Drought: Heckuva way to run the end to global warming


“This is a hell of a way to run a desert.”
Utah Gov. Scott Matheson, during floods in 1983

A new Dust Bowl?

A new Dust Bowl? (Image updated January 2013; old links dead)

No, I’m not repeating the error of many who take every snowflake as bizarre evidence that global warming has ended.

I think we need to stick to the facts.

2009 may be cooler than 1998, one of the hottest years on record, but that in no way suggests an end to the climate crisis scientists have been tracking for the past couple of decades.

Cooler weather in New York does not offset the rest of reality.

Reality is we have crushing droughts in California and Texas.

California drought explained by USA Today:

FIREBAUGH, Calif. — The road to Todd Allen’s farm wends past irrigation canals filled with the water that California‘s hot Central Valley depends on to produce vegetables and fruit for the nation. Yet not a drop will make it to his barren fields.

Three years into a drought that evokes fears of a modern-day dust bowl, Allen and others here say the culprit now isn’t Mother Nature so much as the federal government. Court and regulatory rulings protecting endangered fish have choked the annual flow of water from California’s Sierra mountains down to its people and irrigated fields, compounding a natural dry spell.

“This is a regulatory drought, is what it is,” Allen says. “It just doesn’t seem fair.”

For those like Allen at the end of the water-rights line, the flow has slowed to a trickle: His water district is receiving just 10% of the normal allocation of water from federal Bureau of Reclamation reservoirs. He says he’s been forced to lay off all his workers and watch the crops die on his 300 acres while bills for an irrigation system he put in are due.

“My payments don’t stop when they cut my water off,” Allen says.

Although some farmers with more senior water rights are able to keep going, local officials say 250,000 acres has gone fallow for lack of water in Fresno County, the nation’s most productive agriculture county. Statewide, the unplanted acreage is almost twice that.

Unemployment has soared into Depression-era range; it is 40% in this western Fresno County area where most everyone’s job is dependent on farming. Resident laborers who for years sweated in fields to fill the nation’s food baskets find themselves waiting for food handouts.

“The water’s cut off,” complains Robert Silva, 68, mayor of the farm community of Mendota. “Mendota is known as the cantaloupe capital of the world. Now we’re the food-line capital.”

Three years of dry conditions is being felt across much of the nation’s most populous state.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a water emergency in February and asked for 20% voluntary cuts in water use. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Drought Monitor lists 44% of the state as in a “severe” drought.

In arid Southern California, cities and water districts have raised rates to encourage conservation and imposed limits on use

Texas drought, detailed in the Dallas Morning News:

AUSTIN – The drought that has gripped Central Texas is approaching the severity of Texas’ most famous drought, the 1950s dry spell that lasted several years, Lower Colorado River Authority officials say.

But the current drought, which began in the fall of 2007, has seen more intense concentrations of high temperatures and less rainfall than the majority of the earlier drought.

“It was hot, yes, it was dry” in the 1950s, said LCRA meteorologist Bob Rose, “but it wasn’t crazy hot like this year.” Soil moisture is negligible now. And with spotty precipitation, “we haven’t been able to generate any runoff” to replenish reservoirs, he said.

“What makes our current drought unique is not the duration but the severity,” Rose said this week at a drought briefing for meteorologists and reporters.

With state officials warning of wildfire dangers, and water restrictions spreading rapidly across the state, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) issued disaster declarations for 167 of the states 254 counties.

Texas suffers more than California, across a broader area with deeper drought, according to the Associated Press:

According to drought statistics released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 77 of Texas’ 254 counties are in extreme or exceptional drought, the most severe categories. No other state in the continental U.S. has even one area in those categories.

John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist at Texas A&M University, said he expects harsh drought conditions to last at least another month.

In the bone-dry San Antonio-Austin area, the conditions that started in 2007 are being compared to the devastating drought of the 1950s. There have been 36 days of 100 degrees or more this year in an area where the total usually is closer to 12.

Among the most obvious problems are the lack of water in Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan near Austin, two massive reservoirs along the Colorado River that provide drinking water for more than 1 million people and also are popular boating and swimming spots. Streams and tributaries that feed the lakes have “all but dried up,” according to the Lower Colorado River Authority.

San Antonio, which relies on the Edwards Aquifer for its water, is enduring its driest 23-month period since the start of recorded weather data in 1885, according to the National Weather Service. The aquifer’s been hovering just above 640 feet deep, and if it dips below that, the city will issue its harshest watering restrictions yet.

Self-professed climate skeptics will argue that everything is hunky-dory and we can continue blundering along pollutiong willy-nilly because droughts alone are not evidence of warming, and so cannot rebut spot evidence of increased rainfall or local cooling.  Notice how they try to have the argument both ways?  Local weather counts for their side, but can’t count against it.

It’s more complex than that.  Much of the damage from climate change occurs in the upset of a balance in local ecosystems.  The Green Blog at the Boston Globe site discusses the subtle, ecosystem distorting effects and how easy they are to miss in the grand schemes of things.

A lot of the problem has to do with timing. About half of the water that recharges the [Northeast] region’s aquifer is from spring snowmelt, said [USGS hydrologist Thomas] Mack, allowing it to be plentiful to residents for summer lawn watering and other uses.

But global warming is causing the snow to melt earlier by around two to four weeks. At the same time, more rain, instead of snow, is expected to fall in the winter. That means the aquifer is filling up earlier in the spring.

The problem is the region’s bedrock aquifer can’t hold water for a long time – filling it up when it is needed the least and draining before the busy summer.

All environmental problems are complex, and global “warming” is massively more complex than any other environmental issue humans have recognized and dealt with.  Climate change deals with the entire Earth, and with the two great pools of fluids on the Earth, the oceans and the atmosphere, where the sheer physics of change are nearly impossible to understand, let alone predict.

Perhaps, as local conditions in more and more places demonstrate damages from climate change, skeptics can be brought around to understand that action is required even when we don’t have all the possible data points we’d like.

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4 Responses to Drought: Heckuva way to run the end to global warming

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  3. The latest survey on California’s environmental attitudes showed that 47 percent consider the threat of global warming very serious, a decline of seven percentage points from two years ago.

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  4. [...] is a bit more about the conditions in Texas. Note: back in Illinois, conditions have been unusually wet and cool this year. There is a school [...]

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