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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1. Stay Informed<p>A first order of business in pet evacuation planning is to understand and be ready for the possible threats in your area. Visit <a href="https://www.ready.gov/be-informed" target="_blank">Ready.gov</a> to learn more about preparing for potential disasters such as floods, hurricanes, and wildfires. Then pay attention to related updates by tuning <a href="http://www.weather.gov/nwr/" target="_blank">NOAA Weather Radio</a> to your local emergency station or using the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/mobile-app" target="_blank">FEMA app</a> to get National Weather Service alerts.</p>
2. Ensure Your Pet is Easily Identifiable<p><span>Household pets, including indoor cats, should wear collars with ID tags that have your mobile phone number. </span><a href="https://www.avma.org/microchipping-animals-faq" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Microchipping</a><span> your pets will also improve your chances of reunion should you become separated. Be sure to add an emergency contact for friends or relatives outside your immediate area.</span></p><p>Additionally, use <a href="https://secure.aspca.org/take-action/order-your-pet-safety-pack" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">'animals inside' door/window stickers</a> to show rescue workers how many pets live there. (If you evacuate with your pets, quickly write "Evacuated" on the sticker so first responders don't waste time searching for them.)</p>
3. Make a Pet Evacuation Plan<p> "No family disaster plan is complete without including your pets and all of your animals," says veterinarian Heather Case in <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9NRJkFKAm4" target="_blank">a video</a> produced by the American Veterinary Medical Association.</p><p>It's important to determine where to take your pet in the event of an emergency.</p><p>Red Cross shelters and many other emergency shelters allow only service animals. Ask your vet, local animal shelters, and emergency management officials for information on local and regional animal sheltering options.</p><p>For those with access to the rare shelter that allows pets, CDC offers <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/emergencies/pets-in-evacuation-centers.html" target="_blank">tips on what to expect</a> there, including potential health risks and hygiene best practices.</p><p>Beyond that, talk with family or friends outside the evacuation area about potentially hosting you and/or your pet if you're comfortable doing so. Search for pet-friendly hotel or boarding options along key evacuation routes.</p><p>If you have exotic pets or a mix of large and small animals, you may need to identify multiple locations to shelter them.</p><p>For other household pets like hamsters, snakes, and fish, the SPCA recommends that if they normally live in a cage, they should be transported in that cage. If the enclosure is too big to transport, however, transfer them to a smaller container temporarily. (More on that <a href="https://www.spcai.org/take-action/emergency-preparedness/evacuation-how-to-be-pet-prepared" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">here</a>.)</p><p>For any pet, a key step is to establish who in your household will be the point person for gathering up pets and bringing their supplies. Keep in mind that you may not be home when disaster strikes, so come up with a Plan B. For example, you might form a buddy system with neighbors with pets, or coordinate with a trusted pet sitter.</p>
4. Prepare a Pet Evacuation Kit<p>Like the emergency preparedness kit you'd prepare for humans, assemble basic survival items for your pets in a sturdy, easy-to-grab container. Items should include:</p><ul><li>Water, food, and medicine to last a week or two;</li><li>Water, food bowls, and a can opener if packing wet food;</li><li>Litter supplies for cats (a shoebox lined with a plastic bag and litter may work);</li><li>Leashes, harnesses, or vehicle restraints if applicable;</li><li>A <a href="https://www.avma.org/resources/pet-owners/emergencycare/pet-first-aid-supplies-checklist" target="_blank">pet first aid kit</a>;</li><li>A sturdy carrier or crate for each cat or dog. In addition to easing transport, these may serve as your pet's most familiar or safe space in an unfamiliar environment;</li><li>A favorite toy and/or blanket;</li><li>If your pet is prone to anxiety or stress, the American Kennel Club suggests adding <a href="https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/home-living/create-emergency-evacuation-plan-dog/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stress-relieving items</a> like an anxiety vest or calming sprays.</li></ul><p>In the not-unlikely event that you and your pet have to shelter in different places, your kit should also include:</p><ul><li>Detailed information including contact information for you, your vet, and other emergency contacts;</li><li>A list with phone numbers and addresses of potential destinations, including pet-friendly hotels and emergency boarding facilities near your planned evacuation routes, plus friends or relatives in other areas who might be willing to host you or your pet;</li><li>Medical information including vaccine records and a current rabies vaccination tag;</li><li>Feeding notes including portions and sizes in case you need to leave your pet in someone else's care;</li><li>A photo of you and your pet for identification purposes.</li></ul>
5. Be Ready to Evacuate at Any Time<p>It's always wise to be prepared, but stay especially vigilant in high-risk periods during fire or hurricane season. Practice evacuating at different times of day. Make sure your grab-and-go kit is up to date and in a convenient location, and keep leashes and carriers by the exit door. You might even stow a thick pillowcase under your bed for middle-of-the-night, dash-out emergencies when you don't have time to coax an anxious pet into a carrier. If forecasters warn of potential wildfire, a hurricane, or other dangerous conditions, bring outdoor pets inside so you can keep a close eye on them.</p><p>As with any emergency, the key is to be prepared. As the American Kennel Club points out, "If you panic, it will agitate your dog. Therefore, <a href="https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/home-living/create-emergency-evacuation-plan-dog/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pet disaster preparedness</a> will not only reduce your anxiety but will help reduce your pet's anxiety too."</p>
Evacuating Horses and Other Farm Animals<p>The same basic principles apply for evacuating horses and most other livestock. Provide each with some form of identification. Ensure that adequate food, water, and medicine are available. And develop a clear plan on where to go and how to get there.</p><p>Sheltering and transporting farm animals requires careful coordination, from identifying potential shelter space at fairgrounds, racetracks, or pastures, to ensuring enough space is available in vehicles and trailers – not to mention handlers and drivers on hand to support the effort.</p><p>For most farm animals, the Red Cross advises that you consider precautionary evacuation when a threat seems imminent but evacuation orders haven't yet been announced. The American Veterinary Medical Association has <a href="https://www.avma.org/resources/pet-owners/emergencycare/large-animals-and-livestock-disasters" target="_blank">more information</a>.</p>
Bottom Line: If You Need to Evacuate, So Do Your Pets<p>As the Humane Society warns, pets left behind in a disaster can easily be injured, lost, or killed. Plan ahead to make sure you can safely evacuate your entire household – furry members included.</p>
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