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Climate Change Indicated in Forced Migration of 1.7 Million from Mekong Delta

Global sea level rise caused by fossil fuel burning is an issue that is creating worsening impacts to cities, nations, and civilization itself. And according to recent reports out of Vietnam, 1.7 million people have migrated from the low-lying Mekong Delta region over the past decade. Primary causes included climate change and poverty.

(Sea level rise now threatens all low-lying regions with increased flooding, loss of crops, and, in some cases, forced migration. Recent reports indicate that hundreds of thousands have already left the Mekong delta as a result.)

Rising oceans have forced Vietnam to erect a system of dykes of up to 4 meters in height in an increasingly complex system of coastal defense barriers. These barriers have saved lands from inundation as the ocean off the low-lying Mekong Delta continues to rise year-after-year. However, the dykes have not prevented salt water from moving further and further up the Mekong River. And during recent years, this salt water has inundated soils used for rice production.

Such salt water inundation has wiped out crops for many farmers. For example, in the Soc Trang region, the farmers of Thang Dong saw their crops completely wiped out during 2013 as salt water seeped into the soil and killed off food-producing plants. In low-lying near coastal regions, the story has been much the same for Mekong farmers. And with less reliable crops come increasing poverty.

(Salt water increases in soils as seas rise. The Mekong Delta is just one of many low-lying regions under threat by human caused climate change and its related sea level rise. Image source: Vietnam Times.)

When crop production is no longer tenable due to climate change impacts, many farming families have been forced to move on. A majority cite poverty as the root cause. But 14.5 percent are more aware — noting that climate change was what ultimately forced them to leave.

The Delta regions of the world are among the most agriculturally productive on Earth. But, as with Mekong, all such regions face ocean flooding and salt water invasion. As a result, a key aspect of global food production is under threat. A factor that has recently weighed in high average global food prices and an increase in the number of under-nourished people by 38 million last year.

 

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

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

Major Wildfire Outbreak Central Africa

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

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

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

Global_Total32column_Carbon32dioxide_00

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

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

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

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

Large sections of Africa suffering from severe drought

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

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

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

Hunger Crisis Spreads, Fear of Famine Grows

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

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

Food Emergency in East Africa

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

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

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

Links:

LANCE MODIS

Famine Early Warning System

The World Food Program

VICE News

South Africa Experiences Its Lowest Rainfall Levels in 111 Years

CAMS CO2 Monitoring

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

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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