Drought is a normal recurring feature of the climate in most parts of the world. It doesn’t get the attention of a tornado, hurricane or flood. Instead, it’s a slower and less obvious, a much quieter disaster creeping up on us unawares.
Climate change is currently warming many regions, warmer temperatures increase the frequency and intensity of heat waves and droughts.
We can prepare for some climate change consequences with public education, water conservation programs, limiting pumping from our freshwater aquifers to recharge rates and putting in place early warning systems for extreme heat events.
Unfortunately some things cannot be prepared for…like the pervasiveness and persistence of a hundred year drought caused by climate change.
The collapse of some of the world’s earliest known empires was because of drought.
The Akkadians of Mesopotamia forged the world’s first empire more than 4,300 years ago. The Akkad’s seized control of cities along the Euphrates River and swept up onto the plains to the north – in a short period of time their empire stretched 800 miles, all the way from the Persian Gulf to the headwaters of the Euphrates, through what is now Iraq, Syria and parts of southern Turkey.
Tell Leilan was a small village founded by some of the world’s first farmers. It’s located in present day Syria and has existed for over 8,000 years. The Akkad’s conquered Tell Leilan around 2300 B.C. and the area became the breadbasket for the Akkadian empire.
After only a hundred years the Akkadian empire started to collapse.
In 1978, Harvey Weiss, a Yale archaeologist, began excavating the city of Tell Leilan. Everywhere Weiss dug he encountered a layer of dirt that contained no signs of human habitation. This dirt layer corresponded to the years 2200 to 1900 B.C. – the time of Akkad’s fall.
The Curse of Akkad
For the first time since cities were built and founded,
The great agricultural tracts produced no grain,
The inundated tracts produced no fish,
The irrigated orchards produced neither wine nor syrup,
The gathered clouds did not rain, the masgurum did not grow.
At that time, one shekel’s worth of oil was only one-half quart,
One shekel’s worth of grain was only one-half quart. . . .
These sold at such prices in the markets of all the cities!
He who slept on the roof, died on the roof,
He who slept in the house, had no burial,
People were flailing at themselves from hunger.
The events described in “The Curse of Akkad” were always thought to be fictional. But the evidence Weiss uncovered at Tell Leilan (along with elevated dust deposits in sea-cores collected off Oman) suggest that localized climate change – in Tell Leilan’s case a three hundred year drought, desertification, was the major cause.
“Since this is probably the first abrupt climate change in recorded history that caused major social upheaval. It raises some interesting questions about how volatile climate conditions can be and how well civilizations can adapt to abrupt crop failures.” Dr. Harvey Weiss, Yale University archeologist
Perhaps the most notable empire decline due to drought, or altered precipitation patterns, was the Maya empire. At the peak of their glory the Maya ranged from Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula to Honduras. Some 60 Maya cities – each home to upwards of 70,000 people – sprang up across much of modern day Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.
“The early Classic Maya period was unusually wet, wetter than the previous thousand years… Mayan systems were founded on those [high] rainfall patterns. They could not support themselves when patterns changed.” Douglas Kennett, an environmental anthropologist at Pennsylvania State University.
During the wettest centuries, from 440 to 660, Maya civilization flourished.
Then things got worse, much worse. The following centuries, to roughly 1000 A.D., did not treat the Mayas as kindly, they suffered repeatedly from drought, oftentimes extreme drought lasting a decade and more.
Between 1020 and 1100 the region suffered the longest dry spell in many millennia. The Maya’s suffered crop failure after failure, famine, death and eventually mass migration.
“Yucatecan lake sediment cores … provide unambiguous evidence for a severe 200-year drought from AD 800 to 1000 … the most severe in the last 7,000 years … precisely at the time of the Maya Collapse.” Richardson Gill, The Great Maya Droughts
After 200 years of drought, in just an eye-blink of time, famine and drought held sway, most people walked away leaving behind a ghost empire.
Danger Will Rogers Danger
Despite the federal government’s attempt to deal with climate change through a nation-wide carbon tax, Canada is among the four countries that are contributing most to global warming. This revelation comes via a study that ranked the climate policies of different countries.
It found that China, Russia, Canada and Argentina have the least effective plans to reign in carbon emissions, and that if the rest of the world followed their example, the planet’s temperature would rise to 5.1 degrees C by the year 2100. Most of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions come from heat and electricity generation, transportation and natural gas leaks, states the Conference Board of Canada.
Australia and the United States weren’t far behind, with both pushing beyond 4 degrees. Europe’s (the EU) policies on climate would raise the temperature by 3 degrees – nearly twice the 1.5 to 2-degree temperature range agreed by 195 countries at the 2015 Paris climate summit.
According to the study, published earlier this month in the journal Nature Communications, India has the best targets, at around 2 degrees C.
This study comes on the heels of another alarming report, by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which warned that planet Earth has just 12 years to stop warming. That assessment, reported by The Guardian, claims that “even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.” (the world is already one degree warmer than pre-industrial levels)
Southern Africa would feel the effects of a global temperature rise the most, since the region is warming at about twice the rate of the rest of the world. (the poles are also said to be warming twice as fast) According to the IPCC, if the temperature goes above 2 degrees by 2050, heat extremes never experienced before by humans could affect sub-Saharan Africa, causing deaths and the ability of farmers to grow crops. At 3 degrees, livestock production would be unviable and the maize crop would be severely curtailed, maybe even collapse. The world’s coral reefs would be wiped out due to the acidification of the oceans.
“We need to completely revolutionise the way in which we generate energy on the planet. Effectively, we need to move away from fossil fuels as our main source of energy, to alternative forms of energy.”
Prof Francois Engelbrecht, chief researcher in climate studies, modelling and environmental health, CSIR
Closer to home, if carbon emissions aren’t reduced, California could see a 77% increase in the area burned by wildfires, erosion of two-thirds of its coastline, and average temperatures rising 4.9 degrees – causing double or triple the number of deaths by 2050. To put that in perspective, the 2006 heat wave killed 600 people, caused 16,000 ER visits, and nearly $5.4 billion in damages, according to a state-wide assessment. California’s climate would also experience greater extremes, with more catastrophic floods, more landslides, and longer droughts.
New reports on climate change seems to come weekly, and while their conclusions are usually dire, they are starting to lose their effect. It’s like the boy who cried wolf – people think this wolf won’t be coming for another 30, 50, 100 years. They are concerned about it, but they don’t think it will affect them. They are wrong.
Another important point to raise about climate change: the assumption is it will be linear. That the temperature will rise gradually, and we’ll be able to plan for it. The reality is that climate science is complex. Variables like rising temperatures, melting sea ice, receding glaciers, increased emissions, etc. are all happening simultaneously. When these changes interact, the end result is unpredictable. The upshot? Change could occur much quicker and more dramatically than has been anticipated. As a columnist in The Guardian puts it:
Small perturbations can ramify wildly. Tipping points are likely to remain invisible until we have passed them. We could see changes of state so abrupt and profound that no continuity can be safely assumed.
Indeed global warming involves so many natural phenomena that researchers think by 2100 some parts of the world could face up to six climate-related crises at the same time. We are already seeing this in Florida, which has experienced record drought, high temperatures, wildfires and hurricanes simultaneously; and California, where a long-lasting drought, extreme heat waves and the worst wild fires on record have coalesced into a state-wide emergency. In British Columbia, melting sea ice is setting up a high-pressure system that sits over the coast for most of the summer, causing heat waves that dry the forests and ignite fires that burn and smoke for weeks. Melting glaciers cause landslides, and much worse, a possible re-awakening of dormant volcanoes.
And climate phenomena are interconnected, with one event causing knock-on effects. Examples include increasing greenhouse gas emissions adding to droughts, which cause heat waves and fires; warmer oceans causing more destructive storms (Hurricane Harvey broke precipitation and wind records, with double the rainfall as Tropical Storm Alison in 2001 and winds gusting to a tree-toppling 132 mph); and melting sea ice causing ocean levels to rise and the water to warm, which leads to acidification causing dead spots in the ocean where nothing but jellyfish can survive, and the extinction of corals.
At Ahead of the Herd we believe that climate change is real, and we also think it’s going to get worse. All is not lost, yet, but there is no time to lose if we want to maintain the health of the planet, and the continuation of life as we know it. If we don’t, or can’t, nature will unleash a fury that none of us can really fathom.
What we know
Rising ocean levels and temperatures, frequent and more intense storms, droughts, forest fires, retreating glaciers, calving ice sheets, mudslides, glacial retreat exposing methane vents in dormant volcanoes, species extinction, melting permafrost in the Arctic leaving bubbling cauldrons of methane – a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide – are all signs of climate change we’ve written about. Here is a summary of what we know to be happening:
In February 2018 temperatures in the Arctic were up to 45 degrees Fahrenheit (7 degrees Celsius) above average, in the middle of winter. Greenland saw 61 hours of above-freezing temperatures in the first two months of 2018 – much higher than normal. This is why, as the planet overall experiences warming, mid-latitudes such as Eastern US, Europe and East Asia might experience a brutal winter. As the planet continues to warm, the polar vortices could eventually disappear altogether.
The volume of water moving northward has been sluggish. The amount of water surging through the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), which exchanges warm water from the equator with cold water from the Arctic, transporting warm and cold water to the North and South Poles, has slowed to a 1,000-year low. When the North Atlantic Current stopped during the Younger Dryas it caused an ice age in Europe within 10 years.
The result is a reduction in the numbers of phytoplankton – vital in maintaining the Earth’s atmosphere and the oxygen we need to survive. Since 1950, phytoplankton numbers have declined globally by about 40%. The loss of phytoplankton makes the problem of over-fishing even worse, since phytoplankton are eaten by zooplankton, which are consumed by fish further up the food chain.
August 31st 2018
In Cape Town, South Africa, a prolonged drought had city officials predicting “Day Zero”, when taps would be turned off due to perilously low reservoir levels.
A vast majority of the world’s population lives in countries sourcing nearly all their staple crop imports from partners who deplete groundwater to produce these crops, highlighting risks for global food and water security. Some countries, such as the USA, Mexico, Iran and China, are particularly exposed to these risks because they both produce and import food irrigated from rapidly depleting aquifers.
The World Water Development Report warns over 5 billion people could see water shortages by 2050, leading to conflicts over water unless actions are taken to reduce stress on rivers, lakes, wetlands and reservoirs.
Given what we know to be true about climate change, it seems ludicrous to think that humanity would do nothing to stop it. But that is precisely what’s happening. All the toothless governmental pledges to keep temperatures from rising, the implementation of carbon taxes and cap and trade schemes, are just band-aiding a problem that needs radically new thinking and the making of very difficult decisions. So let’s look at what the Earth would look like in 2080 if we do nothing to counteract the already-present effects of global warming.
In 2080 due to 62 more years of carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and oil-based transportation, the atmosphere contains so much carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases, that the sun is virtually blotted out. The days of clear blue skies are gone. It is still possible to breathe the air outside, but only for limited exposures. Most people wear government-approved masks that filter out particulate matter and harmful gases. There are no more outside sports stadiums. School children are unable to spend recess and lunch outdoors. The air is particularly bad for about half the year (because the temperature has risen 4 degrees, summer starts early and ends late, effectively eliminating spring and fall), when forest fires rage across North America, cloaking cities and towns in an acrid-smelling, smoky haze. The fires pump more CO2, carbon monoxide and particulate matter into the air, making air quality worse every year. Another contributing factor to bad air quality are the number of active volcanoes.
Retreating glaciers exposed previously buried methane vents. The arc of ancient volcanoes from California to Alaska now erupt regularly, spewing ash and lava.
It’s now been about 25 years since all the ice on Earth melted. The first to go was Arctic sea ice, which disappeared around 2030 – 20 years earlier than estimated due to a feedback loop. The rapidly melting ice left huge sections of open water that absorbed sunlight and kept warming the Arctic Ocean. When temperatures increased by 2 degrees, land-based glaciers started to retreat quickly – several inches a year. In 2080 all the glaciers we once admired are gone. Ice on the Antarctic continent took longer to melt, there being so much of it, but it disappeared around 2060. That was when everything changed. Within five years the oceans rose over 200 feet. A few cities had built walls to hold back the water, but they weren’t nearly high enough. So many coastal cities are gone. It was really bad in Asia. Mumbai, Calcutta and Bangladesh all disappeared underwater, displacing 160 million in Bangladesh alone, who were forced inland. The entire coast of southeast Asia was flooded, destroying Bangkok, Singapore, Manila and Hong Kong. Land that was home to 600 million Chinese disappeared underwater, with Shanghai and Beijing drowned; these people now live in huge interior cities that were once “ghost cities”.
The US mainland was also hit hard. The stretching of the Gulf of California claimed San Diego, and the flooding of California’s Central Valley all but destroyed San Francisco, which is now a cluster of hills peaking above the water. Portland and Seattle are still there, but they are no longer cities, more a cluster of island where citizens that could, claimed residence. Houston and New Orleans are gone, along with the Mississippi Delta, and the entire state of Florida. Over a few years the Eastern Seaboard was swallowed by the Atlantic – drowning Washington, New York City and Boston. Millions of Americans were forced inland. Real estate prices in cities like Chicago, Denver and Kansas City are insane. Only the super-rich can afford to buy properties; the rest live in low-rent housing projects.
Many European cities were also flooded out, but now, in 2080, Europe is shrouded in ice. When temperatures increased by 3 degrees, that was the tipping point for the North Atlantic Current, which abruptly stopped. Within seven years Europe was plunged into a deep freeze. People living on the fringes of the glaciers are able to eke out an existence, but most Europeans fled south, to northern Africa – a kind of reverse refugee crisis from the early 21st century, when Africans were risking their lives to get to Europe. Those that could afford to, bought properties in cities like Cairo, Tunis and Tripoli; the rest live in sprawling tent cities.
Southern Africa has long since been abandoned, being too hot for agriculture or human settlements. Same with the south-eastern United States, most of India and southeast Asia. In Australia, the south-coast cities of Adelaide and Melbourne were swallowed by the Southern Ocean – displacing millions to Queensland and New South Wales, where most Australians now live. Like the Europeans in northern Africa, only the rich own their homes. Most live in cheap, crowded apartment buildings.
There are no more major cities left in coastal areas. Storms are too frequent and too powerful for anyone to survive them.
Even in 2018, the oceans had “dead zones” where low oxygen levels made it impossible for any species but jellyfish to survive. Now that the global temperature has warmed 4 degrees, the marine ecosystem has collapsed. The water is too warm for all but phytoplankton and zooplankton to live. But there is not enough plankton to recharge the food chain. The first marine species to go were the killer whales – not due to climate change but a massive increase in tanker traffic that destroyed their ability to hunt for food – followed by other whales, sharks, and large fish. By 2060 all the world’s fisheries were gone. Marine biologists were able to save a few important species for food consumption. These are now grown in fish farms inland. But they’re expensive. Only the super-rich can afford seafood. The intensity of storms has wreaked havoc with shipping. While good are still transported by ocean, trade routes are now vastly reduced. With ships only daring to sail close to shorelines, supply chains are much more localized. Goods imported from overseas are rare and expensive.
The disappearance of so many coastal cities has meant hundreds of millions of people have had to move inland. Existing interior cities have been inundated with climate refugees. Some new cities have been built, but not enough. The amount of waste generated but this massive population influx long ago overwhelmed landfills. The only option now is incineration – which further fouls the polluted air.
When it rains, the rain is acidic, which destroys crops. Agriculture has moved indoors. There are no more sprawling farms and ranches. Large-scale agriculture has been replaced by shipping containers using wind to power LED grow lights.
Fresh water is a big problem. When the oceans rose, saltwater intrusion destroyed all the aquifers near coastal areas. In the United States, the Ogallala Aquifer was depleted around 2040, as were aquifers in Saudi Arabia. The ones that remain are heavily guarded. Once free, water now costs as much as gasoline once did. Water use is restricted and heavy fines imposed for over-use. To leave enough for cooking and drinking, most people only bathe once a week.
But the biggest problem with fresh water is that there are no more glaciers from which to draw it from. There are only small lakes left – recharged by rainwater – and rivers have either dried up or been reduced to slow motion streams of sludge. Desalination is an option but the water it produces is very expensive.
Plants and animals
The speed at which animals and plants were eradicated, accelerated after the planet warmed up 2 degrees. The problems started at the bottom of the food chain. Habitat destruction and the continued use of pesticides all but destroyed insects, leading to widespread depletion of bird species that feed on them. Gradually, animals that fed on birds had to find other food sources. They lasted for awhile, but eventually, the inability to find prey, and habitat destruction, caused by warming, forced the extinction of all but a few wild animals hardy enough to survive the current harsh climate and lack of fresh water. Some domesticated animal species were saved, like rabbits which are now raised indoors for food. Meat is a luxury few can afford. A combination of eutrophication, acid rain and habitat destruction has eliminated thousands of plant species – leading to a dramatic lessening of biodiversity and vast tracts of dead, non-arable land.
Back in the beginning of the 21st century there was a lot of discussion about changing the energy mix to prevent climate change. But nothing happened. The world did manage to move completely off coal, but it was replaced by natural gas – whose emissions are partly to blame for wrecking the planet over the last 60 years. China was among the few countries that built new nuclear power plants, which helped for awhile, but many of them were destroyed when the sea rose. They should have been built inland instead of near coastal areas, but that’s where most Chinese lived back around 2020.
By 2050, the era of the gas-powered automobile was finally over. The end was driven not by government policies, but economics. Oil and gas production ground to a halt, starting with the end of fracking in Canada and the United States when all the wells were depleted. The big oil fields in Saudi Arabia ran dry, followed by those in the rest of the Middle East, and Russia. Offshore oil exploration became impossible due to the strength and frequency of storms. All this meant that gasoline prices became so high, only the rich could afford to own gas-powered cars. Gradually the car companies abandoned them.
So we did eventually move 100% to electric vehicles, but we still needed energy to power them. This came mostly from natural gas, until about mid-century. Now we have to rely on wind, very little solar, a bit of hydro (only where there is enough snowpack to recharge reservoirs annually. The glaciers are gone) and whatever nuclear plants haven’t been inundated by the sea rise. Now, all vehicles are electric, but they’re expensive to run. Only about 2% of the global population can afford one.
The inundation of coastal cities led to the biggest dislocation of populations in human history. Since then there have been constant conflicts over territory and water. It wasn’t long before the United States invaded Canada, mostly for its water but also for whatever was left of its oil and natural gas. There were pockets of resistance but they were no match for the US Armed Forces. The Army pretty much marched in without firing a shot.
The Americans built a large dam on James Bay, and a water pipeline that runs into the Great Lakes. This water supplies most of the US population that is now crammed into the central United States, where the climate is still moderate enough for human survival. The two countries remain separate, but their economies are highly integrated due to scarce food, water and other critical resources.
Other parts of the world are not so peaceful. There is constant tension in North Africa between the Africans and the Europeans, areas south of the Black and Caspian seas where climate refugees from Russia, now partly covered by glaciers, clash with Turks, Persians, Iraqis, Afghans and Pakistanis. Southeast Asia is another hot spot, with so many people displaced to border regions with China and India. Many fear if they aren’t killed by climate change, it will be from a nuclear warhead.
As the philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote, “life is nasty, brutish and short.” This pretty much describes how life would be in 2080 if nothing is done to arrest global warming. It’s grim, but it doesn’t have to be this way. If we chose to, we could do something about it.
In our last article, we at Ahead of the Herd suggested an alternative to the burning of natural gas to create a foolish LNG industry in British Columbia that is bound to accelerate the depressing 2080 scenario described above. It involves nuclear energy powered first by uranium, then thorium. Small thorium reactors could be built near highly populated areas and to power manufacturing plants. Thorium, like nuclear, is emissions-free, but safer, scalable and comes without a nuclear waste disposal problem. Thorium and nuclear reactors could provide the bulk of base-load power. More electricity could, and should, be created by renewables, facilitated by the acceleration of lithium-ion battery storage technology.
We need to “Volkswagonize” the electric vehicle industry. EVs are great, but they are currently too expensive – $23,000 for an EV “smart car” (who wants a smart car?) and $29,000 for a passenger car that can fit more than two people – the Ford Focus Electric. Never mind a Tesla Model S or a new Audi e-tron GT, both luxury EV’s priced starting close to US$80,000.00. An auto manufacturer must come up with an electric vehicle that is affordable to the masses, just like the Volkswagen Beetle was in the 1960s. Tesla’s luxury car business car model will not get North Americans off of gas-powered vehicles. In China an EV can be had for around $15,000. This is the price range that we in North America should be shooting for. Volkswagen has just announced it will invest $50 billion into EV technology and plans to sell a new compact model for about the same price as a Golf. The new electric VW bug? Maybe so.
Finally, we need governments to bring the hammer down on fossil fuels. Let’s face it, the car companies are not going to drive this. They are beholden to shareholders who will not tolerate losses due to the shift from gas to electric.
Governments need to put a hard ban on gas or diesel-powered cars. Norway, where 40% of cars are already electric, wants to do it by 2025, France and the UK by 2040. Germany has indicated it wants to make a changeover but hasn’t set a date. One surprising country is India, which has set a target of 2030 for all-electrics.
A ban on fossil-fuel energy also needs to be driven by governments. Several countries have banned coal-fired power plants but they need to go further; natural gas is the next step – which will be tough for countries that rely on the fossil fuel. In 2016 Vancouver voted to ban natural gas by 2050. 2050? By then all the polar ice will probably be gone. What good does an NG ban in Vancouver do the rest of the province which by that time will be pumping out CO2 and methane from LNG plants and causing our killer whales in BC to become extinct?
These suggestions are do-able; what’s missing is the sense of urgency, and the political will, to make these drastic changes. In this sense we have too much democracy. Too many opportunities for debate, public input, consultation. This is an emergency that needs top-down leadership.
What kind of world do you want to live in? Is it the one where the air you breathe is poisonous, fresh water is so scarce it has to be paid for and rationed, and where the population is forced away from the coastlines that have either become submerged or at constant threat of being washed away by storms? Where volcanoes are erupting, food is limited, scarce and expensive, and where housing and cars are unaffordable except for the very rich? We’re quickly running out of time to have a choice.
Richard (Rick) Mills
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