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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A long emergency for California

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

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

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

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

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

Climate change, climate change, and climate change

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

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

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

PNAS drought model US southwest

(Image source: PNAS)

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

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

Rossby wave over West Coast Weakens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lake Poyang May 2014Lake Poyang Jan 2014

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

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

Implications for world food security

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

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

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

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

Links:

Historic Drought of 2011-2013

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Drought to Continue Through February; Winter Crops Hit Hard

An eight and a half month long drought, which scientists have linked to human caused climate change, continues to ravage the US heartland. This week, total area affected by drought remains steady at 59% of the contiguous US, with some minor improvements in the Eastern Midwest even as areas in the Southeast and West grew drier.

Losses to US farmers also continue to worsen. This year’s corn crop was cut by 13 percent and conditions for the US wheat crop are now the worst in 27 years. Conditions for the current winter wheat crop continued to deteriorate this week, with only 36% of the crop now rated in excellent to good condition. Meanwhile, US livestock levels have dropped to their lowest number in 39 years.

Keith Kisling, 65, noted in a Bloomberg report:

“It’s drier than I can ever remember and I’ve been farming for 40 years. A lot of wheat hasn’t emerged yet, and some are up but they’re spotty because they didn’t get any rain. It’s gotten progressively worse.”

Another farmer from the same report said:

“The dust storm we had in Oklahoma a couple weeks ago, some of that seed got blown out and we had to replant. And we’ve had such high temperatures. We have no moisture or limited moisture. What little soil moisture we had in the subsoil, those high temperatures will pull that out.”

Unfortunately, the forecast is for persisting US drought through February with some areas worsening and other areas showing slight abatement. The areas under the gun remain the US West and a smaller section of the US Southeast, centering on Georgia.

Such a long-running drought produces a growing risk that dry conditions will extend into summer to threaten US corn, soy, and sorghum crops again this year. Worldwide, drought conditions are also impacting crops in Europe and Russia.

Links:

http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/

http://www.businessweek.com/news/2012-11-16/drought-expected-to-persist-through-february-in-great-plains

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-11-14/cattle-grazing-wheat-fields-to-decline-as-drought-cuts-prospects.html

 

 

 

Historic US Drought Intensifies At Heart, Erodes at Fringes, Wheat Crop In Danger

A historic drought that began 8 months ago continues. Though this massive drought is slowly receding at the edges, covering 59% of the contiguous US, 1% less than last week, the drought is expanding and intensifying at its heart. More than 6% of the United States is suffering under exceptional drought, the most severe drought level. And more than 19% of the country is suffering under extreme drought conditions or worse.

Unfortunately, the area of extreme drought conditions is parked squarely over the United States breadbasket. Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa, and Minnesota are the hardest hit states. As a result the US wheat crop is under increasingly severe risk. Soil moisture levels are plummeting and many areas are experiencing top ten hottest and driest months for this time of year. Surface water reserves were also growing more and more scarce. As as a result, grazing regions for livestock are drying out.

For Texas and Oklahoma, this is the second major drought in as many years. For the US west, the time period from 2000 to now has been the fifth driest period in 500 years, experiencing a succession of droughts and dry spells. Climate models have indicated that droughts would become more frequent over time as human caused climate change worsened. Unfortunately, conditions over the next few decades will only continue to grow worse — far moreso if human fossil fuel emissions are not dramatically cut back. By the time 2050 rolls around, without serious cuts in CO2, the US heartland is all mostly desert. A transition to these extreme conditions would be devastating to US food and national security.

Globally, the world has experienced severe droughts in growing regions of the US, Europe, and Russia. The result is very low worldwide grain stocks. The UN has warned that if any more ‘unforeseen events’ occur, the world will almost certainly slip into a food crisis. Global governments and leaders continue to ignore warnings from climate scientists and food monitors. This situation is unconscionable and, if it worsens, will likely result in crisis, sporadic and growing hunger, and political instability.

Links:

http://www.chicagotribune.com/classified/automotive/sns-rt-us-usa-droughtbre8a716v-20121108,0,2326994.story

http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/

Global Warming Brings Hell in the Heartland, High Water on the East Coast

Joe Romm in his seminal book on climate change ‘Hell and High Water‘ described how human caused global warming was likely to ravage both the US and the world, if left unchecked. It is an alarming revelation of the immediate problem posed by climate change that shows many of the effects and impacts resulting from greenhouse gas emissions are far more current than initially thought. These impacts occur within the span of our generation, not just as a nasty form of generational sabotage foisted on our children and grandchildren.

This year, as climate scientists around the world acknowledged the fact that global warming was having a direct impact on weather, causing it to worsen, the first strong effects of human caused climate change began to take shape. These first outliers of ‘Hell and High Water’ climate change are now being visited upon the United States. Off the East Coast, as described in a previous blog, it appears that a storm to rival the Perfect Storm of 1991 may well be forming. Meanwhile a severe drought that began this Spring continues to ravage the heartland.

Currently, over 62 percent of the United States’ landmass continues to struggle under the assaults of a historic drought. By mid-October of any normal year you would have expected dryness and drought to have slackened its grip on our country. But this year the drought that peaked at 65% of the total continental landmass has barely even paused. Enormous swaths of the country remain under drought with the most extreme drought burning a hole directly in the country’s center.

Overall, extreme conditions have mainly shifted north and west. But the coverage and impact of drought areas remains substantial. According to this week’s Drought Monitor:

Significant precipitation was limited to the eastern Dakotas, while the High Plains’ hard red winter wheat belt received little or no rain.  As a result, soil moisture shortages continued to limit wheat emergence and development across the northwestern half of the Plains.  In addition, mid-week wind gusts locally in excess of 70 mph raised dust and temporarily closed major roadways across parts of the Plains.

Overall, the risk to the nation’s wheat harvest remains high with more than 60% of the nation’s wheat under threat. That said, wheat is a much hardier crop than corn and may well show less impact from the ongoing drought. However, stakes remain high as the US is a major wheat exporter and UN food analysts are saying the world may enter a food crisis if any more climate-driven shortages crop up.

Russian and Ukraine wheat output is at a nine year low. EU stockpiles are at a 14 year low. Argentina, the world’s sixth largest wheat exporter, has experienced a 16 percent fall in production. Though US wheat prices are running $20 per ton higher than the world average, the world may turn to the US as EU and South American wheat stocks set aside for export begin to run low. In such an event, any damage to the US wheat harvest would cause serious difficulties for importing countries like Egypt and other Middle Eastern and African nations reliant on world trade to supplement their people’s nutritional requirements.

Persistent US drought could pose a problem for next year’s crops as well. Back to back years like 2012 would result in severe consequences for both the US and the community of nations reliant on international trade to prevent hunger.

Links:

http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/

http://www.businessweek.com/news/2012-10-24/france-tops-u-dot-s-dot-wheat-with-premium-seen-at-record-commodities

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