazon Rainforest experiencing severe water deficits in conjunction with the warmest global temperatures on record and what is likely to become the strongest El Nino on record. A heat pressure that has resulted in severe wildfire outbreaks throughout the Amazon this month. Such impacts will further reduce the moisture content of the flying rivers the cities of Southern Brazil depend on. Image source: NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.)

In Rio de Janeiro, the situation is still somewhat better than in Sao Paulo. Water cut-offs have not yet begun in this city of 10 million even though local reservoirs are also starting to dry up. But if dry conditions continue, 2016-2017 will almost certainly see Brazil’s second largest city fall into a crisis similar to that of Sao Paulo.

A recent report by NPR highlights the severity of Brazil’s coastal cities drought:

And [Sao Paulo] is not alone. Brazil’s second largest city, Rio de Janeiro, is also facing water troubles, as are other coastal areas. It’s been an enormous shock to Brazilians, who are used to their country being called “the Saudi Arabia of Water…” But not anymore. Satellite data from NASA shows that the drought in much of southeast Brazil — also home to the region’s breadbasket — is much worse than originally believed.

If these droughts continue, they will threaten to collapse the cities of eastern Brazil. They will put a strain on electricity supplies, on commercial activity, and on practically every aspect of city life — which is largely dependent upon access to water. In eastern Brazil, more than 30 million people now face the threat of this climate change induced destabilization. But what’s worse is the fact that the ongoing burning and drought in the Amazon to the north practically ensures that the flying rivers will continue to wilt, that the droughts in the southeast will grow to become city-killers.

Links:

LANCE MODIS

CAMS Atmospheric Monitoring

As Brazil’s Largest City Struggles with Drought, Residents are Leaving

Drought Takes Hold as Amazon’s Flying Rivers Disappear

New NASA Data Shows Brazil’s Drought Deeper than Previously Thought

NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center

Drought Threatens Water Truck Lifeline in Northeastern Brazil

Is Brazil Nearly Out of Water?

Brazil, Land of Water, Goes Thirsty

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They Make Water Out of Sludge in Sao Paulo Now

With El Nino settling into a strong-to-monstrous mode and with the world now baking under 1 C of global temperature increases since the 1880s, a large swath from South American through to the Caribbean is suffering from extreme drought.

Drought South America

As we can see in the above map (provided by NOAA) most of South America is experiencing the impact of significant to severe rainfall deficits. Northern Brazil and the Amazon Rainforest are at the epicenter of water losses. But Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina, Chile and Peru all show substantial drying. It’s a drought that stretches all the way up into the Caribbean. One that has set off water rationing over broad regions. Even the US territory of Puerto Rico hasn’t been left unscathed by this wide-ranging drying. There, 160,000 residents and businesses have seen water turned off for 48 hours and then back on for 24 hours. Another 185,000 are losing water services in 24-hour cycles, a further 10,000 are on a 12-hour rationing plan. A hand of drought that had, as of last week, stretched its desiccating fingers all the way to South Florida — setting off wildfires and sending billowing plumes of smoke into Palm Beach skies.

Water From Sludge

But, in all this wide-ranging drought, there are few places where the situation is so acute as it is in Sao Paulo, Brazil. There, the drought is so severe that it has inflicted water rationing on the populace ever since early 2014. A situation that has gone from bad to steadily worse. At the epicenter of these losses is a massive reservoir called the Cantareira. A great lake once filled with enough reserves to supply over 6 million people that has been reduced to what amounts to a giant, drying puddle of mud. A situation that has forced water managers to pump sludge from the Cantareira’s previous dead pool zone and into treatment facilities in order to provide water to Sao Paulo citizens:

Cantareira Reservoir

(“Water like what comes out of the back end of a cow” [hat tip to Andy] being fed from the Cantareira reservoir and into Sao Paulo’s water supplies during February of 2015. Image source: The Telegraph.)

Essentially, in order to provide water, Brazil’s utility managers have been forced to put pump lines in the bottom of the muddy Cantareira reservoir. You can see the heads of these pumps as blue boxes in the above image. The pumps then feed the dead pool water into a spill-way that contacts the old water pump which is now too high in elevation to draw water from the drastically diminished pool.

The Cantareira reservoir is Sao Paulo’s largest, its most essential. At most, it contains about 40 million cubic meters of water remaining before it is bone dry. And it’s losing this water at a rate of 200,000 cubic meters each day. Even worse, it’s uncertain if all the remaining water can be accessed. But if it could, it would take just 200 days to completely bottom out the Cantareira at the current rate of losses. For reference, there are about 100 days left until the rainy season starts in Sao Paulo. But with El Nino strengthening and with the Amazon Rain Forest suffering severe water losses, it is uncertain whether this year’s rainy season will arrive on time.

Looking at the larger water system, the situation is equally stark. Alto Tiete, another Sao Paulo reservoir will reach a dead pool situation similar to the Cantareira in just 90 days at current rates of loss. And the entire water system of Sao Paulo will hit its maximum recoverable water in less than a year if losses are not somehow abated.

With the situation so stark, Sao Paulo water managers have drastically cut back on water outlays to the population. In total only about 54 percent of the typical outlay is reaching the public. The result is a very severe and ongoing situation of water rationing for the metropolis. But even worse would be the near complete loss of Sao Paulo’s water supply. A situation the city and region faces if the rains don’t arrive soon.

*   *   *   *   *

Links:

Water Hoarding Frenzy Set off By Drought, Rationing in Puerto Rico

Palm Beach Wildfires

Sabesp Water Resources PDF

The Telegraph

Hat Tip to Andy in San Diego (Note: Andy provided much of the research for the section on Sao Paulo reservoirs. To this point, Sabesp has become increasingly less transparent as the water situation there has grown more dire and Andy’s dynamite research was necessary to clear up a few of the more murky bits.)

(Please support public, non-special interest based science, like the critical information that was provided for this article by NOAA.)

(Please also support broad-based climate change policy solutions to reduce fossil fuel emissions, increase public access to renewable energy, and to reduce the climate change caused damage that is already locked in.)

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

For Brazil, Climate Change Has Undone the Rains

For the past two years, a thickening, heating, drying atmosphere over Brazil has become the haunt of one of the worst kinds of atmospheric bullies. A blocking high that has parched an already wounded forest country, shrinking its reservoirs, turning rivers into ribbons, and threatening millions with a lack of access to essential water.

The block feeds on heat and the building inertia of a warming atmosphere (see also Quirky Winds Fuel Brazil Drought). It is a new species of mutant weather animal bred by human caused climate change. Its ilk have ranged the globe setting off terrible droughts in places like Syria, California and Southeast Asia. But perhaps nowhere is the undoing of rain so strange and tragic as it is for water-rich Brazil.

Amazon Rain Forest. The very name conjures the image of lush vegetation, of mists, of rivers of storms riding the thick, moisture-laden airs. A wet interplay of forest and atmosphere that has for centuries reinforced and amplified the cycle of drawing life-giving water down from the skies.

But no more. Human climate change, a regional deforestation mafia, and the ogre of a blocking high pressure system gorged on heat steroids have put an end to that.

Wet Season Ranking

(The rainy season that wasn’t. NOAA map shows much depleted wet season for 2013-2014 and 2014-2015. Image source: NOAA.)

For as of last week, reports from NOAA showed a rainy season 2/3 past and desperately dried and behind schedule (see image above). A ‘rainy’ season in which large swaths of Brazil and the Amazon Rainforest fell into the lowest percentile of years for moisture received.

And the dry 2014-2015 ‘wet season’ comes just following the equally moisture lacking 2013-2014 ‘wet season.’

Will the Rains Briefly Return?

For the Sao Paulo region, at the epicenter of the current blocking pattern and deforestation induced drought, 2014 was the driest year since record keeping began in 1930 (see Drought in Sao Paulo). 2015, so far has only seen slightly more water. And the slight increases in rains have only been enough to push Sao Paulo’s largest aquifer — the Cantariera — to 12.9 percent capacity, even when dead pool volumes are included (without the new dead pool volume, Cantariera would be sitting around 9 percent).

With a little more than a month and a half remaining to a notably stunted rainy season, the Cantariera will be fortunate to hit 1/5 capacity by late April. A situation which could see the most populated region in Brazil desperately shy of water and continuing current rationing at least for the next year.

However, a newly emerging Pacific El Nino may draw back on current moisture flows to the region, putting a lid on late season rainfalls and pumping up the blocking high yet again (see ENSO and Drought Forecasting). If the forecast rains do not arrive and the block again tightens its grip over the region, Sao Paulo could be looking at running out of water for many of citizens over a 4-6 month period.

Megadrought For The Deforest

Regardless of whether a brief spate of rainfall provides new hope for avoiding a complete collapse of Sao Paulo’s water supplies for 2015, the long term situation looks increasingly dire. Added heat from human-caused warming combines with rampant deforestation in Brazil to create a kind of drought death spiral. Already baking under the heat of an equatorial sun, the clear-cut and burned Amazon is now struggling to retain moisture. Understory fires and gradually building heat due to human warming at the rate of 0.25 C per decade for the rainforest provide additional stress to a critical forest region.

amazon-severe-drought

(2013 JPL study found that climate change was weakening the Amazon’s ability to recover from severe droughts like the one seen in this 2005 moisture anomaly capture. Under human caused climate change, droughts become far more frequent and intense. A 2009 study found that 85% percent of the Amazon would likely be lost due to climate change alone at 4 C of warming. Even mild warming of slightly more than 1 C could result in additional losses of 20-40 percent.)

A recent report in The Economist estimates that 30,000 new trees would need to be planted to help rejuvenate the ‘flying rivers’ that continuously feed moisture to the rainforest (a very low number considering the fact that the Amazon contains an estimated 390 billion individual trees divided into 16,000 species). Deforestation, as well, would necessarily have to stop. And even if these two requirements were met, human caused warming would have to be quite mild to spare the Amazon conflagration and conversion to much drier savannah and grasslands.

Given these dire challenges, it must be assumed that Brazil, much like the US Southwest and other regions of the world faces the prospect of potential megadrought over the coming years and decades. So what we are seeing for Sao Paulo now is, sadly, prelude.

Links:

It’s Supposed to be Rainy Season in Brazil, So Where has all the Water Gone?

Quirky Winds Fuel Brazil Drought

ENSO and Drought Forecasting

Drought in Sao Paulo

Climate Change Could Kill 85 Percent of the Amazon by 2100

Severe Climate Jeopardizing Amazon Rainforest

The Amazon Rainforest

Hat Tips:

Andy

Colorado Bob

Kevin Jones

Eleggua

Greg

Sao Paulo’s Reservoirs are Drying Out When they Should Be Filling Up

It’s the rainy season for Brazil. But, thus far, adequate rains have not come.

A persistent high pressure system has lingered over Brazil. A blocking high of the kind that has now become so common with global temperatures spiking to more than +0.8 C above 1880s averages — thickening heat domes and granting these powerful weather systems an ever greater inertia. A set of circumstances that has set off a plethora of very severe droughts ranging the globe since the early 2000s.

During early 2015, Brazil’s own persistent atmospheric block re-strengthened over an Amazon whose water re-circulating abilities have been crippled by a combined deforestation and ever more prevalent wildfires. Ever since late December, the high has warded off cold front after cold front. The result is a terrible extension of the worst drought to impact Brazil in at least 80 years.

Southeast Brazil Drought January 11

(No rain in sight in the NASA MODIS satellite shot for Southeast Brazil on January 11, 2015. During a typical day in January, the wettest month for Sao Paulo, the satellite map should be filled with clouds and storms. Not so for 2014 and 2015. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

During December, this dogged weather system kept rainfall totals below average — at about 80 percent typical amounts for that time of year. But by January, the high had strengthened and only very weak rains had fallen over Southeastern Brazil with most other areas remaining dry. Now, drought appears to be re-establishing a strong grip as weather forecasts call for the typically strong January rains to be cut in half.

The ongoing drought has had serious and widespread impacts throughout Brazil — curbing production of everything from soybeans and sugarcane to coffee and cattle. But the worst impact has been to the water supplies of one of Brazil’s most populous regions — the Sao Paulo megalopolis. There, an unofficial water rationing has been in place since early 2014. A rationing that has hit Sao Paulo’s least advantaged residents the hardest.

Key Reservoir Drying Out When it Should Be Filling Up

Over the past six years, water levels for the Cantareira reservoir have been in free-fall. By 2014, an 80 year drought pushed already falling water levels radically lower. As an emergency measure, officials added dead pool volume — a level usually below municipal water inlets — to the reservoirs stated reserves. This move coincided with shifting water levels lower.

But the action only bought time for the failing reservoir as month after month of drought continued.

Dead Pool Volume Included

(Water losses from the Cantareira Reservoir since 2009. What this ominous graphic shows is that rainy season failure was not isolated to last year’s epic drought. It is instead part of a six year event that may well represent an ominous trend. Image source: Brazil Water)

By austral spring of 2014 (October), the Sao Paulo water system was again under dire threat. Water levels at the Cantereira reservoir fell to below 6% percent before officials diverted water from other sources and allowed use of water below even already lowered levels. This new arrangement moved water inlets deeper into the drying reservoir. An action that essentially dropped Canteriera outlets to city water supplies into the mud.

These emergency actions by city and water planners added another few percent to the radically diminished water supply. Hopes remained that rains would return with the wet season starting in November and that levels would rise enough to make it through the next summer.

But with rains remaining weaker than normal throughout November and December, water levels kept falling when they should have been rising. By early January, reservoir levels had again fallen to below 7 percent.

On Monday January 5, 2015 the level of Sao Paulo’s Cantariera reservoir was at 6.9% capacity. Today, just one week later, the same reservoir measured 6.5%.

9 Million Facing Lack of Water, Millions More at Risk

In total the Cantareira reservoir serves 9 million residents in Sao Paulo. These are mostly middle and lower class neighborhoods. And if the current weather situation continues, that reservoir could be empty come the start of the dry season in April. Such a situation would force an even more extreme water rationing on a state that has now become famous for water scarcity.

Unfortunately, Cantareira isn’t the only Sao Paulo reservoir under threat. In total, 5 out of 6 reservoirs representing the lion’s share of all water for more than 20 million people are now at 39 percent capacity or below.

The Sistema Alto Tiete — a smaller reservoir serving about 4 million Sao Paulo residents — is not far behind Cantareira. For as of today volume in this reservoir stood at 11.3 percent capacity. A third and fourth reservoir system — Rio Claro and Sistema Alto Cotia — now stand at 27.5% and 30.% capacity respectively. Together these two systems serve another 2 million people. The Guarapiranga reservoir, at 39.2 percent capacity as of 1/12/2015, serves another 4 million people.

A final Sao Paulo reservoir — the Sistema Rio Grande — serves about 2 million residents and remains just above 70 percent capacity.

If current forecasts for January hold and February-March follow present trends, then all these reservoirs with the probable exception of Sistema Rio Grande will be under threat entering the fast approaching dry season. A situation that would put nearly 20 million residents under severe threat of losing municipal water services.

UPDATE:

In addition to Sao Paulo, recent reports show that 93 cities have rationed water services to ever-broadening populations. In total, more than 3.9 million people are estimated to have had their water rationed. In some cases, water has been cut off to broad areas for as long as five days.

This official water rationing began last year. But this year’s rationing is broader in scope with water cut offs, which were at first limited to isolated rural zones, now stretching into larger urban population centers.

As mentioned above with Sao Paulo, this water rationing is occurring during the rainy season when water supplies should be building. However, with rainfall totals for Brazil this summer far less than the historic average and with a continuation of the worst drought in more than 80 years, most reservoirs show dropping levels when they should be filling.

In total, what we see for Brazil is a sad example of what a combination of climate change and deforestation can do to a previously water rich region. Bad management in the face of this crisis and instances of climate change denial are exacerbating an already desperate situation there.

UPDATE:

The Cantareira reservoir fell to 6.4% capacity on 1/13/2015 — a 0.5% loss in just 8 days. System losses at this rate bring the reservoir to zero in about 100 days. However, the current capacity, due to very low level of water outlets  may not be fully useable. In addition, rainy ends in April at which point levels would be expected to drop more precipitously.

Links:

Brazil’s Water Supply, Crops Still at Risk

In Brazil, Two Car Washes Have Wildly Different Experiences of the Same Drought

Drought Menaces Brazil’s Coffee Crop

Drought Vamps Up Brazil’s Cattle Prices

LANCE-MODIS

Off-Season Drought Makes 93 Brazilian Cities Cut off Water

Hat Tip to Andy in San Diego

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

Hat Tip to TodaysGuestIs

A Sao Paulo Resident Vents Frustrations Over Unfair Water Distribution and Mis-Managed Resources

Amazon Rainforest Wildfires Scorch Through Drought-Plagued Brazil During Southern Hemisphere Winter

It’s Winter. Sections of Brazil are experiencing their worst drought in 84 years. Sao Paulo, a city of 9 million, has 97 days of water supply left. And, again, the Great Rainforest is burning.

Over the past few decades a combination of insults including clear cutting, slash and burn agriculture, and rising instances of heatwaves and drought driven by human-caused climate change has resulted in increasingly severe impacts to forested regions around and within the Amazon. Major fires, which were once almost unheard of in the damp, wet regions of the great Amazon delta first cropped up in the late 1980s and early 1990s but have since become more widespread.

Amazon fire outbreak August 13 2014

(Wildfire outbreak in the Amazon on August 13, 2014. For reference bottom edge of frame is 180 miles. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

Now, a combination of basement burning of root systems in the Amazon, heat, and drought are resulting in a kind of existential crisis for a region that has been described by scientists as ‘the Earth’s lungs.’ It is a situation that brings with it the ever-increasing risk of major fire outbreaks. And as of 2012 and 2013, after a period of ever-increasing burning, dry equatorial winters have brought with them extraordinarily severe fires that have torn through forested zones and threatened infrastructure. In one such instance during 2013, a major region-wide blackout was set off by a fire originating in Brazil’s rainforest.

And now the burning has begun anew.

For as of August 13 of this year, large wildfires were erupting within the Amazon near regions of cleared forest and deep within the forest interior. Over the past week, these fires expanded and became more widespread. Now, much of Brazil is under a pall of smoke from wildfires that have expanded to range over a very broad rainforest region.

Brazil Wildfires August 20 2014

(Smoke from wildfires covering almost all of the Amazon on August 20, 2014. For reference, bottom edge of frame is 1,000 miles and the Amazon River flows from middle left until it terminates at upper right into the South Atlantic. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

News media and public reporting of fire instances within Brazil are sketchy. But the satellite picture doesn’t lie. Observational estimates place these fires in the range of 500,000 to 1,500,000 acres initially. But given the fire intensity, they are likely to burn on for weeks to months.

Conditions in Context: 3 Percent of the Amazon Lost To Fire From 1999-2010

The new fires originated in a region now known to harbor ongoing understory fires. These fires burn beneath the interlaced root systems of the Amazon and have been discovered to continue to smolder year-round. During times of intense heat and drought, these fires can break through to the surface and more intensely burn through large swaths of forestland. After burning, they sink back into the understory, waiting for another heat/drought trigger.

Last year, NASA published a study which found that fully 3 percent of the Amazon had likely been lost to fires during the period of 1999-2010. A primary culprit for these losses was found to be understory fires, which NASA identified as a significant threat to the Amazon forest system.

12 million square miles of Amazon burned

(3 percent or 33,500 square miles of a 1.2 million square mile area under investigation burned from 1999-2010 according to a 2013 NASA study. Location of fires indicated in orange.)

Perhaps most significantly, the NASA study implicated climate change as the primary cause for these fires, finding that drought and heatwaves related to increases in human heat trapping gasses had depleted ground moisture levels, resulting in a greatly increased instance of fires.

Post 2010, the satellite record indicates that these fires have continued to grow in intensity. And so the risk to the Amazon expands.

Overall, the Amazon currently stores about 120 gigatons of carbon. It represents about 10% of the global uptake of carbon from the atmosphere through forest tree and plant respiration. But as the Amazon burns and becomes deforested, it shifts from being a carbon absorber to a carbon emitter. Currently, depleted and burning areas of the Amazon are estimated to emit 500 megatons of CO2 each year. And though this has not yet tipped the balance to make the Amazon a net carbon emitter, human climate change and deforestation is driving the world’s largest rainforest rapidly in that direction.

Under human driven climate change and deforestation, the heat and drought situation will only worsen for Brazil. Even without clear cutting, the fires will expand and, eventually, the rainforest will be consumed. Without substantial mitigation action by humans, it is bound to happen. The vast carbon store that is the rainforest will almost certainly begin adding to the already rapacious human heating effect. A process that will continue for decades and will only end once the rainforest is gone entirely.

Links:

Brazil Drought: Sao Paulo Could Run Dry in Less Than 100 Days

NASA Study Shows 3 Percent of Amazon Lost to Fires from 1999 through 2010

LANCE MODIS

Forest and Climate

Effects of High Frequency Understory Fires on The Amazon Rainforest

Fire Spurs Blackout That Shuts off Power for 50 Million

Hat tip to Bernard

Climate Change Pushing World to Brink of Food Crisis as FAO Price Index Jumps to 208.1 in February

Food…

Along with water and energy, which are related to its production, it is one of the key commodities necessary to keep the world’s 7.1 billion people alive, healthy and happy. Its price and availability can determine the fate of nations and the stability of the world’s economic system. Rising prices mean risk of increasing poverty, risk of political instability and, in the worst instances, a creeping spread of hunger and malnutrition about the globe.

And ever since the year 2000 world food prices have been steadily and inexorably rising.

FAO index February 2014

(UN FAO Food Price Index through February of 2014. Image source: UN FAO.)

The UN FAO Index — An Indicator for Global Crisis

The United Nations provides a valuable index that comprehensively assesses the overall cost of food in both real and nominal terms. Managed by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the food price index has been tracking global indicators for this valuable commodity since 1961.

The FAO Index emerged in a world that hosted 3 billion people. A world that was just beginning to realize the strengths and limitations of its new, mechanized, fossil fuel-dependent, civilization. A world where new fossil water resources and slow to recharge groundwater were being tapped through drilling. A world where farming was expanding into even the most marginal and vulnerable of regions even as forests continued to be converted into farmland at a stunning rate.

From a period of the 1960s on into the first years of the 1970s, the nascent FAO price index recorded stable if moderately high global food prices. By the 1970s, food prices spiked along with the cost of energy during an oil crisis related to a Growth Shock as US and western energy production encountered a series of difficult to cross boundary limits.

The First Test — 1970s Energy and Climate Crisis

The FAO also emerged in a world where agriculture was heavily dependent on fossil material and energy inputs — for machinery, pesticides, and for fertilizer. This single commodity dependence meant that any spike in oil prices also had a deleterious effect on food access. And energy price spike after energy price spike occurred throughout the 1970s. A first warning that such a high level of reliance on just one commodity — oil — was a clear and critical weakness for the global economic and food distribution system.

At the same time, an intense drought swept over Africa. The rains that annually drenched the Sahel region faded and, then, for a period of about a decade, simply failed. The energy crisis combined with severe decadal climate shifts in Africa to further stress world food markets already reeling under oil price shocks. Higher prices, political instability and widespread hunger soon followed.

During this time, the link between human fossil fuel emissions and a potential to radically alter the climate in a way that was far more hostile to traditional agriculture was mostly unexplored. But despite this general lack of awareness, changes were already lining up that would have severe consequences for human agriculture within only a few decades. A then less visible, but no less important, weakness resulting from industrial agriculture’s, and much of modern civilization’s, reliance on oil, gas and coal. Fuels whose endlessly ramping use created long-term and ever increasing damage to environments in which human agriculture could be reasonably expected to exist.

Rise From Crisis Without Addressing Underlying Vulnerability

Political pressure was put on the Middle East to make energy more cheaply and readily available. Forests were cut down in South America to make room for more farmland. Saudi Arabia mined fossil water to farm its deserts. Meanwhile, the rains eventually returned to Africa and so prices again fell to far more affordable levels during the 1980s and 1990s. But the key weaknesses — reliance on fossil fuels for agriculture, an immense world population that jumped to 4, 5 and then 6 billion, a host of problems and vulnerabilities emerging from big industrial farms, and increasing agricultural vulnerability to water scarcity and related climate shifts were not addressed.

So as the world entered the first decade of the new millennium and signs of crisis began to again emerge, it found itself radically unprepared to deal with what was shaping up to be a more vicious repeat of the shocks experienced during the 1970s.

Energy Shocks, Extreme Weather, Consumption Changes, 7 Billion People

Entering the first decade of a new millennium, food prices were again on the rise. Oil shocks were starting to once more ramp up and strange changes to the world’s climate were starting to spur extreme drought and rainfall events that were outside of the typical context of human agriculture. Meanwhile, emerging economies in Asia such as India and China were beginning to demand more meat thereby putting additional stress on the world’s farmland — as meat-based agriculture is about 1/50 as efficient on a calorie comparison basis when compared to simply farming grains, legumes and vegetables.

By the middle of the decade, a series of crisis points had been reached. Worldwide demand for both food and energy was raging. Populations were nearing 7 billion souls. Oil price increases were leading more nations to use farmland for biofuels production creating a competition for land use between fuels and food. Australia was suffering its worst drought in 1,000 years and many other regions of the world were likewise sporadically hit. But the big, severe, widespread droughts would wait for next decade to emerge with even greater force and rapacity.

By 2007, world oil prices were screaming toward record levels and an already climate and demand stressed food market rapidly followed. By 2008, the FAO index had surged to a record level of 201. Such a large jump had numerous and far-reaching effects. Hunger again became an issue of serious concern in Africa and, sporadically, various countries began to see food riots as the distribution system painfully rebalanced to reflect new levels of increased demand and struggling output. Global economic recession immediately ensued and prices were drawn down through the economically vicious process of demand destruction.

Russian Wildfires 2010

(Satellite shot of smoke from massive wildfires raging across Russia during 2010. The largest smoke plume in this image is 3,000 kilometers in length, about the distance between Los Angeles and Chicago. Image source: Lance-Modis.)

As 2010 opened a new decade, a weak El Nino combined with human caused climate change to produce a powerful and persistent heat dome over Russia and the Ukraine. As spring continued into summer, the heat intensified and massive wildfires began to break out. A pallor of smoke covered millions of square miles as millions upon millions of acres burned. The fires and coincident droughts brought Russian, Eastern European and Ukrainian grain production to its knees. The situation was so severe that Russia cut off grain exports, keeping all its production to feed its own citizens.

The effect to global food markets was apocalyptic. Food prices surged through 2010 and by 2011 peaked at an FAO index value of 229.9, the highest level yet on record. High food prices swiftly rippled through a number of the world’s most vulnerable regions and food riots, which had been sporadic, became national phenomena. Hardest hit were teetering nations in the Middle East that lacked the economic muscle to provide their populations with adequate food supplies. Egypt, Libya and Syria faced outright civil war and/or regime change due, in large share, to social stresses sparked by food scarcity.

Rising Threats for the Current Day

The world’s primary response to this major price spike was to simply plant more land. But as this new rush occurred, extreme weather got a radical boost. Sea ice losses, by end of summer 2012, had totaled more than 50% in area and extent values since 1979 while volume measures had brutally fallen by over 80%. As a result, the Arctic had lost about 4% of its albedo and was undergoing a period of rapid heat amplification. These changes would result in more persistent and severe Jet Stream patterns that would deliver an increasingly extreme battery of droughts and deluges to the Northern Hemisphere. Meanwhile, warming had now resulted in an amplification of the global hydrological cycle by 6%. This amplification meant drying of the land came on more rapidly, setting the stage for intense drought initiation even in regions that weren’t seeing more stuck weather patterns.

As 2013 rolled into 2014 drought was widespread and severe in large zones from California to Brazil and Argentina, to Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, to Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia, to China and Australia. Many of these droughts are among the worst and most widespread on record. Meanwhile, severe rainfall and wind events over Britain and Western Europe are also disrupting agriculture and causing direct damage or inundation of crops. And though the world was planting a massive number of acres during 2013-2014, the effects of these various and wide-ranging weather emergencies were again starting to take hold.

For by February of this year the world FAO index had risen to 208.1 — a level very close to 210 which is considered to be the point that high food prices begin to result in the potential for major social unrest worldwide.

High Risk Outlook for 2014

With so many regions experiencing drought, with human-caused climate change playing havoc with the world’s weather, and with the rising risk of a moderate-to-strong El Nino emerging in the Eastern Pacific, the world appears to be entering yet one more period of high risk for another major food shock. El Nino is traditionally known to produce drought in Australia and Southeast Asia. And while it is has not historically tended to coincide with drought in Russia and Eastern Europe, it does tend to shift weather patterns toward hot in those regions. With the hydrological cycle amped up by human-caused climate change and with ridges/blocking patterns more prevalent due to added atmospheric heat content and sea ice loss, it might be wise to consider the 2010 spate of extreme drought and fires in this region a potential risk as the year and a likely El Nino progresses.

Links:

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

Lance-Modis

Growth Shock: Tragedy and Hope at the Limits of a Finite World

Is Meat Sustainable?

2010 Russian Wildfires

Russian Ban On Grain Exports Begins

Climate Change and Rising Food Prices Heightened Arab Spring

Arctic Albedo Falling at Twice Expected Rate

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

El Nino is Coming

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

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

World Food Security in the Cross Hairs of Human-Caused Climate Change: Mangled Jet Stream, Ocean Heat and Melting Sea Ice To Deliver 500 Year Drought to California? Brazil, Turkey, Australia and More to Follow?

California snow pack January 18 2013California snow pack January 18 2014

(California Snow Pack for January 18 2013 vs the California Snow Pack for January 18 2014. Note the near-zero snow cover for this drought-impacted region. Image source: NASA/Lance-Modis)

“We are on track for having the worst drought in 500 years.” — B. Lynn Ingram, professor of earth and planetary sciences at the University of California, Berkeley.

Remember the historic drought that swept the US in 2011-2013? It was the worse drought in 50 years for some areas. Thankfully, the blocking pattern, excess heat and evaporation that set off this drought and that almost ran the Mississippi River dry abated and lessened, shifting westward and, instead delivered wave after wave of wet and stormy weather to the Eastern US.

Not so with the American West. There the high amplitude Jet Stream pattern remained, keeping regions locked in warm, dry conditions throughout the winter of 2012-2013, on through the end of 2013 and into the early months of 2014.

Looking further back, it was not just these years that had delivered dry weather to the US West Coast. California, ground zero for the current climate change related emergency, has endured dry, hot weather ever since the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) went negative ten years ago suffering drought years with almost bi-annual frequency.

Now, as Dr. Ingram notes above, California is currently ramping up to its worst drought in 500 years.

A long emergency for California

We only have to scratch the surface for the symptoms of systemic climate crisis in California to crop up. California water authorities failed to honor contracts for the first time in 54 years. Sacramento, as of December was experiencing its worst drought in 130 years even as conditions continued to worsen through January and February.

According to the New York Times, as of February 1rst, 40,000 people were at risk of losing access to water within the next 60 to 120 days. And State officials warned that this number was likely to rapidly rise as The State Water Project announced on January 31rst that it did not have enough water to supplement the fading supplies of local providers to a total of 25 million customers. Meanwhile, State emergency planners were laying out contingencies that included shipping water over land by truck to parched communities.

The drought is also having a devastating impact on local farmers with about 1/3 of California’s farmland expected to lay fallow, at least 25,000 farm laborers expected to be laid off work, and agricultural businesses expecting losses to mount into the tens of millions of dollars. Already, livestock owners in both New Mexico and California, unable to support their animals, have been forced to sell, as fields that used to support four foot high grass are brown and cracked.

Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies noted:

“I have experienced a really long career in this area, and my worry meter has never been this high. We are talking historical drought conditions, no supplies of water in many parts of the state. My industry’s job is to try to make sure that these kind of things never happen. And they are happening.”

Climate change, climate change, and climate change

Far flung and dynamic changes to the Earth System appear to have resulted in a variety of factors that have amplified the California drought. First, increasing global temperatures have amped up the rate at which water evaporates into the atmosphere by about 6%, this increased rate of evaporation results in more extreme conditions when heat and dryness do occur. So a drought that may last a year is likely to be even more intense, due to enhanced evaporation, than a comparable drought that occurred 50 or 100 years ago.

In addition, loss of sea ice, snow, and permafrost plays a key roll in re-shaping the Jet Stream. According to Dr. Jennifer Francis and other polar researchers, receding sea ice cover is likely to result in more powerful and long-lasting Rossby Wave type blocking patterns. This happens as more heat becomes concentrated in the polar regions, causing the Jet Stream to meander in great swoops and whirls. These large waves can become fixed into blocking patterns for extended periods. In the up-slope of these waves, warmth and heat predominate. In the trough or down-slope, stormy, wet and cool conditions prevail.

And just such a blocking pattern has dominated the US West Coast for 11 months running. The result is extraordinarily intense dryness, even during the rainy season of November through March.

PNAS drought model US southwest

(Image source: PNAS)

Sadly, according to climate models, we can expect this kind of dryness to intensify over the US Southwest as human caused global warming grows more extreme. A report conducted by PNAS in 2010 and authored by Seager and Vecchi confirmed other model findings that the US Southwest would continue to dry as the climate warmed — the upshot being that the wet season for the West would eventually evaporate.

Above, the PNAS drought model shows evaporation beginning to increase during the first two decades of the 21rst Century. Then, by about decade 2, precipitation rates rapidly fall and evaporation rates gradually rise through to 2100. The red line shows the compounding effects of evaporation increase and precipitation decrease over 24 separate climate model essays.

Rossby wave over West Coast Weakens

(Rossby Wave over West Coast Weakens. Image source: University of Washington)

It is worth noting that on a positive, and slightly hopeful, note, the current blocking pattern over the US West Coast and related Pacific Ocean waters has weakened somewhat. This should allow some moisture to flow into the parched west over the coming days and weeks. And, in the forecast, we do see a proper storm or two emerging from this new pattern. Unfortunately, we’d typically expect about 20-30 storms of this kind during a typical winter season and with March bringing in the end to this year’s rainy season, along with the northward retreat of the moisture flow, it appears likely that California will have to endure at least another 6 months of dry conditions before seeing any hope of major storms returning next fall/winter. A remote potential to say the least given both long-term trends and current conditions.

‘Like a microwave on full blast drying the Earth:’ drought, drought, and more drought

Dr. Kevin Trenberth, one of the world’s premier climatologists, in an email to Joe Romm recently noted:

“The extra heat from the increase in heat trapping gases in the atmosphere over six months is equivalent to running a small microwave oven at full power for about half an hour over every square foot of the land under the drought. No wonder wild fires have increased! So climate change undoubtedly affects the intensity and duration of drought, and it has consequences.”

Under such conditions, we would expect both drought and wildfires to proliferate. And, in fact, this is exactly what we are seeing. As major wildfires impacted both California and Arctic Norway during winter time, Brazil, Turkey, China, Argentina and Australia were also all experiencing some of their worst or most intense droughts on record.

In Brazil, the least rain in two decades is spurring a cattle sell-off that would be very familiar to livestock farmers in California and New Mexico. The expected summer rains did not come and Brazil, a heavily meat-dependent nation was left with soaring food prices after the sell-off as stocks first surged, then plummeted. The epic drought for this region is also causing a number of other impact such as coffee shortages and a related reduction in hydro power as rivers run dry.

Nearby Argentina also saw severe drought-related shocks in recent months as a December drought inflicted serious harm upon Argentina’s corn crop. In a typical year, Argentina produces about 32 million tons of corn. But this year’s drought is estimated to have wiped out about between 7 and 14 million tons of the crop. Argentina is the third largest producer of corn and with the US revising estimates down for its 2013-2014 crop, supplies of the grain are being drawn ever-lower. Though very intense, the December drought had abated by mid-January, providing a respite for other crops such as soybeans.

In Turkey, Lake Sapanca, which provides water for hundreds of adjacent farms, was within a half meter of ‘dying’ as a combination of drought and water drilling had pushed the lake to its limits. Local farmers have, for decades, drilled the land to provide irrigation water for farms and livestock. Now, the drilling is sapping the lake bed. A period of drought had, as of late January, left the lake in such a state that local officials were claiming the lake would be dead after another half-meter fall. The lake which is nourished both by springs and ground water has been deprived of flows both by human climate change induced drought and by human drilling into the lake’s spring-bed.

In Australia, drought conditions are now worse for some locations than at any time since 2003, a tall order since the 2003 to 2009 drought was Australia’s worst in 1,000 years. For Sydney, that means the lowest rainfall totals in more than 70 years. This particular drought hit both hard and fast with Australia seeing normal conditions before Christmas, but after, very intense heat and dryness resulted in a rapid scorching of farmlands, crops, and grazing fields. The dire drought situation has resulted in government relief funds being released to affected farmers. NSW Minister for Primary Industries, Katrina Hodgkinson noted to the Sydney Morning Herald:

“Seasonal conditions are now deteriorating at a rapid rate across a large portion of NSW and both the severity and speed at which this drought is moving is astonishing. Primary producers in some parts of NSW have simply not had the opportunity to prepare for another severe downturn in seasonal conditions so quickly after the Millennium drought broke.”

Lake Poyang May 2014Lake Poyang Jan 2014

(A mostly full Lake Poyang as seen from Satellite on the left during May of 2012. A parched and almost completely dry lake Poyang as seen from Satellite during January of 2014. Image source: NASA/Lance-Modis.)

And, in China, the largest lake for that populous nation has now dried up. Poyang, a massive lake usually spanning 3,500 square miles has been turned into a sprawling field of earth parched and cracked by a combination of drought and water diversions resulting from the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. According to reports from The Guardian and Chinese News Sources, a drought stretching from 2012-2014 in the region of Poyang is now the worst in at least 60 years leaving lake refill almost non existent as upstream river flows to the lake were periodically cut off by water storage operations at the Three Gorges Dam. The result was an extreme lowering of lake levels and dry bed conditions that have driven farmers and fishermen in the region out of business.

Implications for world food security

Major droughts during 2011-2012 impacted many of the world’s primary agricultural basins, resulting in forward food supply dropping to as low as 72 days. Since that time, food supplies have slightly recovered but are well below previous levels last seen in the 1990s at 104 days. Food insecurity and failure to distribute food to the malnourished remains a priority at international agencies like the UN which has identified numerous countries including Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Somalia, Syria, Mali, Sudan and Nigeria, among others, as extreme risks for hunger and famine. Relief agencies have allocated billions of dollars to address this problem but the UN continues to identify climate change as a major threat to global food security with the potential to wipe out all previous progress moving forward.

The droughts in California, Turkey, Australia, China, Argentina and Brazil so far for 2014 put the world at risk for another bout of food insecurity later this year should major weather and climate related crop disruptions emerge in other primary food producers such as the bread baskets of the US, Russia, and Europe (The US, Brazil, China, Russia, and Europe are top food producers). It is worth noting that, in large part due to the ongoing southwestern drought, the US has revised a number of its crop projections downward for end 2014.

With polar amplification playing havoc with the Northern Hemisphere’s weather systems, with Australia sitting in a pool of expanding warm Pacific Ocean water that makes drought more likely there, and with the Eastern Pacific edging closer to La Nina, conditions warrant a continued monitoring of both weather and the state of world food supplies. The added global heat engine also impacts soils and crop growth in ways to which we are currently unaccustomed, resulting in more extreme instances of flash drought as well as flash flood. In this respect, the examples of Australia and Argentina are of particular concern.

Though global crisis has not yet returned, it lurks at the edges as drought, extreme weather and over-use of ground water supplies continues to threaten a wide swath of productive zones. So, at this point, the situation is one best described as tenuous with ongoing regional impacts over the Sahel region of Africa and in other sporadically vulnerable locales.

Links:

Historic Drought of 2011-2013

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