Friday, November 30, 2012

Dry spells

Greetings Peaksters

     Since Sandy everyone is talking about storms.  But according to
Masters, the drought of 2012 had a bigger impact.    Agriculture is
getting it from two sides.  On the one hand, higher fuel costs,  on
the other reduced yields.

    Hopefully we don't get back- to- back droughts because the
reserves are getting lower.

PS  Don't miss Ken Burns's Dustbowl  on PBS

"We should not assume that the 21st century global civilization is
immune from collapse due to drought. If we continue on our current
path of ever-increasing emissions of carbon dioxide, the hotter planet
that we will create will surely spawn droughts far more intense than
any seen in recorded history, severely testing the ability of our
highly interconnected global economy to cope"

Lessons from 2012: Droughts, not Hurricanes, are the Greater Danger

The colossal devastation and loss of life wrought by Hurricane Sandy
makes the storm one of the greatest disasters in U.S. history. The
storm and its aftermath have rightfully dominated the weather
headlines this year, and Sandy will undoubtedly be remembered as the
most notable global weather event of 2012. But shockingly, Sandy is
probably not even the deadliest or most expensive weather disaster
this year in the United States--Sandy's damages of perhaps $50 billion
will likely be overshadowed by the huge costs of the great drought of
2012. While it will be several months before the costs of America's
worst drought since 1954 are known, the 2012 drought is expected to
cut America's GDP by 0.5 - 1 percentage points, said Deutsche Bank
Securities this week. “If the U.S. were growing at 4 percent, it
wouldn’t be as big an issue, but at 2 percent, it’s noticed,” said
Joseph LaVorgna, the chief U.S. economist at Deutsche. Since the U.S.
GDP is approximately $15 trillion, the drought of 2012 represents a
$75 - $150 billion hit to the U.S. economy. This is in the same range
as the estimate of $77 billion in costs for the drought, made by
Purdue University economist Chris Hurt in August. While Sandy's death
toll of 113 in the U.S. is the second highest death toll from a U.S.
hurricane since 1972, it is likely to be exceeded by the death toll
from the heat waves that accompanied this year's drought. The heat
waves associated with the U.S. droughts of 1980 and 1988 had death
tolls of 10,000 and 7,500 respectively, according to NOAA's National
Climatic Data Center, and the heat wave associated with the $12
billion 2011 Texas drought killed 95 Americans. With July 2012 the
hottest month in U.S. history, I expect the final heat death toll in
the U.S. this year will be much higher than Sandy's death toll.

Drought: civilization's greatest natural enemy
People fear storms, and spectacular and devastating storms like
Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Katrina have stirred more debate in the
U.S. about taking action against climate change than any other weather
event. But I argue that this attention is misplaced. Drought is our
greatest enemy. Drought impacts the two things we need to live--food
and water. The history of civilization is filled with tales of great
storms that have killed thousands and caused untold suffering and
destruction. But cities impacted by great storms inevitably recover
and rebuild, often stronger than before. I expect that New York City,
the coast of New Jersey, and other areas battered by Sandy will do
likewise. But drought can crash civilizations. Drought experts Justin
Sheffield and Eric Wood of Princeton, in their 2011 book, Drought,
list more than ten civilizations and cultures that probably collapsed
because of drought. Among them: The Mayans of 800 - 1000 AD. The
Anasazi culture in the Southwest U.S. in the 11th - 12th centuries.
The ancient Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia. The Chinese Ming Dynasty
of 1500 - 1730. When the rains stop and the soil dries up, cities die
and civilizations collapse, as people abandon lands no longer able to
supply them with the food and water they need to live.

Figure 2. Ruins of the Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park in
Colorado. Beginning in 1150 AD, North America experienced a 300-year
drought called the Great Drought. This drought has often been cited as
a primary cause of the collapse of the ancient Anasazi civilization in
the Southwest U.S.

The coming great droughts
We should not assume that the 21st century global civilization is
immune from collapse due to drought. If we continue on our current
path of ever-increasing emissions of carbon dioxide, the hotter planet
that we will create will surely spawn droughts far more intense than
any seen in recorded history, severely testing the ability of our
highly interconnected global economy to cope. The coming great drought
disasters will occur at a time when climate change is simultaneously
creating record rainfall and flooding in areas that happen to be in
the way of storms. Global warming puts more heat energy into the
atmosphere. That means more more water will evaporate from the oceans
to create heavier rains and make storms stronger, and there will be
more heat energy to increase the intensity of heat waves and droughts.
It all depends upon if you happen to lie on the prevailing storm track
or not which extreme you'll experience. In the future, if you're not
being cooked in a record drought, you're going to be washed away in a
record flood. Just ask the residents of the Midwest. In 2011,
residents of the Midwest endured the largest floods on record on their
three great rivers--the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio. In 2012, the
same region endured their worst drought since 1954, and a top-ten
warmest summer.

The nation's top scientific research group, the National Research
Council, released an 18-month study on November 9, 2012, titled,
"Climate and Social Stress: Implications for Security Analysis". They
stated: “It is prudent to expect that over the course of a decade some
climate events--including single events, conjunctions of events
occurring simultaneously or in sequence in particular locations, and
events affecting globally integrated systems that provide for human
well-being--will produce consequences that exceed the capacity of the
affected societies or global system to manage and that have global
security implications serious enough to compel international
response.” In other words, states will fail, millions will suffer
famine, mass migrations and war will break out, and national and
international agencies will be too overwhelmed to cope. We were very
lucky that the 2012 U.S. drought did not occur the year following the
great 2010 Russian drought. That drought drove up food prices to the
highest levels since 1992, and helped trigger social unrest that led
to the "Arab Spring" revolts that overthrew multiple governments.
Severe droughts in back-to-back years in major world grain-producing
areas could cause unprecedented global famine and unrest, and climate
change is steadily increasing the odds of this happening.

Figure 3. Black Sunday: On April 14, 1935 a "Black Blizzard" hit
Oklahoma and Texas with 60 mph winds, sweeping up topsoil loosened by
the great Dust Bowl drought that began in the early 1930s.

Learning from the past: the great Dust Bowl of the 1930s

"The clouds appeared and went away, and in a while they did not try anymore."
- Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck in his 1939 classic, The
Grapes of Wrath, describing the weather in Oklahoma during the great
Dust Bowl drought of the 1930s.

No disaster in American history caused more suffering than the
legendary Dust Bowl drought of the 1930s, as year after year of
desperately dry conditions across the Great Plains dried out
farmlands, forcing 2.5 million people to leave their homes and seek a
better life elsewhere. At its peak in July 1934, drought conditions
covered an astonishing 80% of the contiguous U.S., making it our
largest drought ever recorded. The true cost of the drought is
impossible to calculate, but the amount of government assistance paid
out was $13 billion in today's dollars. The heat waves that
accompanied the drought killed at least 5,000 people, making it one of
the deadliest disasters in U.S. history. Fortunately, a repeat of the
dust storms and hardships of the 1930s Dust Bowl are much less likely
now, because we learned from our mistakes. In a 2009 paper titled,
Amplification of the North American "Dust Bowl" drought through
human-induced land degradation, a team of scientists led by Benjamin
Cook of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory explained the situation
that led up to the Dust Bowl:

During the 1920s, agriculture in the United States expanded into the
central Great Plains. Much of the original, drought-resistant prairie
grass was replaced with drought-sensitive wheat. With no drought plan
and few erosion-control measures in place, this led to large-scale
crop failures at the initiation of the drought, leaving fields
devegetated and barren, exposing easily eroded soil to the winds. This
was the source of the major dust storms and atmospheric dust loading
of the period on a level unprecedented in the historical record.

Improved farming practices adopted after the great Dust Bowl allowed
the Midwest to endure the great multi-year drought of 1951 - 1954
without the kind of damage the Dust Bowl caused. Those improved
farming practices, in combination with the development of improved
drought-resistant grains, have helped keep the damages from the 2012
drought down. But climate change has the potential to bring far more
severe droughts to the U.S. than anything seen in American history.
The great drought of 2012 is a harbinger of the future, and we have a
significant challenge to meet if we are to continue feeding the world
in the face of intensifying droughts during the coming decades. We
need to stop the unsustainable pumping of our aquifers, move even more
aggressively to develop improved drought-resistant grains, and
practice better water conservation if we are to avoid future Dust
Bowl-scale tragedies.

Renowned documentary film maker Ken Burns debuts his new film, "The
Dust Bowl", on PBS this Sunday and Monday, November 18 and 19, 2012,
from 8 - 10 pm EST. Catch the trailer at It promises to be a
fascinating and highly relevant story, told by one of America's great


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