Largest Winter Wildfire in Kansas History Probably Linked to Climate Change

Over the past few days, a 1.5 million acre (2,350 square mile) swath of the Central U.S. has burned. The wildfires, stoked by warm winds, prodigious undergrowth, and a nascent mid-western drought exploded across Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. Six people have perished, numerous structures have been destroyed, and thousands of people have been forced to evacuate. According to initial reports, the losses in the form of cropland burned and livestock consumed by the flames are expected to be significant.

(Large wildfires and massive burn scars are clearly visible in this March 7 NASA satellite shot of North Texas, the Oklahoma Pan-Handle and Southern Kansas. For reference, bottom edge of frame is approximately 120 miles. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

For Kansas, a single blaze covering 1,000 square miles was likely the largest fire ever to strike the state. Meanwhile, similar enormous fires ripped through nearby Oklahoma and North Texas (see satellite image above). Though more favorable weather conditions for firefighting are on the way, concerns remain that the fires could continue to grow throughout the weekend.

It is not an unheard of event for wildfires to strike the plains states during winter. However, the rising frequency and intensity of large fires during recent years has been a cause for growing concern among climate researchers. And though humans and lightning strikes often provide the ignition sources for the wildfires that do occur, it is the underlying heat and drought conditions which can cause a wildfire to explode into an out of control monstrosity when such an ignition inevitably occurs. To this point, it’s worth noting that a similar large wildfire outbreak occurred during the winter of 2010-2011 — a time when near record warmth combined with drought to scorch 4,000 square miles in Texas and Arizona. And we should also note that global warming will tend to bring on these wildfire favorable conditions with increasing frequency and intensity.

(Near record warmth and below average precipitation over the past month set the stage for extreme wildfire risks this week. Increasingly, such anomalously warm temperatures and rapid onset drought conditions are driven by human-caused climate change. Image source: NOAA.)

This year, similar climate change related conditions set the stage for this past week’s dangerous outbreak. And though some researchers consider the fire regime in this region of the U.S. during this time of year to be cyclical in nature (possibly driven at least in part by the ENSO cycle), the added heat and increasing risk of intensifying drought periods due to climate change plays a role in the worsening fire regime as well.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, wildfire season in the Western U.S. has already grown from 5 months per year to 7+ months per year due to rising temperatures. This added heat and related expansion of the wildfire season has helped to increase the average number of large fires burning during any given year in this region from approximately 140 per year during the 1980s to 250 per year from the period of 2000 to 2012.

(Union of Concerned Scientists graphic shows stark wildfire trend for the Western U.S. A trend that is being repeated in many regions across the country due to climate change’s rising temperatures and increasingly intense precipitation extremes. See full infographic here: Union of Concerned Scientists.)

For the Central U.S. the story is much the same as researchers have warned that the frequency and intensity of wildfires likely would continue to increase in the coming years, given the confluence of climate change related factors such as higher temperatures and lower rainfall amounts. In Phys.org today, University of Illinois atmospheric sciences professor Don Wuebbles noted that increasingly intense wildfires are:

“…Probably… the new normal. Thirty years from now, we may look upon this as being a much better period than what we may be facing then.”

Links:

LANCE MODIS

NOAA

Union of Concerned Scientists

A Look at Questions About Current Wildfires

At Least 6 People Have Died in Plains Wildfires

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

‘Everything is Burning Around Us’ — You Just Can’t Normalize Gatlinburg’s Freakish Fall Firestorm

There’s nothing normal about what happened to Gatlinburg, Tennessee on Monday.

Sitting at the epicenter of a freakish fall warmth and drought, the scores of fires that raged throughout the southeast into late November had, until recently, spared this sleepy tourist town resting on the slopes of the Great Smoky Mountains. But as winds roared out of the south at up to 87 miles per hour ahead of an approaching cold front on the 28th, the little city’s luck ran out.

gatlinburg-fire

(Fire on the mountains near Gatlinburg captured in this photo by a local resident. Image source: Twitter.)

Somewhere, a spark lit. And the bone-dry hillsides filled with ready fuels combined with hurricane force gusts to do the rest. By early evening, the skies over Gatlinburg had been painted orange. Ash and embers were carried aloft by the winds. And all around the city, mountains caught fire and burned.

As fires raged, 14,000 people were forced to flee. Home after home was consumed. Now, at least 400 residences are thought to have been lost. Smoke and swiftly moving flames injured 45 while taking the lives of seven people who were tragically unable to escape the rapid onrush. And as neighborhoods were reduced to their foundations, 2,000 residents have been left stranded in Red Cross evacuation shelters.

Rains on Tuesday and Wednesday have, blessedly, tamped down many of the fires around Gatlinburg. That said, reports from CBC and the National Interagency Fire Center show that the (Chimney 2) blaze remains mostly uncontained, if rather less intense. So risks from the fire remain. Even more sadly, it appears that the full extent of the tragic damage and loss, as of Thursday morning, had not yet been fully realized. Estimates for destroyed or damaged homes continues to climb even as the number of persons lost to the flames keeps rising.

Largest Tennesee Fire in 100 (+) Years, Hottest Year on Record Globally

The Gatlinburg Fire was the largest fire to strike Tennessee in one hundred years. And when records for fires only go back about 100 years, you have to wonder if this isn’t another one of those 500 or 1,000 year climate/weather events that have been sparking off with increasing frequency across the U.S. and the world during the recent warm period. For like the Fort McMurray wildfire that forced an entire Canadian city to empty this spring, the Gatlinburg fire cannot be separated from the larger context of human caused climate change.

The fire erupted during the hottest year, globally, on record. It happened at a time when the Southeast was experiencing its own very abnormal drought. It lit, not during the peak of annual heat that is summer, but during the fall. And it happened in conjunction with an equally unusual mass after-season wildfire outbreak in the Smoky Mountains.

(Everything is Burning Around Us. In an escape attempt that is eerily similar to the flight of Trans Baikal natives half a world away just last year, a Gatlinburg resident attempts to flee a freakish fall firestorm spurred by conditions related to human caused climate change. Video source: Here.)

Though this is the largest fire to strike Tennessee in one hundred years, it can practically be said that what locals affectionately call ‘the volunteer state’ has never experienced conditions like those that led up to the Gatlinburg Fire. The Smoky Mountains where the fire burned get their name from the moist mists and fogs that tend to hang in the air and above the tree tops. It is a place known and named for its wet environment. So fires are rare and typically only happen during summer time.

But the added heat from climate change has altered the mountains. It has dried the landscape — turning the entire region into a firetrap during recent months. This extreme dry period is part of a new set of weather potentials for the region that are not normal. And as human fossil fuel burning forces the atmosphere to warm further, the intensity of droughts and wildfires that do occur in the south will continue to worsen.

(UPDATED)

Links:

Tennessee Wildfire Unlike Anything We’ve Ever Seen

Surreal Southeast Wildfires Should Not Be Burning in Mid November

It Was Like Driving Through Hell

Everything is Burning Around Us

No End in Sight as Forest Fires Rage Through NC, Tennessee

Gatlinburg Fire — Four Dead, Crews Search for Missing

Hat tip to Suzanne

Hat tip to Wili

Hat tip to Cate

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

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.

****

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

Climate Change Has Left Bolivia Crippled by Drought

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

*****

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

“Surreal” U.S. Wildfires Should Not be Burning in Mid-November

The smoke here in Atlanta has been surreal — Meteorologist Stu Ostro

*****

It’s a script that reads like something from the pages of a dystopian sci-fi novel:

In Dallas, on November 16, the thermometer hit 88 degrees Fahrenheit, breaking a 95 year old record. In Ada, Oklahoma the mercury struck 85 degrees F. Further north in high-elevation Denver, temperatures soared to 78 F — punching through a 75 year old record.

Meanwhile, strange, out-of-season wildfires continued to burn from the U.S. South to North Dakota and New England. In Atlanta, smoke streaming out of nearby wildfires blanketed the city. Red-eyed residents were increasingly forced to don protective masks beneath the choking late-fall pallor. In Chattanooga, over 200 residents were hospitalized from smoke inhalation and shortness of breath.

appalachian-wildfires

(NASA satellite image of smoke streaming out from Appalachian wildfires on November 16, 2016. Note that smoke plume stretches over large sections of North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia — stretching all the way to coast and spilling out over the Atlantic. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

Today, winds blowing out of the northwest pushed smoke over large sections of North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. And numerous additional locations issued air quality alerts.

Mass Mobilization to Fight Surreal Fall Wildfires

In the neighboring Appalachian region alone, more than 5,000 firefighters employing 24 helicopters and other pieces of heavy equipment have been battling blazes throughout forested lands for almost a week. A single fire in the North Georgia Mountains is larger in size than Manhattan. And with numerous large blazes raging throughout the region, about 130,000 acres has burned so far in an area that rarely sees large fires during summer — much less in the middle of November.

Asked about the situation, Weather Channel meteorologist Stu Ostro said — “The smoke here in Atlanta has been surreal, and [occurs] in the context of the persistent lack of precip and above average temperatures.”

Further north, wildfires have also sparked in New Hampshire, New York and North Dakota.

Conditions in the Context of Climate Change

In a number of cases, it appears that arsonists have ignited some of these fires. But warm conditions more similar to summer than fall have combined with an extreme drought spreading through the affected regions to push fire danger through the roof. So the impact of any ignition source is dramatically compounded by the heat and dryness. And the most intense fires are now burning in a region of extreme to exceptional drought centered on the mountains of North Georgia.

unseasonable-warmth-blankets-north-america

(Odd, unseasonable warmth blankets much of the U.S. and Canada in this surface air temperature anomaly map as wildfires rage in the southeast on November 16. Image source: Climate Reanalyzer.)

Such extreme drought and related intense warmth is not a normal climate feature for the southeast during November. Cool weather often dominates the North Georgia region at this time of year. But 2016, a year when global temperatures are now likely to hit 1.2 C above 1880s averages, brings with it an increasing likelihood of unseasonable heat and related rapidly developing drought in the affected areas. These fires, thus, occur under weather conditions that are consistent with what we would expect from human-caused climate change.

Links/Notes:

Stu Ostro

LANCE MODIS

Climate Reanalyzer

United States Drought Monitor

The National Inter-agency Fire Center

Note: Renowned and respected meteorologist Stu Ostro was generous enough to provide commentary on the smoke/fire situation in Atlanta — which includes a note on how odd he thinks the current situation is. That said, the analysis and assertion that the current situation is not normal and is related to climate change is my own initial observation. Stu’s inclusion in this analysis is in no way meant to imply that he agrees fully or in part with my particular assessment. You may want to seek his own professional opinion on the matter here on Twitter as I have found that he is both friendly and accessible.

Note: Official agencies issue burn warnings during dry times for a reason. Anyone lighting fires during such times of extreme dryness — like the present — represents a hazard to public safety. Health, property, the resiliency of our national forests, and individual livelihoods are all put at risk by careless, reckless or malicious use of fire under these circumstances. Please heed the guidance of local, state and national authorities in such instances.

Carbon Sinks in Crisis — It Looks Like the World’s Largest Rainforest is Starting to Bleed Greenhouse Gasses

Back in 2005, and again in 2010, the vast Amazon rainforest, which has been aptly described as the world’s lungs, briefly lost its ability to take in atmospheric carbon dioxide. Its drought-stressed trees were not growing and respiring enough to, on balance, draw carbon out of the air. Fires roared through the forest, transforming trees into kindling and releasing the carbon stored in their wood back into the air.

These episodes were the first times that the Amazon was documented to have lost its ability to take in atmospheric carbon on a net basis. The rainforest had become what’s called carbon-neutral. In other words, it released as much carbon as it took in. Scientists saw this as kind of a big deal.

This summer, a similar switch-off appears to be happening again in the Amazon. A severe drought is again stressing trees even as it is fanning wildfires to greater intensity than during 2005 and 2010. Early satellite measures seem to indicate that something even worse may be happening — the rainforest and the lands it inhabits are now being hit so hard by a combination of drought and fire that the forest is starting to bleed carbon back. This gigantic and ancient repository of atmospheric carbon appears to have, at least over the past two months, turned into a carbon source.

Amazon carbon dioxide

(High levels of carbon dioxide, in the range of 410 to 412 parts per million, and methane in the atmosphere over the Amazon rainforest during July and August of 2016 is a preliminary indicator that the great forest may be, for this period, acting as a carbon source. Image source: The Copernicus Observatory.)

Carbon Sinks Can’t Keep Up

Though the story of human-forced climate change starts with fossil-fuel burning, which belches heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, sadly, it doesn’t end there. As that burning causes the Earth to heat up, it puts stress on the places that would, under normal circumstances, draw carbon out of the atmosphere. The carbon-absorbing oceans, boreal forests, and great equatorial rainforests all feel the sting of that heat. This warming causes the oceans to be able to hold less carbon in their near-surface waters and sets off droughts and fires that can reduce a forest’s ability to take in that carbon.

In the context of the global cycle of carbon entering and being removed from the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and large, healthy forests serve to take in greenhouse gasses. We call these carbon sinks, and throughout the past 10,000 years of our current epoch, the Holocene, they’ve helped to keep these gasses, and by extension, Earth’s temperatures, relatively stable.

carbon sinks

(Without the ability of forests, soils and oceans to take in carbon — to act as carbon sinks — global atmospheric CO2 would have already risen well above 500 parts per million by 2009 due to fossil-fuel burning. These sinks are a helpful mitigating factor to the insult of human carbon emissions, but if they become too stressed, they can become sources of carbon instead. Image source: IPCC/CEF.)

However, for a long time now human fossil-fuel emissions have far exceeded the ability of the world’s carbon sinks to draw in excess carbon and keep greenhouse gas levels stable. Though these sinks have taken in more than half of the great volume of carbon emitted from fossil-fuel burning, the total portion of heat-trapping CO2 has risen from 280 ppm to more than 400 ppm. The oceans acidified as they strained beneath the new carbon overburden. And the forests took in this carbon even as they fought off expanding deforestation. As a result of all the excess carbon now in the atmosphere, the Earth has warmed by more than 1 degree Celsius above 1880s levels. And combined with the already strong stress imposed by clear-cutting and slash and burn agriculture, the added heat is a great strain on an essential global resource.

Global Warming Causes Carbon Sinks to Switch Off, or Worse, Turn into Sources

In this tragic context of heat, drought, ocean acidification and deforestation, it appears that the grace period that the Earth’s carbon sinks have given us to get our act together on global warming is coming to an end. Heating the Earth as significantly as we have is causing these sinks to start to break down — to be able to draw in less carbon, as was the case with the Amazon rainforest in 2005 and 2010. At these points in time, the sink was carbon-neutral. It was no longer providing us with the helpful service of drawing carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it in trees or soil. But, more ominously, in 2016, it appears that the Amazon may also to be starting to contribute carbon back to the atmosphere.

High Surface Methane Amazon August 4

(High surface methane readings over the Amazon in excess of 2,000 parts per billion is a drought and wildfire signature. It is also a signal that the rainforest during this period was emitting more carbon than it was taking in. Image source: The Copernicus Observatory.)

After each of these brief periods of failing to draw down carbon in 2005 and 2010, the Amazon carbon sink switched back on and began to function again for a time. But by 2015 and 2016, record global temperatures had again sparked a terrible drought in the Amazon region. According to NASA officials, the new drought was the worst seen since at least 2002 and was sparking worse fire conditions than during 2005 and 2010 — the last times the Amazon’s carbon sink switched off. In July of 2016, the Guardian reported:

“Severe drought conditions at the start of the dry season have set the stage for extreme fire risk in 2016 across the southern Amazon,” Morton said in a statement. The Brazilian states of Amazonas, Mato Grosso, and Pará are reportedly at the highest risk.

Per NASA’s Amazon fire forecast, the wildfire risk for July to October now exceeds the risk in 2005 and 2010 — the last time the region experienced severe drought and wildfires raged across large swaths of the rainforest. So far, the Amazon has seen more fires through June 2016 than in previous years, which NASA scientists said was another indicator of a potentially rough wildfire season.

Extensive Wildfires Over Brazil and Amazon on August 5 2016

(Extensive wildfires over the southern Amazon and Brazil coincide with apparent atmospheric methane and CO2 spikes. Indicator that the Amazon carbon sink is experiencing another period of failure. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

At the same time that drought and related wildfires were starting to tear through the Amazon, atmospheric carbon monitors like the The Copernicus Observatory were picking up the signal of a carbon spike above the Amazon with methane levels higher than 2,000 ppb (which is often a drought and wildfire signature) and carbon dioxide levels in the range of 41o to 412 ppm. It was a spike comparable to those over industrial regions of the world like eastern China, the U.S. and Europe.

In context, these Amazon carbon spikes are occurring at a time of record atmospheric CO2 increases. For the first seven months of 2016, the average increase in CO2 versus 2015 was 3.52 ppm. 2015’s overall rate of CO2 increase in the range of 3.1 ppm year-on-year was the fastest annual increase ever recorded by NOAA and the Mauna Loa Observatory. So far this year, the rate of atmospheric gain in this key greenhouse gas is continuing to rise — this in the context of carbon spikes over a region that should be drawing in CO2, not spewing it out.

Links:

Drought Shuts Down Amazon’s Carbon Sink

Amazon Could Face Intense Wildfire Season This Year, NASA Warns

The Keeling Curve

The Copernicus Observatory

NOAA ESRL

IPCC/CEF

LANCE MODIS

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

Hat tip to DT Lange

From the Arctic to Africa to the Amazon, More Troubling Signs of Earth Carbon Store Instability

The time for debate is over. The time for rapid response is now. The Earth System just can’t take our fossil-fueled insults to her any longer.

*****

Arctic Wildfires

(These Arctic and Siberian wildfires just keep getting worse and worse, but what’s really concerning is they’re burning a big hole through one of the Earth’s largest carbon sinks, and as they do it, they’re belching out huge plumes of greenhouse gasses. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

Carbon Spikes over the Arctic, Africa, and the Amazon

Today, climate change-enhanced wildfires in Siberia and Africa are belching out two hellaciously huge smoke clouds (see images below). They’re also spewing large plumes of methane and carbon dioxide, plainly visible in the global atmospheric monitors. Surface methane readings in these zones exceed 2,000 parts per billion, well above the global atmospheric average.

Even as the fires rage, bubbles of methane and carbon dioxide are reportedly seeping up from beneath the tundra — generating big blisters of these heat-trapping gasses that are causing sections of the Arctic soil to jiggle like jelly. Greenhouse gas content in the blisters is, according to this Siberian Times report, 7,500 parts per million CO2 and 375 parts per million methane. That’s about 19 times current atmospheric CO2 levels and 200 times current atmospheric methane levels. Overall, these carbon jiggle mats add to reports of methane bubbling up from Arctic lakes, methane blowholes, and methane bubbling up from the Arctic Ocean in a context of very rapid Arctic warming.

Surface Methane

(Methane spikes over Siberia, Africa and the Amazon correlate with wildfires and extreme drought conditions associated with human-forced climate change. Add in carbon dioxide spikes over the same regions of Africa and the Amazon and it begins to look like a visible amplifying feedback signal. Image source: The Copernicus Observatory.)

Meanwhile, a global warming-enhanced drying of the Amazon rainforest appears to be squeezing a substantial amount of these hothouse gasses into the Earth’s atmosphere. Copernicus Observatory surface monitors indicate pools of 600 to 800 parts per million CO2 concentrations near and around the Amazon rainforest. These 100- to 200-mile-wide spikes in CO2 concentration are 1.5 to 2 times current atmospheric concentrations. These very high CO2 levels occur even as methane readings over the Amazon are also abnormally high, a possible precursor signal that the NASA-predicted Amazon rainforest wildfires this summer may be starting to ignite.

Any one of these instances might be cause for some concern. Taking all these various observations together looks like a clear signal that the Earth is starting to produce an increasingly strong carbon feedback response to human-forced warming. If true, that’s some pretty terrible news.

Human-Forced Warming Warps the Carbon Cycle

Each summer, the boreal forests of the Northern Hemisphere take a big breath. In the warmer airs, leaves unfurl, grasses grow, and all kinds of CO2-respiring organisms take hold. Together, they produce a frenzy of activity, a riot of life gathering great stores of energy for the next plunge into winter. Over time, this natural capture of CO2 stores this atmospheric carbon in plant matter that ultimately becomes soil, permafrost, or is buried in the Earth in the form of various hydrocarbon stores.

It’s this annual great growth and greening that, in large part, drives the seasonal up-and-down swings of the global carbon cycle — a cycle that, under stable conditions, would generate an annual wave in atmospheric CO2 concentrations running over a long-term flat line.

Surface carbon dioxide

(Surface CO2 readings show boreal forest uptake of CO2 over Siberia, Scandinavia, and parts of North America. Note the CO2 surface hot-spots over the fire zones in Central Africa and over the drought-stricken Amazon rainforest. Image source: Copernicus Observatory.)

Ever since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, human fossil-fuel burning has been adding carbon to the atmosphere. The result is that these seasonal swings, driven by plant respiration, have overlaid a significant upward trend in atmospheric carbon, one that this year pushed peak atmospheric CO2 values to near 408 parts per million. This is a level not seen in about 15 million years.

That increase in its turn has dramatically warmed the Earth — a result that has its own larger impact on plants, on the cycles that influence their ability to take in carbon, and even on the older carbon that was long ago stored in plants but is now sequestered in the soil, permafrost and oceans.

Amazon Drought Africa and Siberia Burning

(LANCE MODIS satellite shot shows extensive wildfires spewing large plumes of smoke over Siberia and Africa. Meanwhile, very dry conditions in the Amazon appear to be generating understory fires even as carbon is baked out of the Equatorial soil. Click image to zoom in.)

Warm the world up, as humans have, and you generate what, in scientific parlance, is a carbon feedback. Overall, the ocean can take in less atmospheric carbon and increasingly bubbles with thawing methane, the soils can store less carbon even as more is baked out in the heat, the plants and peats on balance burn more than grow, permafrost thaws and releases its own carbon. It is this carbon-cycle response to warming that is expected to add more carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere on top of that already being released through the harmful processes of fossil-fuel extraction and burning.

Warming Forces More Carbon Out of Lands and Seas, Keeps More in the Atmosphere — But How Much is Still Pretty Uncertain

How much heat-trapping carbon the Earth System will ultimately add to human fossil-fuel emissions is kind of a big scientific question, which is answered in large part by how much fossil fuels humans ultimately burn and how much heat is ultimately added to the Earth’s oceans, glaciers, and atmosphere.

Climate Change Impact on CO2 Simulations

(A sampling of climate model-projected Earth System CO2 feedbacks to human-forced climate change. Note the high level of variation in the model projections. It’s also worth noting that these model projections did not include difficult-to-assess permafrost and hydrate responses to warming over the period through 2100. Image source: IPCC AR 4 — Coupled Climate-Carbon Cycle Projections.)

Back in 2007, the IPCC estimated that around 87 parts per million of additional CO2 would be added to the world’s airs by 2100 (under an apparent assumed final human-driven CO2 accumulation of 700 ppm) as a result of this kind of carbon feedback to human warming. This implied about a 20-percent positive CO2 feedback to warming. However, the model projections were wide-ranging (from 4 to 44 percent) and the overall assessment drew criticism due to a lack of inclusion of permafrost and hydrate feedback estimates.

In 2012, the IPCC produced a more uncertain, complex, and unclear set of projections that notably didn’t include permafrost carbon feedback or methane hydrate feedback model projections, the scientific understanding of which is apparently still developing. But despite a good deal of specific-issue uncertainty, the consensus appeared to state that over the medium- (21st century) and long-terms (multi-century), we’d have a significant amount of extra carbon coming from the Earth System as a result of responses to a human-warmed atmosphere and ocean.

Smoke From African Wildfires

(African wildfires, whose smoke plumes are visible here, are just one of many sources of carbon spikes around the globe triggered by human-forced climate change. Amazon rainforest next? NASA seems to think so. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

Overall, there’s a decent amount of support for the notion that the Earth System is pretty sensitive to warming, that it tends to respond to even a relatively small amount of initial incoming heat in ways that produce a good deal of extra carbon in the atmosphere. After all, only a small change in the way sunlight hits the Earth is enough to end an ice age and pump an additional 100 parts per million of CO2 out of the Earth’s carbon stores as a result. The added heat forcing provided by the current human fossil-fuel emission is far, far greater than the one that ended the last ice age.

It is in this understanding and context that we should consider what appears to be an increasing number of Earth System responses to a human-forced warming that has currently exceeded 1 degree Celsius above 1880s averages. It’s easy to envision that these responses would grow in number and intensity as the Earth continues to warm toward 2 C above 19th-century averages.

Links/Attribution/Statements

LANCE MODIS

Coupled Carbon Climate Cycle Projections

Carbon and Other Biogeochemical Cycles

Arctic Methane Bubbles are Leaking 200 Times Above Normal

The Copernicus Observatory

The Keeling Curve

Hat tip to TodaysGuestis

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

Hat tip to DT Lange

Hat tip to Andy in San Diego

Water Knives in the Near Future — 16 Year Drought Brings Lake Mead To New Record Low

It’s been ridiculously hot along the unstoppable shrinking shoreline at Lake Mead. Over the past four days, highs have peaked at a scorching 109 to 111 F (42 to 44 C). Similar heat blasted all up and down the Colorado River Basin, squeezing moisture out of a key water supply for 25 million people in California, Arizona, and Nevada.

(NASA predicts that 20-30 year droughts in the US West will become 80 percent more likely due to human-forced warming. For Lake Mead, the reality of mega-drought appears to already be settling in.)

But these record hot days are just the most recent of many for the river and its water. For over the past 16 years the Colorado River has been assailed by drought. A new kind of mega-drought that has almost certainly been spurred by a human-forced warming of the world. A condition of endemic drying that will likely continue to worsen for the foreseeable future.

Lake Mead Approaching Mandatory Rationing Levels

1072.24 feet — that’s the water level for Lake Mead as of June 21, 2016. It’s about 3 feet below the 1075 mark breached for the first time in the reservoir’s history last year. And if Lake Mead remains below that line by the end of this year, it will mean mandatory cuts to Arizona and Nevada’s water supply.

That could happen either this year (2016) or next (2017) and will almost certainly happen by 2018. In fact, the US Bureau of Reclamation predicts a 64 percent likelihood that Lake Mead will not only remain below the 1075 foot level by 2019, but that it will plunge to as low as 1025 feet at that time.

Lake Mead Water Levels

(Lake Mead may average near or below the 1075 line requiring mandatory cuts in water supplies to Arizona and Nevada this year. Image source: Lake Mead Water Level.)

This level is only 125 feet above Lake Mead’s dead pool line of 900 feet. And hitting such a low water level would result in mandatory water cuts all up and down the Colorado River Basin.

Lake Mead supplies water to 25 million people in Nevada, Arizona, and California. 19 million of these people reside in California alone. And according to the 1922 Colorado River Compact, California retains senior rights to the river’s water supply. What this means is that when there’s a shortage, Nevada and Arizona have to take the first hits. And that’s bad news for the six million people and related industries supported by the river in this region. It means that if the 16 year drought along the Colorado River basin continues — and that will likely be the case due to impacts related to human-caused climate change — then water rationing is almost certain to take effect in Arizona and Nevada over the next few years.

Southwest Becoming Drier

(Weather systems that bring rain to the US Southwest are becoming more rare. Scientific studies indicate that this condition is caused by human forced climate change and will continue to worsen this Century if fossil fuel burning and human based carbon emissions do not halt soon. Image source: Climate Central.)

If the climate change driven drought continues and Bureau of Reclamation forecasts are correct, then hitting 1025 feet at Lake Mead by 2019 to 2022 will result in The Department of the Interior stepping in to take control of Lake Mead’s water management. At that point, all bets are off even for California — which would likely then see a 10 percent reduction in the water provided to it by Lake Mead.

Water Knives in the Hothouse Sun

Scientific studies indicate that factors related to human-caused climate change prevent weather systems bearing precipitation from reaching the US West Coast. This problem is particularly acute for the Southwest, where the most intense drying is expected to occur. In addition, added heat — like the record to near record high temperatures experienced across the Southwest over the past few days — results in greatly increased rates of evaporation. So what rain does fall doesn’t stay in rivers or in the soil as long.

Drought Animation NASA

(If you thought the current drought was bad, then this animation will knock your socks off. Loss of soil moisture for the US is ridiculously extreme under business as usual fossil fuel burning in this NASA projection.)

As you can see in the NASA soil moisture prediction measure above, this added heat due to climate change is expected to make currently bad drought conditions absolutely terrible over the coming decades. NASA notes that reductions in fossil fuel emissions help to blunt the intensity of the coming droughts, but that worsening drought conditions will still occur. Considering the current state of Lake Mead and the Colorado River basin, we are likely to see worsening water cuts to communities across the Southwest as climate change related heat and drought conditions worsen.

Links:

NASA

US Bureau of Reclamation

Lake Mead Water Data

Climate Central

Lake Mead Water Level

What Lake Mead’s Record Low Means For California

Lake Mead Helps Supply Water to 25 Million People — And it Just Hit a Record Low

The Water Knife

Hat tip to Andy in San Diego

Major Wildfire Outbreak in Central and Western Africa as Drought, Hunger Grow More Widespread

The major news organizations haven’t picked it up yet, but there’s a massive wildfire outbreak now ongoing over Central and Western Africa. These wildfires are plainly visible in the NASA/MODIS satellite shot — covering about a 1,400 mile swath stretching from the Ivory Coast, through Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon and on across the Central African Republic, the Congo, and Gabon.

Major Wildfire Outbreak Central Africa

(Very large wildfire outbreak in Central Africa in the February 10 LANCE-MODIS satellite shot. For reference, bottom edge of frame covers about 350 miles. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

Smoke from these fires is extremely widespread — stretching over almost all of Western and Central Africa, blanketing parts of Southern Africa and ghosting on out over the Southern Atlantic Ocean. Together with these massive fires we have what appears to be a rather significant CO2 plume showing up in the Coperinicus monitoring system (see below). It’s a signature reminiscent of the amazing Indonesian wildfires that, during a few weeks of the Fall of 2015, matched the CO2 emission of Germany. The satellite representation of these fires is so strong that it’s difficult to believe that no news of the fires has hit the mainstream media. But, so far, there hasn’t even been a peep.

The intensely burning fires now rage across a region of Africa experiencing both severe heat and drought with temperatures hitting well over 40 C in Nigeria and over 36 C throughout the broader region today. An extreme heatwave occurring in tandem with a new kind of flash drought event that’s becoming more and more common as human fossil fuel emissions keep forcing the world into higher and higher temperatures ranges.

Global_Total32column_Carbon32dioxide_00

(The Copernicus CO2 monitor shows an intense CO2 plum issuing from very intense wildfires over Central and Western Africa on Wednesday, February 10th. Other CO2 hotspots include China, the Northeast US, Northern South America, Southeast Asia, and a region stretching from Siberia through to the Arctic. It’s worth noting that Northern Hemisphere CO2 levels now range from 400 to 414 parts per million. Image source: CAMS CO2 Monitoring.)

Central Africa is but the most recent region to feel the effects of extreme drought and related risks to food security. For through 2015 and on into early 2016, both drought and hunger grew in scope and intensity across Africa. An impact that is almost certainly related to the combined influences of a near record El Nino and global average temperatures that are now in the range of 1.1 degrees Celsius hotter those seen at the end of the 19th Century.

El Nino + Global Warming’s Impact on African Drought Risk

As a human-forced heating of the globe warms the world’s airs and waters, the rate of evaporation and precipitation intensifies. On the wet end of the spectrum, the added heat and atmospheric moisture provides more available energy for storms. But on the dry end, droughts can appear more rapidly, become more intense and, in many cases, become longer-lasting. Effects can generate entirely new weather patterns — as seen in increasing instances of heat and drought appearing over the US Southwest or the progressively more stormy conditions showing up over the North Atlantic. Or they can intensify an already prevailing pattern.

Large sections of Africa suffering from severe drought

(Large sections of Africa suffering from severe drought as of February 7th in the Africa Flood and Drought Monitor graphic above. Widespread areas in red show soil moisture levels hitting their lowest possible rating in the monitor over widespread regions during recent days.)

In the case of the latter, it appears that just such an event may be happening now across Africa. During typical strong El Nino years, heat and drought were already at risk of intensifying — particularly for regions of Southern and Eastern Africa. But now, with global temperatures 1.1 C hotter than those seen during the late 19th Century, the drought risk is amplified. Added average atmospheric heat sets base conditions in which water evaporates from the soil more rapidly — so a pattern that would typically result in drought risk becomes far more intense and dangerous.

Over the past year, intense drought has impacted widespread regions across eastern and southern Africa. Sections of South Africa experienced its lowest levels of rainfall since record-keeping began in 1904 even as widespread drought from the Horn of Africa and regions south and westward put millions at risk of a growing hunger crisis.

Hunger Crisis Spreads, Fear of Famine Grows

According to The World Food Program and a February 10 report from VICE News, the widespread and growing drought is taking its toll. Skyrocketing local food prices, mass displacement due to political instability, and failed crops due to the driest conditions in 35 to 111 years are all having an impact. Now, more than 20 million people are at risk of hunger across Africa.

In Zimbabwe, President Mugabe declared a state of emergency as more than a quarter of the 13 million population struggled to access food. Many families were reported to have gone more than a week without a meal amidst heightening concerns over potential food riots. In Somalia, more than 3.7 million people faced acute food insecurity even as 58,000 children were at risk of dying during 2016 due to lack of food. Nearly 10 million people in Sudan were reported at risk of going hungry even as 40,000 were identified as potential immediate casualties due to the growing crisis. In Ethiopia, massive livestock losses due to drought are resulting in the worst food crisis since 1984 — a year that saw an estimated 1 million die due to famine.

Food Emergency in East Africa

(A food emergency — shown in red — emerges in East Africa even as food crises erupt across Central and Southern Africa. Food emergency regions indicated in red on this map are just one level below famine. Image source: Famine Early Warning System.)

Meanwhile, according to the Famine Early Warning System, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Yemen, Zambia, Mozambique and Madagascar all faced potential food crises through March. Risk of hunger is also compounded by a large number of displaced persons throughout Africa with East Africa alone hosting over 5.1 million refugees across South Sudan, Burundi, and Yemen.

Rain patterns are expected to shift eastward, bringing some relief to sections of the Horn of Africa even as drought is predicted to expand into the regions of Central Africa now experiencing intense wildfires.

Links:

LANCE MODIS

Famine Early Warning System

The World Food Program

VICE News

South Africa Experiences Its Lowest Rainfall Levels in 111 Years

CAMS CO2 Monitoring

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

Climate Change Induced Drought and Fire at Critical Stage in Chile — Construction of 12 Desalination Plants Underway

In the National Forests of Chile, it’s been burning since February.

An intense upshot of the stifling of water supplies through month after month of heat and lack of rainfall. A kind of intense onset, persistent drought that has become all too common in a world in which atmosphere, ice and ocean temperatures keep rocketing on to new record highs.

Starting February 17th, massive fires erupted, spreading swiftly through Chile’s forested mountainsides and valleys, threatening protected woods and endangered species. The fires have continued off and on now for more than a month — fueled by hot winds and a record drought that has forced the nation to build 12 desalination plants in a desperate effort to restore the country’s ebbing water supply.

Chile Fires February 17Chile Fires March 24

(Side by side frames of same region of Chile on February 17 [left frame] and March 24 [right frame]. For reference, bottom edge of frame is approximately 100 miles. Right frame is slightly off-set toward the east. Image source: Lance-Modis.)

Reports from BBC indicated that today’s fires are burning in three protected national parks: China Muerta National Reserve, Nalca Lolco National Reserve and Conguillio National Park. The fires threaten ancient growth forest that is the abode of the majestic Araucaria araucana trees. A kind of pine that can live up to a thousand years. Over 4,500 hectares are now burning and the smoke is plainly visible in the NASA satellite shot (right frame in the image sequence above). Fully fifteen fire brigades are involved in what is currently a massive firefighting effort.

Overall, the fires that have been raging for more than a month throughout Chile have consumed an exceptional 91,000 hectares — nearly double the 59,000 hectare per year average over the last five years. Years that themselves experienced increased heat, drought, and burning.

This extreme burning comes as Chile faces a ramping, multi-decadal water shortage set off by human warming. Climate scientists there have indicated a high risk of drastically increased drying throughout Chile over the next 35 years through to 2050 due to climate change related impacts.

According to President Michele Bachelet the country’s current drought situation is already at critical stages. Bachelet recently announced millions of dollars in funds to drill for underground water and to construct desalination plants to provide drinking water to fight ramping drought conditions with the ugly prospect of more to come.

In a report today from BBC, Bachelet noted that the situation was now endemic and expected to worsen:

“Faced with this critical situation, there is no choice but to assume that the lack of water resources is a reality that is here to stay and that puts at risk the development of important regions of our country.”

Though climate change is expected to continue to ratchet down on drought impacts to Chile — increasing heat, melting critical glacial ice, and drying out forestlands — this year, at least, there appears to be some hope for an end to the stifling heat and the ongoing fires. Hints of the first rains of autumn have now begun to show up in Central and Northern Chile.

But by 2050 with the world expected to be between 1.5 and 2.5 degrees Celsius hotter than 1880s averages, the autumn rains will have been brutally beaten back — retreating further and further into fall. In that time, the heat and dryness of spring and summer will come early and the great glaciers upon which Chile depends so much for its water will be but wan shadows of former grandeur. If they exist at all.

Links:

Forest Fires Rage in Chile — Made Worse By Wind and Drought

Chile Declares Forest Fires Alert

Lance Modis

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

Sea Level Rise, Persistent Drought Sets off Mass Migration and Famine in Pakistan

Both surface water and ground water have become unusable, with the once fertile Indus river basin turning into a desert, as sea water brings sand inland as far as 50 kilometers.World Bulletin in June of 2014

*   *   *   *

For the cities, towns and villages of Sindh Province along the Indus River in Southeast Pakistan, the seas are rising and the winter rains have failed. It is a place besieged on all sides by climate change. By forces that are killing its children due to malnutrition and turning tens of thousands of its populace into climate change refugees.

Coastal Villages in Pakistan Retreat Ahead of Rising Seas

(Coastal villages in Pakistan retreat ahead of rising seas. Image source: Ali Murtaza)

Climate Change, Loss of Trees, Loss of Children

A combination of rising temperatures and decimation of local forests due to gum extraction has exacerbated an extraordinary moisture deficit for an already arid region. In early spring of 2014, the impacts to crops resulted in scores of children dying due to malnutrition. By late fall, the famine had returned with increased intensity, resulting in the loss of nearly 300 children in less than three months. A tragic loss that may well have been avoided.

Increased aridity in the region can be blamed on a number of factors — all related to human-caused climate change. Gum extraction from Gugral trees has resulted in losses of up to 70 percent from local stands. The loss of these tens of thousands of trees has, in turn, resulted in less water retention kicking off increased aridity. Meanwhile, larger global climate change is resulting in higher temperatures over the region — increasing evaporation rates and further lowering soil moisture content. Glacier loss in the Himalayas has recently pushed a surge of added water down the Indus — which helped to boost development unsustainably. Now glacial outflows are at risk of dwindling, threatening the long-term future of the Indus itself. Finally, the increasing global heat is kicking off alterations in seasonal rain patterns — making the winter rains less reliable.

Sea Level Rise Ruins Coastal Crops, Sets off Mass Migration

The combined factors would be difficult enough for Sindh and its cities to manage. But a final factor appears to be delivering another disruptive coup de grace. As of mid 2014, environmental reports had indicated a mass migration away from Pakistani coastal regions.

Indus Delta

(Not a cloud above the once-fertile but now increasingly salt-ridden Indus Delta on 14 January 2014. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

Rising seas had resulted in increasing levels of salt water in near-coast aquifers and wetlands. The rising salt levels in soils made irrigation of coastal crops impossible in many regions. Within just a few years, the elevated seas had rendered 1 million hectares of land arid — making it impossible for farmers to grow crops or to raise animals.

According to a June 2014 report by World Bulletin:

Both surface water and ground water have become unusable, with the once fertile Indus river basin turning into a desert, as sea water brings sand inland as far as 50 kilometers.

In addition, saltwater invasions of the Indus river reduced fish stocks. This sudden loss of water useful to agriculture and precipitous fall in fish stocks suddenly put many farmers and fishermen out of work.

By mid 2014, more than 100,000 people had fled the coast. Now, these tens of thousands of jobless farmers and fishermen pack the streets of inland towns — seeking jobs and places to live that simply may not be available.

But what this litany of harsh statistics doesn’t tell is how many of the children lost came from families of those displaced by rising seas.

Sadly, this issue of river deltas losing fertility to the inexorably rising tide is not just a problem for Pakistan. Many of the worlds most productive agricultural zones lie in delta regions. At this point, all are under threat due to speeding sea level rise set off by rising rates of glacial melt. And as we have seen in Brazil, California and Pakistan this year other increasing atmospheric temperatures, climate induced weather pattern changes and deforestation (Brazil, Pakistan) also play a role.

Links:

Rising Seas Force 100,000 Pakistanis From Coastal Homes

Another Child Dies of Famine in Tharparkar Due to Malnutrition

Sindh Region of Pakistan

Famine Hits Thar

Thousands of Trees Lost in Thar

LANCE-MODIS

Glacial Melt Will Reduce Crucial Water Supplies

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

Hat Tip to Andy in San Diego

Hat Tip to Planet in Danger

Heat, Wind Ahead of Pacific Storm Spikes King Fire Hazard; Potential Blocking Pattern Shift Underway

King Fire Sep 23

(King Fire Complex fanned by strong, hot southwesterly flow on September 23, 2014 — a rising fire danger through Thursday in advance of an approaching Pacific storm system. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

A powerful storm system off the US and Canadian Northwest Coasts may deliver much-needed rains to central and northern California by Thursday — but not before pulling warm, dry winds up from the south in advance of the storm’s approach. The heat and winds, expected to reach 15-25 mph later today, will heighten danger for the over 7,400 firefighters already battling the 90,000 acre King Fire.

As of earlier today, the fire was 35% contained after the army of firefighters, aided by a spate of mountain drizzle, tirelessly worked through the weekend to staunch the blaze. But the new in-rush of hot, dry winds today and tomorrow will fan the still energetic wildfire, increasing the threat to more than 21,000 structures ringing the fire’s edge.

Already, ten people have suffered injuries and 32 structures were destroyed even as 2,700 people are currently evacuated from areas most vulnerable to the still-raging fire. Given the influx of more dangerous conditions, fire fighting personnel will be hard pressed to prevent further damage from an already costly and harmful blaze.

Strong Storm Approaches the Western US

(Strong storm approaches the Western US as the ridge and associated blocking high shift eastward. Change in year and half long blocking pattern? Image source: NOAA-GOES.)

Fire Amidst Record Drought

The King Fire erupted in Central and Eastern California during mid September as century scale drought conditions continued to scorch the state. As of today, more than 50% of the state remains under the most extreme drought level with 100 percent of California suffering from some degree of drought.

This past weekend’s light rains did little to help. However, a strengthening storm track in the Pacific is likely to deliver at least some moisture to Northern and Central California by Thursday. A blocking high pressure ridge that has persisted off the US West Coast for more than a year and a half has also shifted — moving inland toward the Central and Western US. This shift appears to be slowly opening the door to some moisture for California.

Blocking Pattern Shift

(University of Maine Jet Stream modeling shows an eastward shift in the year and a half long blocking pattern and associated ridge over Western North America and the Northeastern Pacific. In today’s graphic, the ridge has shifted into the Central US with associated Rossby-Wave type troughs over both the Eastern US and Eastern Pacific. Notably both troughs now host powerful storm systems in the range of 975 mb and lower. Image source: University of Maine.)

An atmospheric pattern more favorable for El Nino development may also be favoring increased precipitation for California. However, it is still too early to determine whether a pattern favoring drought reduction is firmly in place.

Conditions in Context

Under the current rapid and powerfully enhancing regime of human-caused heating of the Earth’s oceans, ice, and atmosphere, we can expect the US West and Southwest to continue to dry as the storm track shifts northward and as rising temperatures bake more and more of the moisture out of the soil. A significant increase in the occurrence of drought in the US Southwest since the 1970s is likely a part of this larger trend, one that will almost certainly worsen as human-caused climate change intensifies.

In addition, an increasing eccentricity in the Jet Stream associated with Northern Hemisphere polar heat amplification has resulted in far more persistent weather patterns. Dome scientific studies have found that these patterns, associated with powerful Rossby-type wave patterns in the Jet Stream, have appeared with increasing frequency since the mid 2000s. As a result, cooler stormier patterns tend to persist in one region while dry, hot conditions have tended to persist in other regions. This new climate regime appears to be enhancing an already amplified drought pattern for the US West even as it has pumped up storm patterns for regions east and north. It is also worth noting that a number of studies have also found a link between major sea ice losses in the Arctic since 2007 and the intensity of the current California drought.

Links:

LANCE-MODIS

NOAA-GOES

University of Maine

King Fire Update: 2,000 Firefighters add Manpower to those Battling Massive Blaze

Human-Caused Climate Change and Desperately Drilling For Water: The Deepening Dust Bowlification of California

There is no relief for poor California.

To the west, a heat dome high pressure system sits its dry and desiccating watch, deflecting storm systems northward toward Canada, Alaska, and, recently, even the Arctic Ocean. It is a weather system that drinks deep of Northwestern Pacific waters heated to 2-4+ C above average by humankind’s extraordinary greenhouse gas overburden. A mountain of dense and far hotter than normal air that is shoving the storm-laden Jet Stream at a right angle away from the US west coast and on up into an Arctic Ocean unprepared for the delivery of such a high intensity heat and moisture flow.

image

(Not one, not two, but three high pressure centers stacking up on June 24, 2014 off the North American West Coast. The highs are indicated by the white, clockwise swirls on this GFS surface graphic. This triple barrel high pressure heat dome represents an impenetrable barrier to storms moving across the Pacific Ocean. You can see one of these storms, represented by the purple, counter-clockwise swirl approaching Alaska and the Aleutians. A second Pacific-originating storm is visible north of Barrow in the Beaufort Sea. Under a typical pattern, these storms would have funneled into the US west coast or skirted the Alaskan Coast before riding into Canada. Storms taking a sharp left turn through Alaska and the Bering Sea into the Arctic is an unprecedented and highly atypical weather pattern. Image source: Earth Nullschool. Data Source: NOAA/GFS.)

In the far north, today, at noon local time, in the Mackenzie Delta region of the extreme northwest section of Canada on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, temperatures rose to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, 2-3 degrees hotter than areas of South Dakota and Iowa hundreds of miles to the south. It is a temperature departure 20-25 degrees F above average for this time of year. Far to the south and east, yesterday saw a garden variety pop up thunderstorm turn into a record-shattering rain event for Savannah Georgia, one that dumped 4-10 inches of rain over the region, over-topped ponds, flooded streets, knocked out power and washed out rail lines. In some sections of the city, hourly rates of rainfall were on the order of 4-5 inches. One might expect such a rainfall rate from the most moisture dense and intense tropical storms or hurricanes. The Savannah event was a summer shower driven into a haywire extreme by a heat-facilitated over-loading of the atmosphere with moisture.

What do the west coast blocking pattern, the California Drought, the Mackenzie Delta Arctic heatwave and the Savannah summer shower turned monster storm have in common? Twelve words: hydrological cycle and jet stream patterns wrecked by human caused atmospheric warming.

Three Year Long Drought Intensifies

Californians, at this time, may well be hoping hard for a mutant summer shower like the one that hit Savannah yesterday. But they won’t be getting it anytime soon. The triple barrel high off the US west coast won’t move or let the rains in until something more powerful comes along to knock it out of the way. And the only hope for such an event might come in the form of a monster El Nino this winter. Then, Californians may beg for the rain to stop. But, for now, they’re digging in their heels to fight the most intense drought in at least a hundred years.

California Drought Map

(This week’s California Drought Map provided by the US Drought Monitor. Orange indicates severe drought, red indicates extreme drought, and that brick color spreading from the coast and into California’s Central Valley is what they call exceptional drought. Not a corner of the state is spared severe or higher drought levels, with fully 77% of the state suffering from extreme or exceptional drought.)

With no rain in sight, with the snows all gone from the Sierra Nevada mountains to the east, and with both federal and state reservoirs under increasingly more stringent water restrictions, what it means for Californians is incessant drilling. So far this year an estimated 450 million dollars has been spent statewide to plunge ever-deeper wells into the state’s rapidly-dwindling underground aquifers. In regions where a 200 foot well was once considered deep, 600, 800 or even 1000 foot wells are now common.

In total, about 75% of California’s lost water supply has been replaced by what essentially amounts to mining ground water. But the drought mitigating flow can only last for so long. And if the rains don’t come, those sources will first dwindle and then dry up. So California’s agriculture and a decent chunk of its other industry may well be living on borrowed time facilitated by unsustainable drilling for water.

Communities local to the Central Valley region are already facing imminent loss of water supplies. Tom Vanhoff a Chowchilla local noted to CBS in a recent interview:

“I’m in a community out there with about 20 homes. We’re on one deep well ourselves and we lost it two years ago. We were at 200 feet and now we are down to 400 but all these new guys are going down to six, 800 and 1000 feet; it’s going to suck us dry here again pretty soon.”

So for Central Valley residents it’s literally a race to the bottom in the form of who can dig the deepest well the fastest.

Above ground, a once lush landscape is now parched and brittle. Most natives, even the octogenarians, have never seen it this dry. More and more, the productive Central Valley is being described as a dust bowl. In this case, Dust-Bowlification, a term Joe Romm of Climate Progress coined to describe the likely desertification of many regions as a result of human-caused warming, is hitting a tragically high gear for California.

Sierra Nevada No Snow

(Sierra Nevada Mountains in right center frame shows near zero snow cover on June 24 of 2014. Typically, California relies on snow melt to stave off water shortages through dry summers. This year, with drought conditions extending into a third year, snow melt had dwindled to a trickle by mid June. Sattelite Imagery provided by NASA LANCE MODIS.)

Global Warming to Raise Food Prices

For years, scientific models had shown that the US Southwest was vulnerable to increased drought under human-caused warming. Scientists warned that increased community resiliency combined with rapid reductions in global carbon emissions would be necessary to preserve the productiveness of regions vital to the nation.

California is one such region. Its economy, even outside the greater US, is the 8th richest in the world. It is also the US’s largest producer of vegetables, most fruits, and nuts. Other major agricultural production for the state includes meat, fish, and dairy.

Though much of the current drought’s impacts have been mitigated through unsustainable drilling for ground water, US meat and produce prices are expected to rise by another 3-6% due to impacts from the ongoing and intensifying California drought. But so far, major impacts due to large-scale reductions in total acres planted have been avoided. Without the drilling, overall repercussions would have been devastating, as planted areas rapidly dwindled in size. But with wells running dry, time appears to be running out.

Links:

California Drought: Snowmelt’s Path Shows Impacts From Sierra to Pacific

California Drought Poised to Drive up Food Prices as It Worsens

California Drought Turning Central Valley into Dust Bowl

All-Time 24 Hour June Precipitation Record Broken in Savannah Georgia

NOAA/GFS

US Drought Monitor

NASA LANCE MODIS/

Earth Nullschool

Dust-Bowlification

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

 

 

May Likely to Break Global High Temperature Record as El Nino Conditions Strengthen in Pacific

The human warming-riled monster weather event that is El Nino continued to advance over the Equatorial Pacific this week. Ocean surface temperatures throughout the basin from north and east of New Guinea and along a broad stretch of thousands of miles of ocean climbed. Sporadic west winds and an overall weakness in the trades extended the expansion of warm surface waters along the serpentine back of the El Nino pattern from west-to-east even as a high heat content Kelvin Wave kept conditions below surface much warmer than normal.

sstaanim

(Pacific Ocean sea surface temperature anomalies from 2 April to 28 May. Animation source: NOAA)

Large and growing regions of 1 to 2 C warmer than normal surface temperatures expanded in broad, 1,000 + mile stretches near the date line and ranged out from the west coast of South America. An impressive region of, very hot, 2-3 C positive anomalies grew through an ever-larger span from Santa Cruz Island to coastal Ecuador and Peru. Though the above graphic is not granular enough to catch it, daily anomalies in this hot pool exceeded extremely intense +3.5 to +4 C readings.

Readings in the range of +0.5 to +1 C invaded regions north to south, east to west, joining in an extraordinary zone stretching from the Philippines to South America, and from Baja to Hawaii to the Solomon Islands. A separate pool of very hot water north of New Guinea and near the Philippines is likely to play a further role in El Nino development throughout this year should weak trades and anomalous west winds persist. Then, a second and reinforcing pulse of warm water is predicted to push the entire Equatorial Pacific Basin well above a +1 C positive anomaly by late Summer through Fall.

Weekly Anomalies

(Sea surface temperature anomalies in the four key Nino regions all show continued warming through the end of May. Image source: NOAA.)

The tightening grip of El Nino is plainly visible with each of the four key Nino zones showing ongoing temperature increases in what is now a 3-4 month long event. Meanwhile, the key Nino 3.4 zone closed its 4th straight period above the +0.5 C Nino threshold even as it jumped to +0.6 C above average this week. Notably, the Nino 1+2 zone off South America hit a very warm +1.6 C average positive anomaly this week, showing additional warming from strong late April values.

Together, these values all show very solid continued progress toward El Nino.

image

(Map of geographical Niño zones provided by NOAA.)

Conditions in Context: May 2014 Likely Hottest on Record Amidst Ongoing Extreme Weather

Overall, Equatorial Pacific ocean surface temperatures continued their advancement from May 27 to June 2, rising from +0.59 to +0.68 C above the 1979 to 2000 average throughout the week. Global sea surface temperatures have remained in an exceptionally hot and likely global record range between +1 and +1.25 C above 1979 to 2000 averages throughout the month of May and into early June. These extraordinary readings likely combined with very high atmospheric values to put May of 2014 in the range of hottest on record. It is worth noting that, according to NOAA, April of 2014 was also the hottest in the 134 years since global temperature measurements began.

El Nino tends to spike atmospheric heat and, when combined with a brutal human greenhouse gas forcing, greatly increases the likelihood that a given year will reach new global heat extremes.

For 2014, El Nino and global warming related weather disruptions already appear to be taking hold with the Indian Monsoon appearing weak and delayed, a summer heat dome building over Europe and Western Russia, with Southeast China experiencing record floods even as northern and western China and Japan experience record heat. Ongoing droughts and crop disruptions in Brazil, building heat and drought in Indonesia, and Australia experiencing two back to back hottest years on record is also indicative of the screaming global heating that typically comes when El Nino gives human-caused warming an explosive boost.

Links:

NOAA

Indian Monsoon Disrupted

Monsoon Misses Date With India, Onset Delayed

Monster El Nino Emerging From the Depths

 

Mangled Jet Stream Delivers Record-Shattering Heat, Extreme Wildfires to California

California Heatwave May 15

(GFS Model 40 hour forecast for May 15 shows 90 and 100 degree temperatures spreading across most of California. Image source: University of Maine. Data source: Global Forecast System Model/NOAA.)

It’s just mid-May, but a wave of record July-like heat and wildfires is building for California and the US West.

A high amplitude Jet Stream wave that has been in place over the US West for more than a year now has resulted in hot, dry conditions throughout this very long period. It is an ongoing insult that contributed to the worst California drought in more than 100 years. A set of weather anomalies that continues to leave California and the US Southwest very vulnerable to heatwaves, fires and amplifying droughts as summer continues to emerge.

The pattern is essentially stuck — featuring a hot, pole-reaching, wave of the Jet Stream continuously rising over the US West, Western Canada and Alaska, and diving deep into the Arctic. It is a condition climate researchers such as Dr. Jennifer Francis attribute to an ongoing erosion and degradation of Northern Hemisphere sea ice. And the predictions of Dr. Francis appear to have born out in both recent observations and cutting edge scientific research showing how sea ice loss has shoved the storm track away from California and the US Southwest (see how Climate Change Made the California Drought Worse).

In any case, it is highly unusual for such an intense Jet Stream pattern to remain fixed for so darn long.

Emerging El Nino Contributes to 100 Degree (F) Heat

In recent months, the strength of the heat flowing up through the Jet Stream wave has been intensified by a growing pool of anomalously warm water to the south in the Eastern Pacific. This gathering pool of intensifying heat is a signal for the coming of El Nino. Come winter, a strong El Nino might bring a radical and violent switch of California weather to much more rainy conditions. But, for now, it lends further energy to a gathering and extraordinary May heatwave for the US West Coast.

It is a flood of heat that is expected to bring 90 to 100 degree plus temperatures for a broad zone from southeast California to the coast and on northward through the Central Valley. And, already, the effect is being felt for some regions. Yesterday, Van Nuys Airport in Los Angeles shattered its previous record high temperature of 91 for the date as temperatures rocketed to 93 F. Today, the forecast is for 98. Tomorrow, 100. Friday 96.

This forecast is for a string of four consecutive all-time record highs during a period in which temperatures hit an extreme range of 18-25 F above the typical daily peaks of 75 for this time of year. Sacramento, meanwhile, is expected to tie the all-time high today at 100 F after reaching the same reading yesterday. Tomorrow’s forecast is for a scorching 101 F. Typical average highs for this time of year in Sacramento are around 80 F.

Bernardo Fire Threatens Homes

(Fire approaches El Camino Drive, threatens homes in Carlsbad. Image source: Resident’s Contribution to ABC 10’s Twitter Feed)

Santa Anna Winds, Heat, Drought Spur Large Fires

Rising Santa Anna winds in the range of 40 to 60 mph with maximum gusts as high as 87 mph in the San Diego Mountains combine with relative humidity values below 10% and extreme heat to create a high potential for wildfire outbreaks. As a result, red flag fire hazard warnings have been issued for a zone along California’s southwest coast and into the south-central valleys.

By Tuesday, two large fires — one in Bernardo, San Diego and a second in Miguelito, Santa Barbara — had already erupted and consumed hundreds of acres. The Bernardo fire, by early today, had rapidly expanded to cover more than 1,550 acres forcing the evacuation of over 20,000 people and 1,200 buildings. Three schools and one military base were also evacuated as fires raced through valleys to threaten expensive homes in developments on local ridges. As of late morning, the fire was only 25% contained.

The Bernardo fire, as of this writing, posed a severe threat to many highly populated areas forcing numerous evacuations and even the closing of El Camino Drive. Given conditions on the ground this is a very dangerous situation in which the fire may undergo rapid expansion. Up-to-the minute photos by local residents show rapidly deteriorating and dangerous conditions (see ABC 10’s live feed). People in the area should exercise extreme caution and pay close attention to local fire/weather bulletins.

The Miguelito fire, on the other hand, had grown to 600 acres in just one day as it threatened local ranches. Firefighters had, by late morning, managed to contain 50% percent of that blaze.

Conditions in Context

The most recent record heat spike is likely to only exacerbate current dire drought and fire issues for the state. Local reservoirs remain very low and various water rationing and restriction regimes have already been imposed in numerous districts. Atmospheric moisture levels are also very low resulting in little in the way of evaporative cooling once heating intensifies. The result is a high risk for continued record heat, drought, and fire as spring proceeds into summer.

Mangled Jet Stream May 14

(Mangled Jet Stream pattern on May 14, 2014 features numerous high amplitude Rossby Waves and hot-cool/east-west dipole patterns. High speed Jet Stream flow is more indicative of a winter pattern, possibly due to the retreat and temporary re-establishment of the polar vortex. But the huge propagation of east-west/hot-cool dipoles and the continued upper level air invasion of the northern polar zone point toward a highly disrupted Jet Stream. Image source: University of Maine.)

Though highly anomalous and extreme for early May, the most recent California heat spike is likely to abate by Friday and Saturday as an onshore wind flow and slight weakening of the ridge is expected to bring cooler conditions. Ongoing high amplitude Jet Stream waves, however, are expected to continue to propagate over the US West Coast with the ridge predicted to again re-strengthen later next week. The added heating of the atmosphere as spring progresses into summer is likely to further exaggerate this already extreme set of conditions. So the atmosphere is rigged for further record heat spikes and the potential for long periods of record or near-record conditions going forward.

UPDATE: By noon, Pacific time, the Bernardo Fire had expanded to 1680 acres and spawned two smaller fires in the San Diego region sending residents in Carlsbad and Poinsettia scrambling. It is difficult to express how dangerous this situation has become. Risk for severe intensification of these fires is very high due to extreme temperatures, humidity in the range of 6% in San Diego, and very strong Santa Anna winds.

UPDATE: Passenger photo by cGilbertRun of three fires plaguing San Diego from inbound airline Wednesday afternoon at 1 PM Pacific Time:

Aerial Photo of three fires in San Diego on Wednesday

By early afternoon, the multiple blazes continued to expand spurring numerous additional evacuations, cutting off power to homes and businesses, and causing traffic snarls. Emergency authorities urged residents to remain at home or work unless ordered to evacuate to prevent congestion and to speed egress from affected areas.

UPDATE: By 1:30 PM PST, the Carlsbad Fire had spurred another 15,000 evacuations in San Diego. As of this time, the effect of the third fire is unknown.

UPDATE: Blaze near Poinsettia has resulted in an additional 11,000 evacuations. Sporadic reports coming in of three more fires now underway.

UPDATE: 30 homes reported burned in Carlsbad as of 2:00 PST. Unconfirmed reports of 103 F temperature readings in central San Diego.

UPDATE: MODIS shot of fires burning in southwest California and northwest Mexico during satellite pass this afternoon:

MODIS Shot of Fires buring in California

UPDATE: Local elementary school apparently damaged in Carlsbad Fire.

UPDATE: Five of the six fires burning in San Diego include: The Carlsbad Fire, The Oceanside Fire, The Highway Fire in Fallbrook, The Camp Pendleton Fire, and the Bernardo Fire.

UPDATE: Seven fires now burning is San Diego. Six are shown on the map below which does not include the Bernardo Fire:

Map of 7 Fires

 

UPDATE: New fire reported in San Marcos, bring the total number of San Diego fires to 8.

UPDATE: Unconfirmed new fire near Black Mountain (5 PM PST). If confirmed, this brings the total to 9.

UPDATE: The San Marcos Fire has prompted yet one more major evacuation. Thousands of residents fled the fire only to get bogged down in gridlock near the blaze. Firefighters are now on the ground to protect San Marcos residences but air support appears delayed, possibly due to multiple fires resulting in a thinning of resources.

UPDATE: Large office building now ablaze due to engulfment by the Carlsbad Fire. Unconfirmed reports of windswept embers falling over portions of San Diego.

UPDATE: DC 10 firefighting aircraft deployed to assist in fighting 8 + fires. Officials state that Carlsbad fire is now 10% contained, forward progress of Lakeside fire halted. Anti-looting guards set up to protect evacuated Carlsbad residences. Carlsbad officials: “It’s unbelievable, this is something we should see in October, not May. I haven’t seen it this hot, this dry in May before… this is an extraordinary weather event.”

All too apt tweet from King Pine Homes: “8 fires in North County SD right now. Climate Change sucks!

UPDATE: National Weather Service shows 4+ all-time record highs for the day broken in the San Diego region with readings topping out between 93 and 99 degrees.

Warmest thoughts and wishes go out to both the brave firefighters and to all the families in the affected regions. Please stay safe!

San Marcos Fire

(View from San Marcos as night falls over San Diego by GradyGray.)

UPDATE: San Diego County will hold a news conference at their County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) at 8:30 local time.

UPDATE: Governor Brown has just declared a state of emergency for all of San Diego County, noting: “I find conditions of extreme peril to the safety of persons and property.”

UPDATE: According to reports from the California Fire Service, the Tomahawk Fire has now burned over 6,000 acres and is now encroaching on Camp Pendleton.

UPDATE: 9,196 acres confirmed burned in San Diego County today.

UPDATE: The San Marcos Fire has spread to cover 500 acres is just a few hours.

UPDATE: Must-see footage of the Carlsbad Fire filmed by a passing driver earlier today:

FINAL UPDATE: Firefighters gained ground last night against the 9 fires that sent tens of thousands of San Diego residents scrambling yesterday. The Carlsbad Fire, the most destructive of the outbreak, was 60% contained as of early this morning. Another destructive blaze, the San Marcos Fire, had expanded to 700 acres by morning as firefighters focused resources to contain it. In total, more than 10,000 acres in and around San Diego have burned and more than 25 buildings have been destroyed. Thankfully, there is no report of loss of life.

Such a severe outbreak of early season fires is unprecedented so soon in the year. Seasoned fire officials, such as San Diego Fire Chief Michael Davis, have been aghast at the early extreme intensity of this fire season. Davis noted:

This is May, this is unbelievable. This is something we should see in October. I haven’t seen it this hot, this dry, this long in May.

Human-caused climate change, again, appears to have shown its awful hand in California this spring.

As firefighters and residents alike return to some rough allegory of normalcy this morning, dangers remain high. Record and unprecedented heat and dryness is, once more, settling over the region today, bringing with it the danger for more fires.

Links:

Global Forecast System Model/NOAA

University of Maine

Weather Underground Forecast for Sacramento

Weather Underground Forecast for Van Nuys Airport

National Weather Service Public Information for San Diego CA

California Wildfires: Hot, Dry Windy Conditions Expected Again Wednesday

Climate Change Made the California Drought Worse

ABC 10’s live feed of Bernardo Fire

Hat Tip to Andy (in San Diego very close to these fires and whom we wish to remain safe)

Hat Tip to Kevin Jones, and Mark from New England

California Experiencing Driest Year on Record, Epic Drought to Persist or Intensify Through Summer, Godzilla El Nino Waits in the Wings

8.83 inches. That’s the total average precipitation accumulation for the state of California so far for the first four months of this year. Out of the entire climate record, this paltry accumulation is less than that received during any similar period of any year since 1895.

Overall, rainfall totals throughout the state remained below 26 percent of typical levels for this time of year. And with California entering its third year of drought, the state would have to receive an average of 53 inches between now and October, more than 10 inches of rainfall each month, to break the current and very extreme ongoing drought.

May 6 drought monitor

(Drought monitor color graphic of California drought as of May 6. Tan = moderate drought. Orange = severe drought. Red = extreme drought. Dark Red = exceptional drought. Image source: Drought Monitor.)

As of late April, the drought had expanded to cover every corner of the state leaving not an inch of this critical agricultural region untouched. Drought continued to intensify, bringing with it water stress, cracked soil, crashing reservoirs and heavy strains to farms, businesses, cities and individuals. By May 6, fully 77 percent of California stifled under severe or extreme drought conditions.

The drought has become so severe that water-strapped cities like Santa Cruz have resorted to the most dire measures, including rationing, to husband dwindling water supplies. Last week, the city, which depends on some of the most vulnerable and thinly-stretched water resources in the state, announced a number of severe fines to water consumers exceeding assigned usage levels. The fines could quickly double, triple, or even quadruple water costs for any non-farm water consumer within the city.

Across the State, various desperate water conservation regimes have been put in place with the Federal Government announcing earlier this year that it would be forced to stop water allocations to farmers in an unprecedented move to stave off further declines in stores.

US Seasonal Drought Outlook

(US Seasonal Drought Outlook. Image source: CPC.)

Unfortunately, the persistent high pressure blocking pattern off the US West Coast, which has hovered in the same region for more than a year, remains in place even as it continues to deflect rain-bearing storms north toward the Washington and Canadian coasts.

This pattern — arising from a set of abnormal atmospheric conditions including added heating through human-caused warming and a Jet Stream that has the tendency to become stuck more and more often as sea ice erodes — results in a high likelihood that drought will remain or intensify for California and much of the US Southwest throughout this summer.

Climate Prediction Center analysis, shown above, projects that the current California drought will persist or worsen for the entire state through at least July 31rst. If relief does come, it will arrive many months from now. For the most likely chance for a change in the weather doesn’t appear until fall and winter of 2014. And this potential brings with it the risk for a radical switch to yet another damaging climate extreme.

Hoping For El Nino is Like Praying to Godzilla

Yesterday’s report from NOAA indicating a near 80 percent chance of El Nino by the end of this year provided some hope for additional rainfall after what is expected to be a very dry and difficult summer. But given current atmospheric conditions, the El Nino event would have to be in the moderate-to-strong range to both overcome what is a demonically persistent blocking pattern and to deliver enough moisture to make up the severe rainfall deficit. Anything less would be too weak to cure the current drought. But something stronger may well kill the patient.

Unfortunately, there remains a substantial risk that the 2014-2015 El Nino event could be a Godzilla of a thing — a monstrous outburst of the extreme ocean heat storage of the past 16 years that Dr. Kevin Trenberth has warned could well come back to haunt us. A record high ocean heat content that is out there, lurking in the Pacific Ocean even now. And it’s the potential that this heat will hit the surface with a severity rivaling or even exceeding the epic 1998 event that should well be cause for a different kind of concern.

ohc-2013

(Ocean heat content through 2013. Image source: Reanalysis of Global Ocean Heat Content.)

In such an instance, the onrush of heavy rains would be less a relief and more a switch from extreme drought to extreme flood. During the 1998 event more than 20 California counties were declared disaster areas due to the sudden deluge. But with human warming amping up the hydrological cycle by more than 6% and with such a large and vicious store of ocean heat waiting to be released, a severe El Nino at this stage might look more like an Arkstorm — an event which could dump many feet of rain over a period of weeks.

On the other hand, if the El Nino fizzles into only a minor event and that massive ocean heat store decides to lay in wait for another year or two or three, California is much more likely to remain locked in a continued multi-year dry pattern. So the best California could hope for is to thread an El Nino needle and receive a just-right moderate to strong El Nino. But with the current climate regime favoring extremes, the possibility for such a just-right occurrence is quite a bit lower than either the Godzilla or the fizzle.

In any case, both added heat and dryness are set to intensify over coming years and decades for California. This ongoing ratcheting is the direct result of human-caused climate change. A result that will either be bad or terrible depending on whether or not we decide to rapidly reduce and eliminate our greenhouse gas emissions.

Links:

Climate Outlook for Central California

Drought Monitor

CPC

Santa Cruz Rations Water

Farmers to Receive No Central Valley Water This Year From Feds

Dangerous Progress Toward Strong El Nino Continues

Reanalysis of Global Ocean Heat Content

 

Climatologist: Oklahoma is Burning. USDA Issues Dust Bowl Alert

Early May heat dome. A four word combination that may as well be a curse. And not something we would typically expect well before the height of summer. But that’s exactly what’s happened to the US from the southwest and on to its Heartland under a merciless regime of heat and drought fed by human-caused climate change.

As of Sunday, a high amplitude Jet Stream wave had formed over the Central US. The brief up-slope was enhanced by a number of unstable and powerful atmospheric dynamics. To the southwest, a warming Eastern Pacific lent energy from a growing pool of heat. To the north, from Arizona, to New Mexico, to Texas, to Oklahoma, lands baked by more than a decade of chronic drought provided almost no evaporative cooling as the atmospheric heat lens came into dangerous, greenhouse gas enhanced focus far overhead.

pressure anomaly

(ECMWF pressure anomaly graphic from Weatherbell Analytics showing a strong heat dome in place on Monday May 5, 2014.)

By Sunday and Monday, the heat dome was heavily entrenched and the result was a record flash heatwave for large swaths of Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado. In Oklahoma alone, temperatures rocketed to above 100 degrees Fahrenheit at over 17 separate locations. One location experienced a 103 degree F reading, also the highest ever recorded for the date.

To the North, Wichita Kansas shattered its all-time record high temperature by a whopping 8 degrees spiking to an extreme of 102 F. Not only was the heat far stronger than normal. It came far earlier. For Wichita, the earliest 101 F or greater reading came on June 4 of 1933 with most years waiting until late June or early July for 100 F + readings.

For the Heartland, this flash heatwave was very much like the heat of July coming far too early. Across Oklahoma, multiple wildfires erupted from lands ravaged by the most recent event in a long spate of ever-increasing heat and dryness. The rapid rash of burning occurred in regions near homes and businesses forcing more than a thousand to flee.

This sudden, extreme and profound heat prompted Gary McManus, Oklahoma’s state climatologist to write: “Oklahoma is burning, both literally and figuratively, as a combination of drought, record heat, high winds and low relative humidity created the perfect wildfire conditions yesterday,” in the Oklahoma Climatological Survey’s online Ticker.

By early Tuesday, more than 30 structures were destroyed, one soul was lost, and over 6,000 acres had been consumed throughout the state. Though the fires of Sunday and Monday were mostly contained, conditions throughout the state remained hot, dry and dangerous with many more high temperature records expected to fall by late Tuesday afternoon. Mid-morning temperatures in many locations had already risen to the mid to upper 80s and more daily highs in the 90s and 100s were expected throughout the region.

NASA Oklahoma fires

(NASA shot of Oklahoma fires on May 4 and 5. Image source: GCarbin. Note that though highly anomalous, these fires are nowhere near as extreme as the powerful early season blazes affecting large swaths of Siberia this spring.)

Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin issued burn bans for almost half the state as firefighters predicted continued extreme fire potentials for the state throughout the week.

USDA issues Dust Bowl Warning

Meanwhile, US Department of Agriculture officials issued a warning Tuesday that conditions in the US Heartland were rapidly deteriorating along lines last seen during the infamous 1930s Dust Bowl as expectations for the US domestic winter wheat crop again fell after the USDA’s most recent agricultural tour.

Even prior to the extreme early May heatwave emerging over the Central US Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, the percent of the US wheat crop in either good or excellent condition had fallen another 2% to 31% late last week. Meanwhile, crops listed as ‘very poor’ rocketed from an already abysmal 34% to 39% over the same period. The net result is that the US wheat crop is in its worst condition since at least 1996, according to findings by Commerzbank analysts.

For Oklahoma, at the epicenter of current agricultural harm and flash heatwaves, only 6% of the state’s entire wheat crop was listed as in either good or excellent condition.

Department of Agriculture crop scouts described the Oklahoma situation in, perhaps, the starkest possible terms during their most recent report stating:

“Producers in the Panhandle continued to experience high winds … and low moisture conditions similar to the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.”

Overall, analysts now expect a US wheat crop of just 762 million bushels, the third lowest in 15 years despite record areas planted.

Conditions in Context

For the US, weather patterns continue to put the entire southwest and central regions under the gun for severe-to-extreme drought throughout much of the summer. The West Coast blocking pattern is now again firmly entrenched resulting in a deepening of already record drought conditions for California. Sierra Nevada snow packs have now fallen to less than 18% of typical early May values resulting in severe hazard for farmers and communities relying on this dwindling water supply. Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico are also likely to suffer from an extension of this severe and extraordinarily long-lived drought pattern.

Record low sierra nevada snowpack

(Greatly diminished Sierra Nevada snow pack as seen from satellite on May 4, 2014. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

In addition, a developing El Nino in the Eastern Pacific is likely to enhance already dry conditions over the US Heartland through the summer months. Together with the firmly re-entrenched west coast blocking pattern, conditions associated with El Nino set in place an extreme risk for a highly damaging return to drought for large sections of the United States this summer.

Globally, droughts continue to impact a number of the world’s previously most productive agricultural regions. In particular, both Brazil and India are currently suffering from extreme heat and/or drought. Argentina, one of the world’s top wheat producers is also hard-hit. Another one of the world’s largest grain exporters — the Ukraine — has recently been destabilized by a series of ills including east-west geopolitical tensions, internal division, and by Russian invasion. In this context, it is also worth noting that drought, fire, and flood have reduced Russian wheat production from 61 million tons in 2009 along a declining scale to 38 million tons in 2012.

Damages and risks to US crops are, therefore, not simply a national phenomena, but part of a much larger global context of ongoing and increasing crop damage due to extreme weather set off by human-caused climate change.

Links:

Oklahoma is Burning

Oklahoma Climatological Survey’s online Ticker

USDA Warns of Dust Bowl

Sierra Nevada Snow Pack Falls to 18% of Typical Values

LANCE-MODIS

GCarbin

Weatherbell Analytics

Hat tip to:

Colorado Bob

Todaysguestis

Jay M.

 

 

 

 

World Food Security Slides into Red Zone as FAO Index Jumps to 213, Russian Special Forces Continue to Destabilize Breadbasket Ukraine, and Climate-Change Induced Extreme Weather Ravages Croplands

Feeling impacts from a broad range of stresses including widespread heat and drought from the US West, to South America, to Australia and Southeast Asia, the ongoing Russian invasion and destabilization of breadbasket Ukraine, and the growing threat of a strong El Nino emerging in the Pacific, world food prices made another significant jump during March of 2014.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), global food index prices surged from a value of 208 in February to 212.8 in March. The 4.8 point increase from February to March followed on the heels of a 5.5 point increase between January and February.

Values above 210 are considered to result in enough stress to ignite conflict as an increasing number of regions begin to see scarcity from lack of ability to purchase or produce food. For the time being, these prices remain below the 2011 high water mark of 229 which was linked to a broad eruption of conflict and food riots from Libya to Egypt to Syria and throughout a smattering of other impoverished or vulnerable regions in Asia and around the globe.

But with the world climate situation worsening, with chances for a strong El Nino emerging later this year increasing, and with global conflict over dwindling and endangered stores of food-related wealth and resources intensifying, there remains a substantial risk that global food prices will continue to see strong upward pressure throughout 2014, pushing and maintaining levels high enough to continue to ignite instability, unrest and, in some cases, open warfare.

(The first episode of Showtime’s “Years of Living Dangerously” provides a close look at two regions suffering directly from crop losses, economic impacts and hunger due to extreme droughts related to climate change — Syria and the US Southwest. It provides a view, in close-up of what happens due to years-long droughts and related food and resource shortages. In the US, loss of grazing land resulted in the closing of meat packing plants supporting local workers and in severe stress to communities even as religion and political beliefs impeded an effective response to the rising crisis. In Syria, a ten year drought spurred armed revolution against a government that turned a blind eye to the needs of its suffering citizens.)

Global Hot Spots

Western US: March saw a brief weakening of the, now 13 month long, blocking high pressure system off the US west coast. This slight interlude unleashed an extraordinary surge of Pacific Ocean moisture that set off record floods and one-day rainfall events throughout Northern California, Washington and Oregon. Pulses of moisture did briefly touch the US Southwest, but the Jet Stream configuration had shifted somewhat northward, resulting in less water relief for the most drought stressed zones.

April-8-2014-US-Drought-Monitor-Map

(The April 8 US Drought Monitor shows drought continuing to intensify over the US despite some moisture reaching affected areas.)

As a result, the epic California drought is probably still the worst seen in 500 years and is now likely to intensify and/or persist on into late this fall. By April 1, snow cover had fallen to 25% of a typical average for the Sierra Nevada. Combined drought and water shortages have led to an unprecedented complete cut off of federal water supplies to many local farmers. In addition, Silicon Valley, has been forced to ration its drinking water supply.

Meanwhile, sections of Texas have experienced their driest 42 month period since record-keeping began in 1911. Regions near Lubbock received only 33 inches of rainfall in the three and a half year period since October of 2010. A normal rainfall for this zone would be around 64 inches for the same time-frame. This makes the current 4+ year Texas drought worse than any previous dry time during the 20th Century, including the Dust Bowl period of the 1930s.

With the emergence of spring, a typical post-winter dry period will likely be enhanced by a continued formation of a powerful dome high pressure system blocking moisture flow to California and the US Southwest. In addition, amplified heat in the up-slope of a high amplitude Jet Stream wave will likely drive drought conditions to rapidly worsen as spring runs into summer. Sadly, the primary hope for moisture comes from the emergence of El Nino, which is becoming more and more likely for later this year. However, if the El Nino comes on as strong as expected, rainfall events are likely to be extraordinarily intense, ripping away top soil from the likely fire-damaged zones and making it difficult for water planners to capture and store water due to its velocity. In the worst case, Ark Storm-like conditions could emerge due to a massive heat and moisture dump that could result in very intense rivers of moisture forming over western regions.

Brazil: Ever since 2005, Brazil has been suffering from a series of persistent drought episodes. By this year, the nine year long drought series reached an ominous peak. Like California, this drought series is now likely the worst seen in decades and possibly as far back as 500 years. The result was widespread fires and blackouts throughout Brazil together with extreme impacts to farm production. Particularly hard hit were coffee and sugar production, sending prices for both markets rocketing to record or near-record levels.

Brazil Drought Rainfall Anomalies

(South American rainfall anomalies from Jan 23 to February 24, 2014. Image source: CPC Unified.)

Indonesia and Southeast Asia: From Thailand to Malaysia to Indonesia, drought resulted in significant reductions in palm oil production, a main crop for the region. Throughout March and into April large fires were reported over a wide drought-stricken zone even as smoke choked both cities and countryside. Some of the fires were suspected to have been illegally set by large palm oil conglomerates seeking to clear new land for an ever-expanding set of palm oil plantations. But the plantations may now be in danger of a drought fed by both their destructive practices of land-clearing and by their overall contribution to an extraordinary and excessive global greenhouse gas overburden.

Fires Malacca Strait 2014

(MODIS shot of widespread fires near the Malacca Strait during March of 2014. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

Drought related heat and fires not only threatened crops but also resulted in multiple school closings, numerous dangerous air warnings, thousands of calls reporting peat fires and, in Indonesia alone, more than 20,000 people hospitalized for respiratory problems.

The Ukraine and Russia: An ever-more expansionist Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine also resulted in higher food prices as speculators purchased grain stores over projections that Russian forces could disrupt Urkaine’s food production and exports. First phase invasion into the Crimea did not block key grain ports. But tens of thousands of troops massed along the Ukraine border and likely continued incursions by Russian special forces units into Eastern Ukraine resulted in an ongoing destabilization of one of the world’s key grain producers.

In this context, it is worth noting that global harvest figures showed Russian wheat production falling from 61 million metric tons per year in 2009 to 38 million metric ton per year in 2012. Throughout this four-year period, Russia has been forced to curtail or cut off grain exports on numerous occasions as increasing periods of drought, fire and extreme weather resulted in loss of crops.

Meanwhile, wildfire season began early in Siberian Russia perhaps presaging a fire season that, when combined with the effects of an emerging El Nino, could be the worst seen since 2010 when Russia first cut off grain exports to the rest of the world.

Global Problem: Though the above list provides examples of where global food supply is most threatened by extreme weather related to climate change and/or a related set of conflicts over resources, it is important to note that the current food, resource, and climate crisis is now global in nature. Droughts and severe weather have left almost no region untouched and now result in substantial damage to crops at least once a year in even the most tranquil locations. Instances of ongoing and systemic drought are now common throughout various areas not mentioned above including: Australia, China, South America, Central America, The Middle East, Africa, India, and sections of Russia and Europe. So though blows to important “bread baskets” provide the most impact to overall food price and availability, a general state of agricultural disruption due to increasingly extreme climates blanketing the globe result in a far more challenging than usual base-line for food producers and consumers everywhere.

Links:

FAO: World Food Situation

US Drought Monitor

LANCE-MODIS

CPC Unified

El Nino Update: Monster Kelvin Wave Continues to Emerge in the Pacific

Monster El Nino Emerging From the Depths

Thirsty West: Where’s the Snow?

Persistent Drought Still Reigns in Much of Texas

Arkstorm: California’s Other Big One

 

Hat-tip to Colorado Bob

Hat-tip to Miep

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