Climate Change Amplifies Groundwater Depletion, Threatening Food Supply
By Brett Walton
It is no exaggeration to claim that aquifers—water-saturated layers of subterranean sediment—have allowed agriculture, and thus modern life in our house of seven billion, to prosper.
America’s Great Plains are a lucrative grain bin solely because of the Ogallala Aquifer, which waters eight states. In New Mexico, groundwater reserves helped farmers survive the recent drought in the Southwest. The key to India’s Green Revolution, which pulled hundreds of millions out of hunger starting in the 1960s, was millions of wells irrigating land sown with new types of seeds.
These examples are twentieth and early twenty-first century success stories. But a new report from the National Research Council claims that these patterns of water use, if not recast, leave society vulnerable to climate surprises.
Surprises, in this context, are not felicitous. They are disruptive and destructive. They are the result of too much carbon in the atmosphere and the oceans and a warming of the global climate. They are changes in the rate of change, rapid upheavals that can overwhelm the rural and the urban, the coasts and the heartlands.
Published Dec. 3, Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change assesses the potential for these large-scale “tipping points” and whether they are expected sooner or later.
The good news is that the direst circumstances—a belch of heat-trapping methane from thawing polar soils or a seizure in the ocean’s heat conveyor belt, which would affect rainfall, temperature, sea level and marine ecosystems—are not expected to occur this century.
A rapid melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which would raise sea levels by at least three meters (10 feet) if it completely melted, was judged plausible by 2100 but with a low probability and high uncertainty.
The more likely disruptions are the ones that are familiar: heat waves, extinctions, droughts and floods. They are “more likely, severe and imminent,” according to the report. Their effects will be amplified by how society manages its resources and builds its infrastructure.
“Groundwater aquifers, for example, are being depleted in many parts of the world, including the southeast of the U.S.,” the report states. “Groundwater is critical for farmers to ride out droughts, and if that safety net reaches an abrupt end, the impact of droughts on the food supply will be even larger.”
When rain is scarce, farmers turn on the pumps. But in most key agricultural regions, more water is being taken out than filters back in. In money terms, farmers are blowing through their savings account, leaving little in the bank if an expensive bill comes due.
To be fair, groundwater regulations have popped up with increasing frequency in states such as Arizona, Kansas and Nebraska and many cities are storing more water underground, but spendthrifts still outnumber mattress-stuffers.
Caution Signs Needed
In light of this, the report’s authors—all U.S. professors that study the Earth, air and oceans—argue for an advance warning system for abrupt changes, a flashing yellow semaphore to jar society out of an all-systems-go complacency.
An Abrupt Change Early Warning System, they write, would require three activities:
- identification of vulnerable areas that are then monitored frequently to detect changes
- development of models that can predict changes
- incorporation of new knowledge and analysis
Regarding monitoring, the report calls out for special attention NASA’s GRACE satellite mission, which measures changes in the Earth’s water resources by detecting changes in gravitational pull between two satellites.
When coupled with climate forecasts, continuous global groundwater assessments could anticipate failed harvests and poor crop production.
“A successful ACEWS that monitors for food security should include such monitoring, as groundwater withdrawal is the common approach to combating the impact of drought on crop yields. A failure of groundwater to backstop rain would be a tipping point in the production of food, and a central part of a system to forecast famine.”
Some small regional or topical warning systems exist—the report mentions America’s National Integrated Drought Information System and the Famine Early Warning System in East Africa and the Sahel—but big global schemes will take time, the authors acknowledge.
Best to begin now.
Visit EcoWatch’s WATER page for more related news on this topic.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Naomi Larsson
For centuries, the delicate silver dove has been a symbol of love and fidelity.
Biodiversity and Habitat Loss<p>Their near extinction is a symbol of the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/global-biodiversity-outlook-targets-extinction-summit-new-york-pledge/a-54932895" target="_blank">biodiversity crisis</a> in the UK, largely driven by habitat destruction. Britain is now one of the countries with the most <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/future-of-UK-nature#:~:text=The%20UK%20is%20one%20of,than%20half%20are%20in%20decline" target="_blank">depleted nature</a> in the world according to the World Wildlife Fund. Half its plant and animal species are in decline and more than <a href="https://www.rspb.org.uk/about-the-rspb/about-us/media-centre/press-releases/let-nature-sing-wales/#:~:text=a%20natural%20tragedy.-,Over%2040%20million%20birds%20have%20vanished%20from%20UK%20skies%20in,unaware%20of%20the%20impending%20danger" target="_blank">40 million birds</a> have vanished in just half a century.</p><p>"[Turtle doves] are the canary in the [coal] mine because there are all these other species before it and after it," said Tree. "It's an umbrella for all the other species that are heading that way."</p><p>Turtle doves migrate south through Europe to sub-Saharan Africa between July and September, ending up in dry woodland and farmland areas of countries like Mali and Senegal for winter. </p><p>Droughts in West Africa and the Sahel region are believed to have contributed to the fall in turtle dove species recorded in northern Europe, with low rainfall reducing supplies of the seeds and insects the birds rely on for energy for the long journey home.</p>
Conservation and Farming<p><a href="https://www.operationturtledove.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Operation Turtle Dove,</a> a partnership project of charities including the Essex Wildlife trust, works with landowners and farmers to actively build turtle dove habitat.</p><p>Outten works with <a href="https://www.ebws.org.uk/birdsites/blue-house-farm-ewt-north-fambridge" target="_blank">Blue House Farm</a>, a 660-acre nature reserve in the UK county of Essex, where they have replicated weedy fallow plots. </p><p>"We work on it every year to make sure it's in the condition it needs to be with plants such as clovers and black medic," Outten said. "These plants are native to the landscape and produce the seed the birds feed on." </p><p>The birds eat a wide range of seeds from various plants that would have been abundant 50 or 100 years ago, added Guy Anderson, program manager for species recovery with The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). </p><p>"But it's simply true that with the gradual process of <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/farming-without-pesticides-how-can-we-make-agriculture-greener/a-52216796" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">intensifying our agricultural production</a>, the availability of those seeds has dropped and dropped," said Anderson.</p><p>Part of the project includes supplementary feeding — providing sources of food in the form of seed or grain. Under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme in England, farmers can receive financial support to create a turtle dove habitat. </p><p>Though they haven't recorded an increase in doves across the sites in the four years of working on the project, Outten said they are seeing improvements in how landowners and farmers manage habitat for the birds. </p>
A Turtle Dove Haven<p>The 3,500-acre Knepp Estate in West Sussex is another project taking a different approach and one of the few places where turtle dove numbers are increasing.</p><p>Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell converted their intensively farmed land into a rewilding project almost 20 years ago. They have let the land return to nature.</p><p>Just one year after they'd finished <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/uks-most-talented-architects-are-not-human/a-35952128" target="_blank">rewilding</a> the southern part of their property, they heard turtle doves for the first time. It's now a breeding hotspot for the birds with an estimated 19 pairs. Knepp is also home to <a href="https://www.rewildingbritain.org.uk/rewilding/rewilding-projects/knepp-estate" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2% of the UK's population</a> of nightingales. </p><p>Tree is critical of supplementary feeding schemes that, in her view, are short term. She questions the chances of turtle doves getting to feed on scattered seeds before other mammals eat them first.</p>
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Green groups applauded Sen. Jeff Merkley on Wednesday for introducing a pioneering pair of bills that aim to "protect the long-term health and well-being of the American people and their economy from the catastrophic effects of climate chaos" by preventing banks and international financial institutions from financing fossil fuels.