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

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

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

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

The Four-Year Global Drought

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

four-year-precipitation-anomalies-updated

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

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

Widespread Severe Impacts

These drought conditions have noted impacts.

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

world-vegetative-health-index

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

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

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

siberian-wildfires-july-2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

india-drought-baked-and-bleached-riverbeds

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

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

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

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

drought-wildfires-peru

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

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

Impacts to Food

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

food-index

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

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

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

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

Links:

Global Drought Monitor

Global Drought Information System

LANCE MODIS

#ThankYouNASA 

India Water Portal

FAO

The World Meteorological Organization

Hat tip to ClimateHawk1

Hat tip to June

Hat tip to Ryan

Hat tip to Griffon

Hat tip to Suzanne

Hat tip to Cate

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

Hat tip to Greg

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California’s Great Wilting — Lake Mead Heading Toward Rationing Line, Extreme Fire Hazard as 12.5 Million Trees Stand Dead, Agriculture Under Threat

(Video provided by NASA Goddard)

According to the California Government, State snowpack levels are now at 1 percent of average. That’s not just the lowest ever recorded. That’s about as close to zero as one can get without actually hitting zero.

“I don’t think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen. We’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California.” — Stephen Chu in a public press release six years ago.

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Southwest megadrought. For more than 20 years now, climate models have been indicating rising risk of severe, multi-decade drought for this region of the US as a result of human-caused global warming. For years, we’ve watched the warnings mount. And for years we’ve watched as climates for that region grew drier and drier.

Warming seeped into the region, driving snow packs higher, or off the mountains entirely. Critical stores through dry summer months, these zones of mountain snow and ice serve as aquifers for human beings, shrubs and trees, and local animals alike. Their dwindling alone left the region more vulnerable to drought conditions.

But further-reaching changes — warming in the nearby ocean, and a recession of sea ice in the Arctic — also tilted the odds toward drought. Heating in the near shore waters of the Northeastern Pacific served as a kind of barrier to storm systems running across the wide ocean. Loss of sea ice in the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort Seas provided a heat stress to that Arctic region. The net result was conditions that preferentially enabled the development of dry high pressure systems along the North American West Coast. A condition many have come to call — the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge.

As the climate continues to warm, these conditions — local, regional, and global — enforce a kind of tilting toward drier and drier conditions. Conditions that models show may result in worse droughts than even the one we are seeing now. Droughts that last, not for four years, but for ten years, twenty years, thirty years or more. It’s a problem we’re just starting to deal with now. But if you think this is bad, warm the world by another 0.5 C, or 1 C, or 2 C and you probably really don’t want to see what’s in store.

For according to a February article in National Geographic and based on studies published by NASA, Columbia University and Cornell:

The chances of a 35-year or longer “megadrought” striking the Southwest and central Great Plains by 2100 are above 80 percent if the world stays on its current trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions.

California Hitting Water Limits

But the current drought, though not yet a ‘megadrought,’ is more than bad enough. Aptly called epic, the powerful and ongoing lock on California moisture has wrung out aquifers, pushed snowpacks to below 1 percent of usual levels for springtime, greatly depleted ground water supplies, and forced an additional 25 percent water rationing across the state.

Stresses to water supplies — not only for California, but for many other states as well — are mounting. Key Aquifers, like Lake Mead in Northern Arizona, are hitting levels where downstream rationing may be required. A shock that would send impacts rippling on through the entire US Southwestern water supply.

California Drought April 20 2014

(Nearly 50 percent of California is now under the most severe drought conditions we have a measure for. A total of more than 37 million people in California alone are impacted by drought at this time. Image source: US Drought Monitor.)

Expert climate spotter Andy in San Diego has been providing situation discussion in this forum on the drought there for weeks. Of particular concern are water levels at Lake Mead — which are fast approaching the line where water rationing to various locations across the Southwest goes into effect as a requirement by law.

Yesterday, Andy noted in discussion here that:

Lake Mead is at 1078.79. [Approximately] 4 ft from the start of cutoffs. It appears Arizona gets [rationed] first at 1075 in some documentation, Nevada in others. Outflows from Mead were … shut off Saturday & Sunday. Starting Saturday, outflows from Lake Powell were cranked up by about 1000 [cubic feet per second]. … At this point, inflows to Powell are being sent downstream to Mead immediately. I see a bit of gambling here hoping for decent inflows to Powell in Late May through early July. Unfortunately, snow pack above Powell is pretty much non existent. Powell is at ~44% full pool. Mead is at ~38%. This will be an interesting summer, it appears that all of the Hail Mary’s have been used for 2015 already. (some edits for clarity)

Since Andy’s update yesterday, Lake Mead levels had fallen further to 1078.55 feet — just 3.5 feet above levels where rationing requirements begin.

12.5 Million Dead Trees Could Fuel Epic Fire Season

As key US aquifers hover over mandatory rationing levels, impacts to wildlife across California are growing more and more extreme. Anyone having watched Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s amazing Cosmos series may have noted dessicated, browned grasses and fields in the background of some shots. The reason for this is that many of Tyson’s narrations were filmed on location in California. And, at the time — in 2014 — California’s epic drought was really starting to bite deep.

How deep had not yet become apparent. But new reports out yesterday began to shed light on what is an amazingly stark situation.

According features in the Washington Post and elsewhere, more than 12.5 million trees perished in California alone last year due to extreme drought conditions. Encompassing more than 1 million acres, it’s a swath of forest the size of Rhode Island — now filled with withered trees. Key plants necessary for a variety of life and land supports including moistening the air, anchoring the soil, and providing homes for communities of creatures.

tree-drought-death

(USDA photo shows swaths of dead trees in California pine forest. Image source USDA via CBS Local.)

Research indicated that not only did the heat and drought stress the trees. But the warm conditions favored the invasion of tree-devouring beetles. Wood-devouring insects that thrive in the hot, dry conditions put in place by the ongoing drought.

The dead trees are bad enough. But put them smack dab in the worst drought on record for California and they are an extreme fire hazard.

Since late 2013, fire season has never really ended for California. It’s flared and dwindled, but wildfire burning has continued regardless of season due to both extreme heat and drying. Summer months are the worst times, though, and this year’s very extreme conditions has California fire planners very worried.

At issue are all the millions and millions of dead trees. Sitting in the sun, dried and wrung of all moisture, they’re essentially large stacks of kindling. Fuels that could rapidly ignite given even the smallest spark.

A recent program on NPR highlights the hazard:

Cambria, Calif. is under an emergency fire declaration. There’s no actual fire, no smoke, but here’s the situation broken down by Cambria Fire Chief Mark Miller. If a fire started today under the circumstances that exist……In the first 20 minutes, it would be six acres, and there would be two houses involved.

US Agriculture Under Threat

But not only is California now a fire-vulnerable land of browned, snowless mountains, rapidly dwindling water supplies, and dessicated, dying, beetle devoured plant life. It is a place that hosts the heart of US produce production. A vital source of food for the US and for the world that is now under threat.

Central Valley California, according to a new report in Think Progress, is the production hub for more than 90 percent of the United States’ fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s a condition that arose from a combination of slick marketing, a host of unique micro-climates suited to practically every form of vegetable, and a domination of (mostly corn and soy) mono-cropping throughout the productive regions of the Central US. Essentially, mono-cropping in the plains drove the majority of produce farmers to the West Coast.

And, as result, most of the fresh vegetables Americans enjoy are all grown from one basket. A basket that is now baking under a merciless California sun. Everything from lettuce to avocados to tomatoes to almonds to oranges, and so many more, are now at risk.

California Aquaduct

(The majority of California agriculture is irrigation-based — supplied by aqueducts like the one shown above. Aqueducts like this one also add flood risk due to enhanced potential of extreme rainfall events due atmospheric heating combined with land subsidence due to ground water depletion. Image source: Public Herald.)

Fully 80 percent of California’s water supply goes to food growers. It’s a stream of vital water that proceeds from California aquifers to farmers and then directly to your dinner table. A stream that Governor Jerry Brown has refused to cut at any cost. But despite increasingly draconian water rationing to other sectors, farms are still feeling a hit. In 2014, nearly 500,000 acres of cropland lay fallow. A number that could more than double by the end of this year. With so much of California’s water evaporating, with so many wells running dry, even water protected for farm use takes a hit.

In this way, ongoing drought in California is a direct threat to US food security. A fact that hasn’t been missed by food experts like John Ikerd who recommend a widespread re-localization of produce production to add resiliency to the US food supply in the face of growing climate challenges.

But the fact that we may need such a reorganization, together with the fact that the current California drought is an early, easier outlier of what is to come, highlights our vulnerability. Warming of the Earth System is already shocking the US and global food system to such a degree that it is calling into question the future of US produce production.

Strong El Nino is No Cure

Among many, hopes are that a strong El Nino may deliver a drought-breaking flood of moisture by the end of this year. And while there is growing indication that a monster El Nino may be developing in the Pacific, such an event would be no cure for poor climate-changed California. In fact, such an event could produce floods that further impact agriculture — stripping denuded landscapes and flushing vital soil nutrients down streams and into a eutrophying ocean.

The ground there is baked, subsided. The pores in the earth closed up, creating a tablet effect for water ponding. The fires have stripped trees and brush from hillsides, resulting in landslide hazard.

And the kind of rainfall a 2.5 to 3 C anomaly event (that some models are indicating) could generate would be extraordinary (especially when we add in the extra atmospheric moisture loading from overall human heating of 0.9 to 1 C above 1880).

For California, it looks like the option for ending epic drought is epic flood. And, with human caused warming, more drought will almost certainly follow any flood.

Links:

Megadroughts Projected For the American West

Lake Mead Water Data

California Department of Water Resources

Megadrought Predicted for the American Southwest

Steaming Equatorial Pacific Sees Winds Blow Toward Monster El Nino

Cosmos

California Drought Could Upend America’s Entire Food System

California Races to Protect its Forests

US Drought Monitor

Hat Tip to Andy in San Diego

Hat Tip to Spike

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

The Monsters of Growth Shock Rise: Conflict in the Ukraine, Global Food Crisis, and Spending 500 Billion Dollars to Permanently Wreck the World’s Climate

nasa_p1089035

(Immense Russian wildfires burning through the thawing tundra’s carbon pool during summer of 2012. The bar on the lower left denotes 50 kilometers. From end to end, the burning zone seen is about 500 miles in length. Image credit: NASA. Image source: Smoke From Massive Siberian Fires Seen in Canada.)

The radio and television today blares with the news but never the causes:

US meat, coffee, almond and milk prices to sky-rocket. Ukraine invaded by the Russian petro-state. Exxon Mobile to partner with Russian Rosneft and invest 500 billion dollars in extracting oil and gas from the increasingly ice-free Arctic.

What has caused all this? In a term — Growth Shock.

What is Growth Shock?

It’s what happens when any system grows outside of the boundaries of its sustainable limits. In the current, human case, its primary elements are overpopulation, renewable and nonrenewable resource depletion, climate change, poisoning the biosphere and wasting livable habitats, and a vicious system of inequality in which an amoral elite loots and pillages the lion’s share of planetary resources while driving increasing numbers of persons into poverty, hunger, and vulnerability to environmental/ecological collapse.

In the more immediate sense, human burning of fossil fuels is now intensifying droughts and extreme weather around the world. This is negatively impacting agricultural production. In addition, military aggression on the part of Russia has destabilized one of the world’s largest food producers — Ukraine. But these causes and effects are all a part of the larger structure of an ongoing Growth Shock crisis. The most recent and more intense iteration of a series of events that began in the 1970s and continues today.

In my own writing, I have described the forces of Growth Shock as four monsters (overpopulation, resource depletion, climate change, institutionalized human greed) and, like the Diakiaju of Pacific Rim, they continue to grow stronger and to devour increasingly large chunks of our world.

In the context of our intensifying Growth Shock, conflicts can rapidly escalate as resources grow scarce and various nations, powerful individuals and corporate entities jockey for dominance in the context of increasing limitation and peril. But it is important to note that unless the underlying condition that caused the crisis — what is now likely the most terrible manifestation of Growth Shock ever witnessed by humans — is addressed, then there are no winners. No dominators that survive to flourish in the end. No remnant that sees a prosperous future. Only an ongoing string of worsening conflicts, disasters and temporary victories leading to a terrible and bitter ultimate defeat.

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The Special Interests of a Corporate Petro-State, its Dictator and its Oligarchs

So many of you are probably wondering why Russia suddenly invaded Ukraine? Why the West is taking an increasing stake in this country that, until recently, rarely showed on the international stage?

The reasons currently given by US officials certainly appear noble. We should not allow one country to simply invade, bully and rig the electoral process for another. We should not allow a single nation to flaunt international law and behave in a manner that better fits an age of anarchy and brutality. We should not permit these things from the member of the international community with broad responsibilities and obligations that is Russia.

These are moral and, indeed, appropriate frames for the current conflict. As they are appropriate rhetorical responses to international bullying. But we would also be wise not to ignore the underlying drivers — food crisis and overwhelming political power of fossil fuel special interests.

If anything Russia is now little more than a dictatorial, nuclear-armed petro-state, run by corporate oligarchs and a brutish strong man in the form of Vladimir Putin. A man who has ruled this country for a period now going on two decades through a combination of bullying, trickery, and poll fixing. The kind of character many conservatives these days seem to appreciate…

At 2.2 trillion dollars in GDP each year, its economy is comparable to that of the UK — sizable, but not an equal to economic powerhouses US, China, Germany or Japan. But what the Russian petro-state lacks in economic girth, it more than compensates for in two very destructive and destabilizing items — nuclear weapons and fossil fuels. It also retains a rather sizable and effective military — one whose forces are capable of projecting power and toppling governments throughout both Europe and Asia. One that retains its ability to rain nuclear Armageddon on any nation of peoples around the globe.

And this set of powers is increasingly being used to advance the special interests of the corporate, dictatorial state that is today’s Russia.

But it is Russia’s vast oil and natural gas wealth, the single-minded and narrow interests of its rulers, and the dark impetus that is global climate change that have likely combined to spur Russian’s current aggression.

Food, Fossil Fuels and the Compost Bomb

Burning Rings of Fire

(The tundra compost bomb explodes into burning rings of fire that illuminate the Russian night during 2012. The fire rings seen here are each between 10 and 100 kilometers across. Image credit: NASA. Image source: Burning Rings of Fire.)

For the very natural gas, oil and coal that Russia uses as a mainstay for its economy are now in the process of wrecking its future prospects and propelling it to ever more desperate and violent action.

To understand why, one simply has to think a little bit about permafrost and frozen ground.

A majority of Russia’s land mass sits on a pile of permafrost ranging from 1 to more than 10 meters in depth. In the past, this frozen substrata underlay many of Russia’s fields, cities and towns, forming a kind of frozen bedrock. But over the past few decades, the permafrost began to rapidly thaw under the radical and violent force that is human-caused warming. At first, this event was thought to weigh in Russia’s favor. The newly thawed permafrost would become more productive farmland, many assumed, and the added warmth would extend Russia’s growing season.

But few apparently accounted for the speed and violence of human-caused climate change. What happened instead was literally a firestorm. For the thawing peat retained a combustibility roughly equivalent to brown coal. Even worse, it contained pockets of highly flammable liquified organic carbon and methane. Over top this volatile layer were the great boreal forests and the vast grasslands of the Russian land mass. During the periods of summer drought that emerged as human caused climate change amplified at the end of the 2000s, these forests and grasses were, increasingly, simply piles of kindling growing atop a meters thick layer of volatile fuel.

By 2010, climate change brought on a series of record droughts and heatwaves extending far into the Arctic that set both permafrost thaw and lower latitude regions ablaze. As a result, Russia suffered agricultural losses unlike anything seen in its past. Fields and towns burned. The productive regions burned. Russia was forced to close its agricultural market for exports. World food prices hit all time record highs and the food riots that followed were enough to topple regimes and alight civil wars throughout the world’s most vulnerable states.

Through the summers of 2013, Russia suffered amazing fires in its thawing tundra lands. These blazes were, at times, intense enough to require the calling up of its military and the mobilization of up to 200,000 people simply to fight the fires. Heat and moisture from the thawing tundra spilled out into the Jet Stream and amplified the storm track. By 2013, record drying and burning in the tundra lands turned to record floods in the Amur region of both China and Russia. A tragic song of flood and fire.

Song of Flood and Fire

(Massive wildfires burn over Yakutia as an immense rainstorm begins to form over the Amur region of Russia and China. The fires and deluge would together ruin millions of acres of crops during 2014. Image credit: Lance-Modis. Image source: A Song of Flood and Fire.)

It was a string of climate change induced disasters that produced blow after telling blow to Russian agricultural production.

Meanwhile, around the world, similar droughts, floods and severe wind storms were ripping through the world’s croplands. By early 2014, the world food price index was again on the rise. By February, the index had climbed to 208, a very high level that would put those countries and populations at the margins at risk of increasing poverty and hunger all while potentially destabilizing any number of nations.

Ukraine — The Breadbasket of Europe

Perhaps the irony is lost on Russia that the very fuels — oil, gas and coal — that it views as an economic strength are also the source of its increasingly marginal food security and the ongoing and growing devastation of its lands. But Russia, its strongman, and its corporate oligarchs likely haven’t overlooked the fact that Ukraine is one of the world’s largest food producers. In a world where food is becoming increasingly costly and scarce, this particular commodity may well be more important than even oil, gas, or coal.

Ukraine possesses 30% of the world’s remaining richest black soil. It regularly ranks within the top ten producers of both wheat and corn. It is the world’s top producer of sunflower oil. The reach of its agricultural exports extends to the UK, Europe, Japan, China and into Russia itself. If Russia has a food crisis, it will be to the Ukraine that it turns to first. Moreover, the current Russian dictator must see an imperative not to rely overmuch on the US or its other economic rivals for food.

So it is in this context — a one in which climate change is causing Russia to flood and burn, in which climate change is now beginning to take down global agricultural productivity, and in which the Ukraine could well be seen as the Iraq of world food production (one of the only countries with the ability to radically increase production) — that we must also view both the Ukrainian revolution for independence and the Russian armed invasion as a response.

Russia Already Taking Hold of Some of Ukraine’s Most Productive Farmland

Centuries ago, during the dark ages, bad winters drove waves of tribes out of the frigid northern lands and into the then fertile fields of Rome and Europe. History, it seems, is not without its rhymes. For now, a fiery human-driven thaw and climate change appears to be having a similar impact on the Russia and Ukraine of today.

For the lands already under Russian occupation and threat of invasion (Eastern Ukraine primarily) are also some of Ukraine’s most productive wheat and corn growing zones. These lands under threat of additional Russian incursion, if added to the already occupied and planned to be annexed Crimea would compose the bulk of Ukraine’s agriculture.

Russia’s invasion, thus, must be seen as a direct looting of Ukraine’s lands and productive capacity for Russian and, by extension, Putin’s self interest. A set of interests likely inflamed by Russia’s own declining state of food security.

Climate Change and Why This Fight Must Be Against Fossil Energy, Not for It

Unfortunately, this conflict, like so many others, falls under the ominous shadow of the global fossil fuel trade. A shadow that grows ever darker as the crises imposed by human-caused climate change become more and more dire.

In the context of what could cynically be termed American interests, the fossil fuel giant Exxon recently partnered with Rosneft, an oil corporation Putin and his oligarchs essentially looted from a political rival, to invest 500 billion dollars in drilling and exploration in the Russian Arctic. The zones included in the deal involve the highly unstable clathrate and natural gas stores of the Arctic Ocean. And considering the massive sum invested, one cannot overlook the likelihood that the ESAS’s store of up to 1400 gigatons of natural gas clathrate have now been targeted by global fossil fuel interests for burning. Such an exploitation would result in the near tripling of the current human atmospheric carbon loading — all by itself and without the added inputs from coal, tar sands, or other oil and gas reserves. In other words — corporate insanity in the mad pursuit of profits for a few supremely wealthy and powerful individuals. In this case, a breed of greed-driven insanity that falls under the specter of an increasingly violent and expansionist Russia. One driven to hunger for resources by the land and crops destroying influences of the fossil fuels it continues to seek to exploit.

Here is Growth Shock in its most brazen form when wealthy oligarchs, dictators and corporations collude to profit while ruining the productivity of the lands upon which even they rely. And it is this terrible state that cannot be allowed to continue.

The US, therefore, could strike a blow against both Russian aggression and climate change game over by sanctioning Russian-backed Rosneft, disallowing any American corporation from conducting business with them or any other Russian petroleum entity and going further to say that they will sanction any other global corporation with ties to Rosneft. Use of the power of the dollar and of the global monetary system, in this way, could strike a blow against both the greed that underlies the current Growth Shock crisis and against the maniacal continued and expanding exploitation of extraordinarily destructive fuels.

If the US wishes to continue to bring Russia to heel, it will also use the carrot of access to US grain and food shipments as well as providing partnership arrangements with US alternative energy and sustainability-based corporations in exchange for a peaceful withdrawal from the Ukraine. To help Russia save face, it could provide these offers in a less public fashion or in a way that is not personally insulting to Putin.

Little to No Time Left, But the Crisis Presents a Fleeting Opportunity

In broader context, the deteriorating global food situation, the deteriorating global climate situation and the maniacal quest by fossil fuel companies to access and burn an ever-growing volume of oil, coal and natural gas has reached a critical stage that simply cannot continue for much longer without entirely ruining the prospects for human civilization and, likely, much of life on Earth. The Russia and Ukraine conflict is an opportunity to begin a full attempt to change course and to bring the, now very large and growing, forces of our Growth Shock crisis to bay. If we do not, the window of opportunity may well be closed and we may well have consigned ourselves to ever-worsening conflict under a situation of ongoing resource destruction, destruction of modern civilization’s food base, a situation where the powerful are ever more enabled to take from the weak, and a situation in which a hothouse extinction eventually snuffs out most or all of those that survive the ensuing collapse.

Links:

Growth Shock

Smoke From Massive Siberian Fires Seen in Canada

Burning Rings of Fire

Climate and Frozen Ground

Lance-Modis

A Song of Flood and Fire.

World Food Security in the Cross-hairs of Human-caused Climate Change

Climate Change Pushes FAO Food Price Index to 208 in February

The Economy of the Ukraine

Rosneft Warns West over Crimean Sanctions Woos Japan

Rosneft

Putin — the New Global Shah of Oil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A long emergency for California

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

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

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

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

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

Climate change, climate change, and climate change

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

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

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

PNAS drought model US southwest

(Image source: PNAS)

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

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

Rossby wave over West Coast Weakens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lake Poyang May 2014Lake Poyang Jan 2014

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

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

Implications for world food security

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

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

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

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

Links:

Historic Drought of 2011-2013

Emergency Climate Meeting: White House Officials Told Arctic Ocean Could Be Ice-Free Within Two Years

PIOMASexponential 2012

This week, a number of top scientists, experts, DoD and Homeland Security Department notables are convening an emergency meeting warning White House officials that the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free during summertime within two years.

This A-Team (A for Arctic) includes NASA’s chief scientist Gale Allen, National Science Foundation Director Cora Marett, Director of the Oceans Institute of the University of Western Australia marine scientist Prof Carlos Duarte, and nine other top Arctic specialists together with key representatives from the US Department of Homeland Security and the Pentagon.

The Washington meeting is the second major climate emergency meeting of its kind to occur within the past month. Just a few weeks ago, the UK held its own climate meeting in response to severe and unprecedented weather occurring throughout Europe this winter and spring.

Scientists and specialists descending on the White House are now echoing increasingly urgent warnings coming from Arctic experts such as Peter Wadhams and Dr. Wieslaw Maslowski that the Arctic Ocean could be essentially ice free by 2016 plus or minus three years. Trends analysis confirms these scientists’ predictions showing that current average volume melt rates put the Arctic in an ice-free state sometime around 2016. Even worse, an outlier melt year similar to 2007 or 2010 would result in ice-free conditions this year (2013) or in any year following. The result is that the two year warning, in the extreme worst case, could be too late.

We are in the zone of Maslowki’s melt. So any year from now to 2019, according to observed melt trends, could result in ice-free conditions at end of summer.

One of the current set of White House advisors, Prof Carlos Duarte, warned in early April that the ice was melting far faster than predicted and the Arctic could see ice free ocean conditions during summer by 2015. According to reports from The Guardian, Duarte noted:

“The Arctic situation is snowballing: dangerous changes in the Arctic derived from accumulated anthropogenic greenhouse gases lead to more activities conducive to further greenhouse gas emissions. This situation has the momentum of a runaway train.”

Duarte is also the lead author of a paper examining Arctic tipping points and how they are rapidly being passed, resulting in an ever-increasing polar warming. The three primary drivers of these changes include loss of ice reflectivity or albedo, increased release of greenhouse gasses from the Arctic geography and oceans as they warm, and increased release of biologically generated greenhouse gasses as new micro-organisms are able to enter the Arctic environment.

Duarte’s observations are similar to those of other scientists who have warned of amplifying feedbacks in the Arctic. Just last year, NOAA issued a warning that a number of key tipping points had been reached and would result in jarring changes to climates and weather around the globe. In 2011, a group of Russian and US scientists observed massive releases of climate change enhancing methane from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. NASA scientist James Hansen warned of the potential for a powerful Arctic methane release as a result of human forcing in his 2008 book “Storms of My Grandchildren.” And in 2012, NSIDC issued a paper showing that methane release from tundra could amplify human-caused global warming by an additions .4 to 1.5 degrees.

It was the sum total of these warnings and observations that lead to the formation by a group of scientists of the Arctic Methane Emergency Group (AMEG). AMEG is headed by Peter Wadhams, a noted polar researcher, and is composed of a number of scientists very concerned that Arctic conditions could rapidly deteriorate as an amplifying pulse of methane emerges.

A simple explanation of these system changes can be found here.

Among other things, AMEG is very concerned about the implications of Arctic sea ice melt and methane release for global food security. According to AMEG:

“The weather extremes from last year are causing real problems for farmers, not only in the UK, but in the US and many grain-producing countries. World food production can be expected to decline, with mass starvation inevitable. The price of food will rise inexorably, producing global unrest and making food security even more of an issue.”

AMEG’s observations are consistent with the biology inherent to many grains used for food. These grains evolved in conditions over the past 5 million years or so that required large ice sheets to stabilize the climate. Alterations to weather patterns causing extremes outside of these food crops biological thresholds put them at risk. And the current loss of sea ice is just beginning to kick off such unpredictable and difficult to adapt to extremes.

The sum total of this growing list of scientific observation is that warming and, therefore, sea ice loss in the Arctic kicking into very high gear results in serious and severe consequences.

A Catastrophic Decline

Overall, the Arctic has lost 80% of its sea ice by volume since 1979 and the rate of losses over the past ten years has been accelerating. In addition, strange and dangerous events are cropping up with increasing frequency. The polar jet stream is mangled — a result Dr. Jennifer Francis of Rutgers attributes to loss of Arctic sea ice.

According to Francis:

“The loss of Arctic summer sea ice and the rapid warming of the Far North are altering the jet stream over North America, Europe, and Russia. Scientists are now just beginning to understand how these profound shifts may be increasing the likelihood of more persistent and extreme weather.”

In addition, this winter hosted a freakish and massive sea ice breakup throughout the Beaufort Sea during February and March, two of the Arctic’s coldest months. To say that such an event was unprecedented is almost an understatement. Never before had such a large cracking event been observed during winter. The event was kicked off by strong winds blowing over the Beaufort sea ice. The ice was so thin it couldn’t retain integrity and broke in a spectacular and disturbing series of massive cracks.

You can view this break-up sequence in the below series of images provided by NASA:

A wide and varying range of events can now be shown to have been amplified and worsened by Arctic sea ice loss. These include last year’s drought, 2011’s flooding, the Texas drought of 2011, Hurricane Sandy, this year’s extreme European winter, massive outbreaks of wildfires in the northern hemisphere since 2006, and record summer heatwaves and floods occurring throughout the northern hemisphere over the same period. It is the fact that these blocking pattern generated extreme weather events are now clearly linked to sea ice loss, that constitutes an ongoing and worsening weather emergency.

This past February, the US Department of Defense issued its own concerns. In its Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap, the DOD warned of:

“… significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to greater competition for more limited and critical life-sustaining resources like food and water.”

… and that the impacts of climate change could:

“Act as accelerants of instability or conflict in parts of the world… [and] may also lead to increased demands for defense support to civil authorities for humanitarian assistance or disaster response, both within the United States and overseas … DoD will need to adjust to the impacts of climate change on its facilities, infrastructure, training and testing activities, and military capabilities.”

Cause for Serious Response

Now, as this summer’s melt season proceeds, many scientists are increasingly concerned that ice free conditions will appear this summer, next summer, or sometime before 2020. As noted above, such events will have very serious implications for world-wide climate  and food security. And it is these results that the White House is in serious need of addressing. Given such a context, one would hope that US government officials take the clear warnings given by scientists and members of the defense community and begin the policy responses needed to start reigning in human greenhouse gas emissions. It is high time such efforts began. And we are in serious and urgent need that they ramp up rapidly.

According to Duarte, “We are facing the first clear evidence of dangerous climate change.” From here on, things only grow worse.

Links:

White House Warned of Imminent Arctic Ice Death Spiral

Public Statement by Arctic Methane Emergency Group

Professor Joins Fight to Save the Arctic

The Arctic is Already Suffering Dangerous Climate Change

Extreme Weather Events Are Driven By Arctic Melt

Arctic Sea Ice Melt, Methane Release Shows Amplifying Feedbacks from Human Caused Climate Change

DoD’s Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap

For Central US, Climate Change and a Mangled Jet Stream Means Drought Follows Flood Follows Drought

Human Climate Change is Wrecking the Jet Stream: UK Met Office Calls Emergency Meeting

Drought Grows on Eve of Winter, 200 Mile Stretch of Mississippi Close to Shut Down

According to reports from the US Drought Monitor, a historic drought plaguing large swaths of the country since spring has again grown larger and more intense. Total areas under drought conditions are, once more, above 60% of the contiguous United States. This is about a 1.5 percent increase over last week’s drought measure. Severe and exceptional drought, the worst conditions measured, expanded to cover fully 19 percent of the contiguous US, also an increase of about 1.5 percent over last week’s measurement.

Hardest hit areas remain in or near the nation’s breadbasket. South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Wyoming are states currently suffering the most from ongoing drought. Minnesota, Iowa, Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico, Utah, Georgia, and Nevada are also feeling strong direct impacts.

Forecasts for the next few months show a persisting drought that will likely pose a continuing threat to US crops throughout the winter and on into spring, possibly extending again into summer. The potential for conditions to worsen, again, in Texas should be cause for watchful concern as the season progresses. Texas is still recovering from the extreme drought of 2010-2011. A second blow during 2013 would prove very harmful to the state’s agriculture.

Over the past few weeks, the US wheat crop has taken a severe hit from the persistent and now re-emerging drought. Crop conditions, as of about a week ago, were the worst seen in 27 years. Risks are currently very high that the US wheat harvest for this year will be substantially lower, resulting in higher food prices at home and an intensifying food crisis abroad.

In Missouri, an area which felt strong impacts to its corn crops before drought somewhat abated for the state, Mississippi River levels are again low enough to warrant concern of a shut-down. Annually, the Army Corps of Engineers cuts off river flows to the Mississippi in order to ensure adequate reservoir storage for next year and to protect against flooding from melt run-off. This year’s shut down may bring river levels as low as 6 feet, which would effectively cut off traffic along a 200 mile stretch of waterway. If this happens, as much as 7 billion dollars worth of grain may be stranded up-river. Much of this grain goes to international markets. Such a closure would both result in damages to local economies as well as, potentially, food shortages and increasing prices abroad.

The culprit for this lingering and increasingly damaging drought is likely a blocking high that has continued to emerge over the nation’s heartland, fixing the weather pattern there to one that is both hotter and dryer than normal. These huge dips and swells in the Jet Stream are spurred by eroding sea ice boundaries in the Arctic which result in large shifts to the circumpolar winds. In turn, these wind changes alter the Jet Stream, making the emergence of blocking patterns like the one enhancing the current US drought far more likely.

Climate models have also predicted much drier conditions for the US West as global temperatures rise from an average range of .6 degrees Celsius higher than normal to as much as 2 degrees Celsius higher than normal by 2040-2050. It is likely that we began to see this climate-change induced drying during the early 2000s as average global temperatures reached .6 degrees Celsius above the 20th century average. Average global temps are now around .8 degrees Celsius higher and continuing to inch upward, so the US West is likely to experience periods of intensifying drought through the 2010s and worsening into the 2020s. By the 2030s and 2040s far worse conditions can only be avoided via large-scale curtailment of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Links:

http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/

http://www.freep.com/usatoday/article/1721817?odyssey=mod|newswell|text|FRONTPAGE|s

http://www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/products/Drought/

Record US Drought Deepens, 61 Percent of Country Suffering From Some Level of Drought

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The most recent report from NOAA shows a current record US drought deepening with more than 61% of the country now suffering from extreme conditions.

The worst drought in 25 years has severely impacted US agriculture. According to the monitor, in the US’s 18 primary corn-producing states, 30 percent of the corn crop is now in poor or very poor condition. Earlier this year, a combination of increased demand and poor conditions last year resulted in more than 48% of US corn stockpiles being wiped out. In response, the US began planting its largest corn crop ever in May. Now, unprecedented widespread drought conditions are threatening that crop.

The result is that food prices are steadily rising. This Thursday, corn prices had risen by as much as 4% by end of trading. Since mid June prices for corn had risen more than 33%, with prices of wheat jumping 23% and prices of soy rising 13%.

These rising prices reflect anxiety on the part of grain consumers from China to the Middle East and many other places around the world. The crisis has caused many to wonder if this year may be a repeat of 2010, when severe drought damaged Russia’s wheat crop and sent prices soaring. The food scarcity that followed sparked food riots throughout the Middle East and served as a flash-point for the Arab Spring.

This year, threatening conditions include the consistent dryness in the US, another dry year in the Russian wheat belt and the worst start to India’s Monsoon season in three years. These factors have caused increased concerns that regions will impose export restrictions in order to preserve local food security, to the detriment of food importers.

Food security in recent years has also been harmed by the emergence of ‘just in time’ supply, where stockpiles are winnowed down in favor of a rapid response market and delivery system. Such a system works fine so long as abundant supplies are available. But the system is not resilient to crisis events, where the lack of available food in the event of yearly or multi-year droughts can have dramatic impacts on world food security.

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