Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Considering the Coming Megadrought in the American Southwest

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Drought status in the U.S. as of 2015. Note the color-coded legend in the lower-right portion of the graphic (source; click to enlarge)

by Gaius Publius

I've written in the past about two of the most climate-vulnerable regions of the U.S., Florida and the American Southwest. (A third region, the Pacific Northwest, is vulnerable, but to a non-climate event, a magnitude 9.0 mega-earthquake.) Here I want to look again to the problems of California and the Southwest.

Much of the water that sustains California, southern Nevada, Arizona, and surrounding areas comes from the ever-drying Colorado River. Just as it's now clear that we've passed the tipping point for extreme weather, we're also very likely passed the tipping point for the long-term habitability of the American Southwest.

The report is from NASA; the write-up is from EcoWatch (my emphasis):
NASA: Megadrought Lasting Decades Is 99% Certain in American Southwest

A study released in Science Advances Wednesday finds strong evidence for severe, long-term droughts afflicting the American Southwest, driven by climate change. A megadrought lasting decades is 99 percent certain to hit the region this century, said scientists from Cornell University, the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

"Historically, megadroughts were extremely rare phenomena occurring only once or twice per millennium," the report states. "According to our analysis of modeled responses to increased GHGs, these events could become commonplace if climate change goes unabated."

Rising temperatures will combine with decreased rainfall in the Southwest to create droughts that will be worse than the historic "Dust Bowl" of the 20th century and last far longer. The Dust Bowl lasted no longer than eight years, and affected 100 million acres around the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles and adjacent lands in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico. Dust storms swept through large swaths of former farmland, depositing dust as far east as Chicago, New York and Washington. It is estimated that more than half a million people were made homeless, and some 3.5 million Dust Bowl refugees migrated west, in hopes of finding work.
Just a few thoughts.

First, a megadrought lasting decades is a once- or twice-in-a-millennium event. That's once every 500 to 1000 years. The American Southeast had two "once in 500 year" storms in the last two years, and that following "Superstorm Sandy" in 2012. Obviously the frequency is changing, perhaps exponentially.

In the Southwest that megadrought could last for the next few decades. I did a major piece here — "California Drought, the "Bigger Water Crisis" & the Consumer Economy" — with a breakdown of elements that went into the current multi-year drought, and a look at the Colorado River basin and its condition. Some of the bottom lines include these:
The social contract will break in California and the rest of the Southwest (and don't forget Mexico, which also has water rights from the Colorado and a reason to contest them). This will occur even if the fastest, man-on-the-moon–style conversion to renewables is attempted starting tomorrow.

This means, the very very rich will take the best for themselves and leave the rest of us to marinate in the consequences — to hang, in other words. (For a French-Saudi example of that, read this. Typical "the rich are always entitled" behavior.) This means war between the industries, regions, classes. The rich didn't get where they are, don't stay where they are, by surrender.

Government will have to decide between the wealthy and the citizenry. How do you expect that to go?

Government dithering and the increase in social conflict will delay real solutions until a wake-up moment. Then the real market will kick in — the market for agricultural land and the market for urban property. Both will start to decline in absolute value.

If there's a mass awareness moment when all of a sudden people in and out of the Southwest "get it," those markets will collapse. Hedge funds will sell their interests in California agriculture as bad investments; urban populations will level, then shrink; the fountains in Las Vegas and the golf courses in Scottsdale will go brown and dry, collapsing those populations and economies as well.
Second, about the time frame, obviously there's a possibility of a once-in-500-year multi-seasonal rainfall, but that's not expected, to say the least. Will the region recover from this drought? If it lasts two decades, I think its livability, its habitability is finished. And when people figure that out, they'll move, perhaps in droves, depending on whether something triggers panic-selling.

That is, the area will be livable, but by a lifestyle without modern infrastructure, since it takes a certain critical mass of population and wealth (economic activity) to keep modern infrastructure going. Think of the infrastructure in small towns, where people are leaving and populations are declining, versus the more viable lifestyle available to vigorous larger towns and cities, where there are jobs. Now add multi-decade drought to those small-town lives.

Where will the jobs be if Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix and Las Vegas have no water? Where will California agriculture be if farms go dry? And finally, consider the Dust Bowl again. As many as 3.5 million refugees migrated west, to California. Where will those refugees go if they're forced to leave California, the heart of the dry zone and pressed against the ocean? Utah? Unlikely. North perhaps, swamping the Pacific Northwest with people, or given a slower migration, back across the Rockies.

Civilizations have risen and died in the American Southwest. During the last megadrought, the Anasazi, or Pueblo, culture, which was extensive in territory, completely disappeared. [Note: This means the culture or way of life, not the people themselves.] When the Mormons arrived in Utah, the Anasazi were identifiable only by their relics. EcoWatch again:
Megadroughts of 35 years are currently rare and have led to severe upheaval in the past. There’s evidence that the Pueblo people of what is now the south-west US were forced to abandon settlements in the 13th century due to a lengthy drought.
For the U.S. to compress and recede to a more habitable center while aggressively converting to zero-carbon is not the worst outcome in the world. Far from it, in fact.

There Is a Solution — A Zero Carbon Economy

I've been writing for a few years that there is likely a five-to-ten year window, and only that, in which we could start a crash program toward a zero-carbon economy, what I like to call the Stop Now plan, and what others call a WWII-style mobilization or "man on the moon"-style program. That's actually good news — that there's still time — and I still believe it.

If we start in the first term of the next president, we can mitigate most of the disaster nationally, though maybe not all of it regionally. From the Guardian's report of the same NASA study:
The new report does proffer a crumb of hope – if greenhouse gas emissions are radically cut then the risk of megadrought will reduce by half, giving a roughly 50:50 chance that a multi-decade stretch of below-average rainfall would occur this century.

But the research found that the emissions cuts would have to be far steeper than those agreed to by nations in Paris last year, where a 2C limit on warming was pledged.

“We would need a much more aggressive approach than proposed at Paris, it’s not too late to do this but the train is leaving the station as we speak,” [Toby Ault, a scientist at Cornell University and lead author of the study,] said.
And one last point. The next president will be the last one with a clear chance to turn the ship. It looks like Hillary Clinton, barring the unforeseen, will be that president. She recently gave a very aggressive climate speech, with Al Gore at her side. Can she be brought to see, not just the extremity of the situation, but the extremity of the actions needed to address it? The jury is out on that, and that's also the good news.

As long as there's time on the clock, there's hope. I don't expect you or I will influence this election; the country is too far down that road, and perhaps not all the influential wild cards have been played. But we can influence the winner afterward, so long as that winner has a modicum of sense and so long as the evidence — megastorms, megadroughts — is incontrovertibly in front of her.

GP
 

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16 Comments:

At 10:13 AM, Anonymous Kurt said...

Have you read Paolo Bacigalupi's novel "The Water Knife"? It describes what the Southwest might be like in the near future with extreme drought. It's almost as good as his other novel about resource scarcity, "The Windup Girl".

 
At 11:05 AM, Blogger rsg said...

<...During the last megadrought, the Anasazi, or Pueblo culture, which was extensive in territory, completely disappeared. When the Mormons arrived in Utah, the Anasazi were identifiable only by their relics. EcoWatch again:
Megadroughts of 35 years are currently rare and have led to severe upheaval in the past. There’s evidence that the Pueblo people of what is now the south-west US were forced to abandon settlements in the 13th century due to a lengthy drought.>

It is not the case that "the Anasazi, or Pueblo culture … completely disappeared.” Rather, as EcoWatch suggests, there is strong evidence, including the histories of the various Pueblo peoples, that the people who were Anasazi (a Navajo word meaning “enemy ancestor”) became Puebloans.

A deeper consideration of the archeological and historical evidence suggests that many of the classic Anasazi cliff-house ruins were established in the wake of the collapse of the more centralized Chacoan culture. There’s absolutely a climate story in there, but there’s also a lot to think about how societies deal with conflict after systems collapses.

 
At 2:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great blog Gaius, as usual!

And if Trump gets in, think about that - he is a monster and a destroyer in so many ways and his stance on climate change is to claim it does not exist. He must not get into the White House. Let's hope he is crushed in this election. Hopefully even more horrors about him will come out in the next few weeks, in case anyone is still on the fence (who are these people?). Although of course, his "deplorables" will be with him until the end. Forget third party voting! If Nader had not run, we'd have had Gore, and the whole climate issue would have been dealt with far far better. Gore lost New Hampshire because of Nader, and he lost Florida by around 500 votes when the Supreme Court stopped the counting!

 
At 3:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why is it that no one ever offers the most obvious solution to West Coast water issues? We live on the edge of the world's largest ocean. The US Navy (and likely many of the other national navies) makes potable water through desalination. Carlsbad CA just opened a desalinization plant, and there are plenty more areas considering such a move.

Sure, this doesn't mean that California will be able to host everyone who lives here now, but it isn't about to dry up and blow away Dust Bowl-style. People used to laugh at solar and wind power generation, and look what they have become, because both the need and the technology to meet it exist. It will be thus with desalination.

 
At 4:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is an updated (4 Oct 2016) version of the drought situation: http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/

It's not a horrible as the one shown in the article but this does not mean the problems outlined above can be ignored. It means there may be a bit more time to devise and implement measures to avoid disaster.

For example, if desalinization is to become common, what combination of currently common activities, services, products or plain vices need to be sacrificed in exchange for the CO2 generation needed to build the plants ... and to operate them if they are not solar-powered?

John Puma

 
At 2:28 AM, Blogger opit said...

Usually I don't much bother rattling your cage, as I cannot be bothered with people shrieking in panic over a temperature rise of less than 1 degree Celsius in a century. I consider that remarkable stability. But the water problem was a disaster waiting to happen. Here's why : YouTube Cadillac desert : Mulholland's Dream Part 1 of 9 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hkbebOhnCjA or the playlist https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0A8546B2BE62CC55

 
At 1:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

John Puma

There is no reason desalination plants can't be run on a combination of solar and wind power. Both are already large portions of the California power generation capacity, and both are growing mightily. The necessary capacity can be included from the beginning of the planning.

 
At 3:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To anon @ 1:43 PM

While it is clear they can be operated by solar/wind generated energy, the building of them cannot be.

The point is that desalinization plants are needed because of climate change.
Therefore this "adaption" to climate change will contribute to worsening the problem unless the planning includes equivalent, or more, reduction in CO2 generation elsewhere.

I hope the non-renewable energy cost of the solar/wind generating equipment is part of the equation.

John Puma

 
At 4:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

John Puma

I get your point regarding the carbon footprint of construction of desalination plants. Yet compared to the amount of CO2 California pumps into the air now, could we say that it would be better to build those foolish dams on the western slopes of the Sierras to catch water that isn't falling from the skies? The carbon footprint of dams is orders of magnitude greater.

Unless we are to adopt the traditional Chinese/Indian methods of massive human work gangs (which they don't even do anymore), it remains a necessary evil to use diesel-powered equipment.

So let's look another idea I've had. There are plenty of tanker ships in mothballs. Suppose they went out into the ocean, filled their tanks with desalinated water, and brought it back to port for distribution. There is a carbon footprint there as well. Which would be less? I believe it would be the shore-based option.

The only option which doesn't produce a carbon footprint is for the rains to begin falling naturally. I wish I could make that happen, for lots of very good reason. That is, alas, beyond my power.

Good chat!

 
At 6:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Everyone should read "Cadillac Desert" which, as opit references, explains the western water situation. One of the hardest books to slog through, but as a citizen of the West, I found it very enlightening and frightening. Where I live, the fights over water are very serious, and I expect it to get much worse.

 
At 12:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To anon @ 4:59 PM

I wasn't aware that more dams are being built and/or are planned. Is this "build them and it (rain) will come" magical thinking?

I am using this issue to try to make the general points that:
1) ALL our activities require energy and that always leads to CO2 generation
2) the critical goal is to cut CO2 emissions, which is hard enough for a society ingrained with an "always consume more" attitude
3) the effects of previous emissions is now forcing us to consider devoting a significant amount of a reasonable CO2 budget (if EVER agreed & acted upon) to projects not previously needed: desalinizing water instead of watching it fall from the sky.

Of course diesel power equipment has to used. I'm only saying that use it wisely and compensate for its CO2 contribution by cutting first a wide range of total frivolities and then moving to the inevitable, actual sacrifices.

The only hope is that the renewable infrastructure will be completed before the fossil fuels run out or, rather, before it takes more energy to obtain the next barrel of oil than that barrel of oil contains.

Yes, good chat!

John Puma

 
At 11:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

'Renewable energy' Solar panels do not grow from trees they are made using massive amounts of coal.

Likewise EVs.

You are living in Delusistan

Look at what happened when Germany tried to switch:

Germany's Expensive Gamble on Renewable Energy : Germany’s electricity prices soar to more than double that of the USA because when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind does not blow they have to operate and pay for a completely separate back up system that is fueled by lignite coal

http://www.wsj.com/articles/germanys-expensive-gamble-on-renewable-energy-1409106602

Why Germany’s nuclear phaseout is leading to more coal burning

Between 2011 and 2015 Germany will open 10.7 GW of new coal fired power stations. This is more new coal coal capacity than was constructed in the entire two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The expected annual electricity production of these power stations will far exceed that of existing solar panels and will be approximately the same as that of Germany’s existing solar panels and wind turbines combined. Solar panels and wind turbines however have expected life spans of no more than 25 years. Coal power plants typically last 50 years or longer.

At best you could call the recent developments in Germany’s electricity sector contradictory.

https://carboncounter.wordpress.com/2015/06/06/why-germanys-nuclear-phaseout-is-leading-to-more-coal-burning/

 
At 11:29 PM, Blogger David Wooten said...

"Historically, megadroughts were extremely rare phenomena occurring only once or twice per millennium," the report states. "According to our analysis of modeled responses to increased GHGs, these events could become commonplace if climate change goes unabated."

Global warming, were it to occur or if it is occurring, would most likely bring about more rainfall, not less. The driest desserts in the world, in terms of precipitation, are those in the tundra. The wettest jungles in the world, in terms of precipitation are those in the tropics. The amount of precipitation is, generally, inversely proportional to the distance from the equator.

 
At 9:26 AM, Blogger Jess Hansen said...

"Civilizations have risen and died in the American Southwest. During the last megadrought, the Anasazi, or Pueblo culture, which was extensive in territory, completely disappeared. When the Mormons arrived in Utah, the Anasazi were identifiable only by their relics. EcoWatch again:
Megadroughts of 35 years are currently rare and have led to severe upheaval in the past. There’s evidence that the Pueblo people of what is now the south-west US were forced to abandon settlements in the 13th century due to a lengthy drought.
For the U.S. to compress and recede to a more habitable center while aggressively converting to zero-carbon is not the worst outcome in the world. Far from it, in fact.

There Is a Solution — A Zero Carbon Economy"

A zero carbon economy? What the fuck do you think the Anasazi had?

 
At 1:29 PM, Anonymous Greg Bacon said...

The drought in the SW is strange, when compared to what has been going on in the American Midwest.
Over the last decade, monsoon-like rains, anywhere from 4-10 inches slamming down in a matter of hours, not days, are becoming common, yet never happened 40-50 years ago.

Something damned peculiar is going on with the weather that has nothing to do with CO2.

 
At 7:09 AM, Blogger jvb2718 said...

Pretty much everything "peculiar" going on **IS** because of CO2/warming.

The science, and recent observations, show that drought is something like 1000 times more likely than even "normal" precip. It's far more likely that the sonoran desert will expand from mexico to Arkansas to Oregon and consume most of what's in between in the next couple of centuries.

The science also has become pretty clear that it's already too late to ameliorate warming. If humans stopped all burning of stuff for power now, warming would still march on for at least a century and a half, though a little slower than its present accelerating pace.

The science, as well as almost all advocates such as this author, still refuse to recognize the fundamental reason that increasing atmospheric carbon CANNOT be ameliorated: 7 billion humans mushrooming to 10 billion in a generation.
That population cannot be sustained on this planet. This planet cannot support food and potable water production, power generation needs, waste processing, transportation and habitation requirements for that many humans without both depleting "nature" and billowing more carbon into the atmosphere.

It might behoove us all to look at the geological history for what the world will look like. What were the planetary conditions the last time all that sequestered carbon wasn't underground? I leave it to you to google that.

And if you think that $hillbillary and democrats will act, look again. How much money do they take from big extraction? Do you really think that monster, dedicated to self-enrichment, will reject her usual triangulation and actually do what should be done?

No. That monster will do what $he always does (while SAYING the minimum of what should be said -- lying) and nothing will change... except the climate.

 

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