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Food and Water Security and the Climate Crisis: What You Need to Know

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Food and Water Security and the Climate Crisis: What You Need to Know

Chances are you've heard the line that the climate crisis affects all of us, wherever we live and whether we know it or not. But how? Especially if you haven't been personally touched by a climate-related hurricane or drought or other weather event?

You don't have to look far for an answer. In fact, most of us just need to look at what's on our plates.

Why? If we keep burning fossil fuels at our current rates, food may become harder and harder to grow in many places, and what does grow could be less and less nutritious. Fresh drinking water could become more and more scarce as polluted floodwater runoff contaminates rivers, lakes and reservoirs—or drought and warming combine to simply dry it all up.


Put plainly, these changes would transform the planet in ways that undermine its capacity to support a large and thriving human population. But it doesn't have to be this way.

A Little Change Can Have a Huge Impact

The impact of drought on agriculture needs little explaining, and a flood will wash a garden away as surely as thirst will reduce it to dust. That's all pretty straightforward—these natural disasters can destroy crops outright. A field leveled by extreme weather certainly can't produce fresh fruits and veggies.

But even slight changes in long-established rainfall patterns can wreak havoc on fruits and vegetables.

"We already see it," Chris Clayton, agriculture policy director of DTN/The Progressive Farmer and author of The Elephant in the Cornfield: The Politics of Agriculture and Climate Change, told Climate Reality earlier this summer. "You see guys now in Canada growing more corn, which was almost unheard of some time ago, growing soy beans. Crop production continues to move further north as we move along, so then it really raises questions like, 'What are you going to grow in Texas when the climate changes that dramatically?' You're really left with fewer number of crops and you have less water to irrigate with."

The amount of water a plant needs to flourish varies from species to species. Plants that have thrived in one area for thousands of years can be imperiled by even seemingly minor decreases in rainfall, especially when coupled with rising temperatures. On the other end of the spectrum, more rainfall isn't always good for plant life—even if water is not collecting on the surface, soil can become over-saturated and plants will drown.

And the stakes are dire, according to Clayton: "When that year hits where food production in two or three bread baskets around the world is short a little bit—10 percent here, 15 percent there—the risk of political instability becomes huge."

Feast and Famine: Fresh Water and Climate Change

As global temperatures have steadily increased at their fastest rates in thousands of years due to the greenhouse effect, the change has directly affected things like water vapor concentrations, precipitation and stream flow patterns. Changes in one area have consequences in another, and the resultant weather can be very different from place to place, disrupting the fragile ecosystems necessary for agriculture to thrive, as described above—and for drinkable water to collect.

Here again, we're not speaking about the plainly obvious—that is, that less rain means less drinking water. (Though, of course, it does). As we've seen in the aftermath of Hurricanes like Harvey, Irma and Maria, the damage done to drinking water reserves by tremendous rainfall (and storm surge) events can linger long after the floodwaters recede.

"Harvey flooded or damaged more than 50 oil refineries and chemical plants, dumping a year's worth of pollutants into Texas within a matter of weeks," according to Vox. In Florida, the New Republic reported, "more than 28 million gallons of treated and untreated sewage [were] released in 22 counties" due to flooding and power outages from Hurricane Irma.

This runoff can compromise the availability of fresh water, including that used for drinking and farm and garden irrigation, as the pollutants drain into nearby reservoirs, rivers and other waterways.

Then there's the opposite challenge. Areas where annual precipitation has lessened as overall global temperatures have risen are experiencing an entirely different problem. As the glacial meltwater and high-elevation snowmelt that constitute the headwaters of many rivers diminishes because of warming and ever-lessening annual precipitation and/or as seasonal distribution of precipitation changes, the entire river system can suffer. The result: less fresh water filling lakes and reservoirs.

Carbon and the "Junk Food Effect"

And the same carbon pollution that is driving these trends all over the globe may also be having an impact we are only just now beginning to understand. It may be compromising food quality.

Recent research points to a disturbing trend—increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere may be making our food less nutritious. Some researchers—who have witnessed a measurable drop in the minerals, vitamins and protein content in fruits and vegetables over the past 50 to 70 years—have called this the "junk food effect."

"Every leaf and every grass blade on Earth makes more and more sugars as CO2 levels keep rising," Dr. Irakli Loladze told POLITICO. "We are witnessing the greatest injection of carbohydrates into the biosphere in human history—[an] injection that dilutes other nutrients in our food supply."

While this area of research is relatively new, scientists hypothesize that increased atmospheric CO2 speeds up photosynthesis, the process that helps plants transform sunlight to food. This makes plants grow faster, but in so doing they pack in more carbohydrates like glucose at the expense of other essential nutrients human beings (and other animals, right down the food chain) depend on.

"It's a hidden issue," said Kristie Ebi, a researcher at the University of Washington who's studied the intersection of climate change and global health for two decades. "The fact that my bread doesn't have the micronutrients it did 20 years ago—how would you know?

Looking to do your part to protect food and water security right now? Download our latest free e-book, Right Under Your Feet: Soil Health and the Climate Crisis. The resource outlines the climate threat to agriculture and offers concrete actions you can take to help provide fresh, healthy food grown in a sustainable soil ecosystem for generations to come.

A global challenge needs a global solution. Wherever you are, whatever you do, no matter the time you have, you can do something right now.

The climate changes, but these facts don't. Download Soil Health and the Climate Crisis now.

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Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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