By Kieran Cooke
In recent days California has announced its most severe water restrictions ever as drought continues to hit the state. Scientists say the region’s rainfall has been declining over the years and the consequences are serious.
January is the month when Californians put on their rain jackets—but not this year.
It’s the month which is usually wettest in the western U.S., when rivers and reservoirs are replenished: this year there was virtually no rain through January in much of the region, following on from an exceptionally dry period through much of 2013.
A vast area of land in the western region of the American land mass, stretching from the province of Alberta in Canada across to parts of Texas in the U.S. and on down into Mexico, is suffering as reservoirs and rivers dry up. A state of emergency has been declared in several areas, including California.
Dr. Wallace Covington is director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University. “What we’re seeing across this region is an intensification of long-established aspects of climate change," Covington told Climate News Network.
“I hate to sound pessimistic but all around in these large watersheds we’re seeing a degradation of water structure and function. There’s increased erosion leading to desertification, and with the dry conditions and generally stronger winds the forest fire season is being extended.”
Covington is an internationally recognized expert on forest restoration who has been studying tree growth in Arizona for many years, particularly among its ponderosa pines—the Pinus ponderosa.
“Longer drought periods and increasing temperatures are resulting in attacks by bark beetles—which can eventually kill off trees—becoming increasingly severe.
‘The trees can’t produce adequate moisture: if enough photosynthesis is going on they can fight off the beetles and their larvae. But in northern Arizona we’ve been under drought conditions for about 30 years and it’s getting worse. We’ve been losing pines that are 300 or 400 years old at an alarming rate,” said Covington.
At the end of last month California’s State Water Project—the largest state-built water and power development and distribution system in the U.S. – said it would stop supplying water to local agencies in many areas in order, said officials, to use what water remained “as wisely as possible.”
The agencies—which supply water to about 25 million people and to about 750,000 acres of farmland—would in future have to look elsewhere for water, including from local reservoirs or from groundwater sources.
California Gov. Jerry Brown says the water shortages are “a stark reminder that California’s drought is real” and has asked people to reduce their water consumption by at least 20 percent.
Food price fears
The western region of the U.S. is one of the world’s main agricultural production regions and if the drought is prolonged global food prices could rise. In some areas ranchers have been forced to sell off their herds and in others farmers are abandoning their crops.
In southern California, an area which produces a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, nuts and other crops, farmers are complaining that water supplies are being diverted to towns and cities from their lands.
“It’s not as if there hasn’t been enough warning about what’s happening,” says Covington.
“These changes have been going on over decades but the trouble is our political and management systems respond only in four to five year cycles, not to 40 or 50 year trends.
“This is above national—it’s global. Yet our institutions are national at best. And we don’t have a lot of time to act.”
Visit EcoWatch’s CLIMATE CHANGE page for more related news on this topic.
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By Peter Giger
The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)