"In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act." -George Orwell

Posts Tagged ‘Dirty Food Production’

Mega Drought: The New Normal For The American Southwest?

In Uncategorized on July 24, 2014 at 7:10 pm

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Oldspeak: “As for now, personal bathing in showers in California continues without disruption for the foreseeable future because of advance planning for water shortages by state and federal agencies; however, in many respects the future is now as water resources are running short, quickly, very quickly, and as it happens, America’s dependency upon California for food is only as good as results from drilling into deep water aquifers on farmland, costing $500,000-to-$1,000,000 per job… As it goes, retail food costs are almost guaranteed to go up — a lot… Nevertheless, a much bigger issue is whether California produces food in 2015-20… In short, human influence is once again slowly inching the noose up around its own neck by carelessly burning fossil fuels like there is no tomorrow. At current rates of carbon dioxide emissions, setting new records year-by-year, there may not be much of a tomorrow left for upcoming decades… “Rising greenhouse gases will lead to a steady drying of the Southwest.” –Robert Hunziker

“It’s time for us to wake up. If this drought continues, we’re going to be in a terrible situation within the next 12-24 months… I think it says that this region is in trouble. I think it says that we need to really rethink our water use in this region, our demand in this region because it is far outstripping the supply.” –Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

“i wonder if the relentless and ever-increasing extraction rates of Big Water, Big Ag and Big Oil has been factored into the advance planning for water shortages by government agencies? Business as usual extractive energy and resource extraction all but guarantee America’s foodbasket will go dry indefinitely.  Then what? Keep in mind that what’s happening in the American southwest, is happening in all other food producing regions on the planet…. Tick, tick, tick, tick….” -OSJ

By Robert Hunziker @ Dissident Voice:

According to the Assessment of Southwest Climate Change (Arizona Institute of the Environment), the five decades from 1950 to 2000 were the warmest in over 600 years. The report predicts that reduced snowfall and increased evaporation from global warming will lead to more droughts over the next 90 years.

Droughts are a natural part of the climate cycle. As a matter of fact, studies of tree rings going back 1,000 years show mega droughts lasting for decades. Then, nature alone was the culprit, but what happens now when global warming/climate change is superimposed onto nature’s handiwork?

Is an intensified mega drought in the works for the United States?

California is already burning up.

Markedly, to a great degree, America depends upon California for its food.

“Up to half of the nation’s fruit, nuts and vegetables are grown in the Central Valley, one of the planet’s most fertile growing regions, between Los Angeles and Sacramento.” 1

Furthermore, as an aside, how will someone in LA or San Francisco react when, hopping into an A.M. shower, the water barely dribbles out of the faucet? That would be a new twist for California’s famous “ride-sharing” on its slow-moving heated freeways traveling to and from work.

As for now, personal bathing in showers in California continues without disruption for the foreseeable future because of advance planning for water shortages by state and federal agencies; however, in many respects the future is now as water resources are running short, quickly, very quickly, and as it happens, America’s dependency upon California for food is only as good as results from drilling into deep water aquifers on farmland, costing $500,000-to-$1,000,000 per job.

As it goes, retail food costs are almost guaranteed to go up — a lot.

Nevertheless, a much bigger issue is whether California produces food in 2015-20.

Droughts – A Perspective

Recent studies reveal that persistent dry periods lasting for multiple years to several decades have occurred many times during the last 500-1,000 years over North America… These historic droughts are linked to tropical SST variations, with La Nina-like SST anomalies in the tropical Pacific often leading to widespread drought in North America….

Since the middle 20th century, global aridity and drought areas have increased substantially, mainly due to widespread drying since the 1970s… Although natural variations … have played a large role in the recent drying, the rapid warming since the late 1970s has increased atmospheric demand for moisture and likely altered atmospheric circulation patterns … contributing to the recent drying over land. Since a large part of the recent warming is attributed to human-induced GHG increases, it can be concluded that human activities have contributed significantly to the recent drying trend.

The large-scale pattern shown in figure 11 appears to be a robust response to increased GHGs. This is very alarming because if the drying is anything resembling figure 11 a very large population will be severely affected in the coming decades over the whole United States…. 2

In short, human influence is once again slowly inching the noose up around its own neck by carelessly burning fossil fuels like there is no tomorrow. At current rates of carbon dioxide emissions, setting new records year-by-year, there may not be much of a tomorrow left for upcoming decades.

“Rising greenhouse gases will lead to a steady drying of the Southwest.”3

Droughts- Southwestern U.S.

According to the State Water Resources Control Board, California is bone dry. Nearly 50 communities in the state of California are in danger of running out of water.

Additionally, the draining of aquifers on California farmland is happening so fast that the ground is sinking, up to a foot in some parts of the San Joaquin Valley, which is a very, very significant part of America’s breadbasket. Sinking ground, in turn, damages irrigation pipes that deliver the water. It’s a vicious circle.

A new social media phenomenon “Drought Shaming” has begun in California. This involves people who take videos of neighbors wasting water, and it is posted on Facebook or Twitter.

Meanwhile, in Las Vegas the situation is dire, according to climate scientist Tim Barnett, a geophysicist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography: The city must find new sources of water or go out of business. Vegas’s long-standing standby massive water reservoir of the past 80 years, Lake Mead, is depleting so fast that fishermen notice a difference in the water level every few weeks.

“Andy Ameigeiras and two of his friends spent Wednesday night and Thursday morning hooking carp, catfish and stripers from the rocky shore of Echo Bay. He said the water had easily dropped three to five feet since the last time they fished there, just four weeks ago.” 4

The Southern Nevada Water Authority is spending $817 million on a new intake that will reach deeper into Lake Mead at an elevation of 860 feet. The two current intakes reside at 1,050 feet and 1,000 feet whereas Lake Mead’s water level is currently 1,082 feet.

The ongoing drought in America’s Southwest highlights the importance of the Colorado River, providing water to over 40 million people in the West, including key agricultural production in California’s Coachella and Imperial Valleys, which are extremely important to the food supply for the entire U.S.

According to the U.S. Department of the Bureau of Reclamation, the Colorado River, aka: the “lifeblood of the Southwest,” has experienced drought conditions since the year 2000.

“It’s time for us to wake up. If this drought continues, we’re going to be in a terrible situation within the next 12-24 months,” says Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.5 His research, which uses satellites to track changes in water supplies, has confirmed that the Colorado River Basin has lost vast amounts of groundwater during the past decade.

The fact that Lake Mead is now 39% full shows how dire the water situation has become, according to Famiglietti: “I think it says that this region is in trouble. I think it says that we need to really rethink our water use in this region, our demand in this region because it is far outstripping the supply,”

Further east, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, there are 12 water districts in Texas with only 45 days of water remaining.

Wichita Falls, Texas, a city of 105,000 is building a water treatment plant that will process local sewage into drinking water. As such, residents will be drinking what they passed into the toilet only days before, which is the epitome of recycling!

The Human Footprint Clomps Onward

As the 21st century progresses, human-influenced climate change is forever at the forefront of disaster scenarios, from melting glaciers’ rising sea levels to deformed ocean plankton threatening the base of the food chain as a result of too much CO2, now drought conditions, enhanced by human-caused global warming, threaten food production and adequate water resources.

A recent study provides quantitative evidence of California’s drought linked to the role of human-caused greenhouse gases. 6

As far back as 1990, James Hansen, one of the world’s foremost climatologist, in an article “Potential Evapotranspiration and the Likelihood of Future Drought“, (Journal of Geophysical Research, 95, 9983-10004), predicted that severe to extreme drought in the U.S., then occurring every couple of decades, would become an every-other-year phenomenon by mid-century: “If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase rapidly, the model results suggest that severe drought (5% frequency today) will occur about 50% of the time by the 2050s.”

Hansen was wrong. He was too conservative, especially in consideration of the fact that annual CO2 emissions are 50% higher than when Hansen wrote his paper.

Bottom line: If fossil fuel (oil, gas, and coal) usage flagrantly continues to spew carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, eventually an ice-free Arctic will kick up methane (CH4) like there’s no tomorrow, essentially injecting steroids into the global warming equation, and California will morph into a barren desert wilderness, similar to its ancient past.

Then, as large proportions of humanity are forced into a hunter/gatherer lifestyle, roaming eastward in search of sustenance, they’ll crash the gates.  It happened in France in the late 18th century when the world’s most powerful nation-state came tumbling down as starving people crashed the gates! There is no escaping the past.

Why should it be any different this time around?

As such, the real issue is: When will the United States government seriously promote a renewables energy plan?

Postscript

The greenhouse effect is simple science; greenhouse gases trap heat, and humans are emitting ever more greenhouse gases.

— Nicholas Stern, British economist and academic, Professor of Economics and Government, Chair- Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change/Environment, London School of Economics.

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  1. Stephen Neslage, “California Drought Threatens Food Supply of All Americans: Collapsing Aquifer Sinking Land”, Weather.com, May 29, 2014. []
  2. Aiguo Dai (Ph.D. Atmospheric Science, Columbia University), “Drought Under Global Warming- A Review”, Vol. 2, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, CO, Jan./Feb. 2011. []
  3. Richard Seager et al, “Atmosphere and Ocean Origins of North America Droughts”, Journal of Climate, 27, 4581-4606. []
  4. Henry Brean,”Lake Mead Sinks to a Record Low”, Las Vegas Review-Journal, July 10, 2014. []
  5. Ian James, “Mead Reservoir Drops to Record Low”, The Desert Sun, July 14, 2014 []
  6. S. Y. Wang, et al, “Probable Causes of the Abnormal Ridge Accompanying the 2013-2014 California Drought: ENSO Precursor and Anthropogenic Warming Footprint”, Geophysical Research Letters, Vol. 41, Issue 9, May 16, 2014. []

Robert Hunziker (MA, economic history, DePaul University) is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and appeared in over 50 journals, magazines, and sites worldwide, like Z magazine, European Project on Ocean Acidification, Ecosocialism Canada, Climate Himalaya, Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Comite Valmy, and UK Progressive. He has been interviewed about climate change on Pacifica Radio, KPFK, FM90.7, Indymedia On Air and World View Show/UK. He can be contacted at: rlhunziker@gmail.com. Read other articles by Robert.

 

 

 

Tyndall Center Study: Rampant Climate Change Driven Ever-Rising Atmospheric CO2 Levels Pose Serious Threat To World Food Supply

In Uncategorized on March 25, 2014 at 6:53 pm

 

Photo by kevin dooley (CC BY 2.0)

 

Oldspeak:Yields of several major crops are likely to be seriously affected by rising temperatures, scientists say, with spells of extreme heat posing the greatest risk.” – Tim Radford

“1 in 8 people on the planet is suffering from chronic undernourishment. 16 million in developed countries, and 852 million in developing countries, or 52 times more people. The richest fifth of the world’s people consumes 86 percent of all goods. Extreme inequality couldn’t be more clear than that. Knowing that it’s easy to see who will suffer most, as if they weren’t suffering enough now, in the coming anthropocentric global warming caused calamities of water scarcity and famine. We are seeing the beginning stages of it in the American West, and it’s full blown and out of control in places like Uganda, where they’re “….. seeing drought. Serious drought that has not happened before. This drought has caused famine in parts of the country. In other parts, there has been too much rainIt has been very hot these days. Over the years it has gotten hotter with more unpredictable weather.’ -Benon Twineobusingye, Senior Human Resource Manager, Ugandan Government. Again, this is not something far off in the future, it is happening RiGHT NOW. Socio-economic factors are utterly irrelevant to the abrupt impacts of climate change. There’s no where else for us to go.  “Developed” countries will be plunged into the warming induced unpredictability and instability as the “developing” countries are, even The Ministry Of Love said so.  in the description of our “civilization” is the fundamental problem. “Development”. Development has allowed humans to decouple our existence from the well being of Great Mother who has graciously provided her invaluable natural capital to us; only to be reduced to  mere “resources”, “property” and  “externalities”. This dangerously imbalanced world cannot continue to function normally. The fever is mild now, but when it gets higher look out! -OSJ

By Tim Radford @ The Daily Climate:

LONDON – Rampant climate change driven by ever-rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere poses a serious threat to world food supply, according to a new study in Environmental Research Letters.

The hazard comes not from high average temperatures, but the likelihood of heat extremes at times when crops are most sensitive to stress. The message: Those communities that rely on maize as a staple are more at risk than most.

Delphine Derying of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia in the UK and colleagues looked at one of the big puzzles of the coming decades: What will global warming do for crop yields?

Timing is everything

It is not a simple question. Climate change means more evaporation, more precipitation, longer growing seasons, more warmth, and higher levels of the carbon dioxide that plants exploit by photosynthesis (the process they use to convert light into chemical energy), so the consequence ought to be greater yields. But as every farmer knows, what matters most is the timing of all that warmth, rain, and those dry spells in which the harvest can ripen.

There is a second consideration. Climate is the sum of all events. Rather than a steady overall rise in daily temperatures, an increasing number of ever-larger regions are predicted to experience ever more intense extremes of heat, and sometimes cold. Plants can be very sensitive to extremes of heat at flowering time. If the thermometer goes up, the pollen becomes increasingly sterile and less seed is likely to be set. So an extended heat wave in the wrong season could be calamitous.

Business as usual

The Tyndall team included the assumption that nothing would be done about climate change – that is, that governments, industry and people would continue with a business-as-usual scenario. They then chose three well-studied and vital crops – spring wheat, maize and soybean – and tested predictions under 72 different climate change scenarios for the rest of this century.

They allowed for the already-established benign effects of carbon dioxide-driven warming, one of which is that plants can make more tissue and at the same time use water more efficiently, and therefore respond more effectively to drought conditions. They also looked for the outcomes in places where yields could be most vulnerable: For example, the North American corn belt.

What they found was that – if carbon dioxide fertilization effects are not taken into account – then maize, wheat and soya yields are all likely to fall, in all five top-producing countries for each of these crops.

Positive impacts

When they factored in the benefits of more CO2 in the atmosphere, the picture changed. There would be positive impacts on soya and wheat, but not on maize.

There is another proviso: So far, the benefits of extra CO2 have been confirmed in experimental plant laboratories. The experience in the fields 60 years in the future may be rather different. And in any case, these positive impacts could be severely offset by extremes of heat at the moment when the crops were most vulnerable, so overall, harvests remain at risk.

The best answer, the scientists argue, is to attempt to limit climate change. “Climate mitigation policy would help reduce risks of serious negative impacts on maize worldwide and reduce risks of extreme heat stress that threaten global crop production,” Deryng said.

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Tim Radford is an editor at Climate News Network, a journalism news service delivering news and commentary about climate change for free to media outlets worldwide.

The Daily Climate is an independent, foundation-funded news service covering energy, the environment and climate change. Find us on Twitter @TheDailyClimate or email editor Douglas Fischer at dfischer [at] DailyClimate.org

  Find more Daily Climate stories in the TDC Newsroom

“Q: Is Earth Fucked? A: More Or Less.”- How Science Is Telling Us All To Revolt

In Uncategorized on November 4, 2013 at 5:26 pm
Texas.

Waste land: large-scale irrigation strips nutrients from the soil, scars the landscape and could alter climatic conditions beyond repair. Image: Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto/ Flowers, London, Pivot Irrigation #11 High Plains, Texas Panhandle, USA (2011)

Oldspeak: “Global capitalism has made the depletion of resources so rapid, convenient and barrier-free that “earth-human systems” are becoming dangerously unstable in response… research shows that our entire economic paradigm is a threat to ecological stability…. challenging this economic paradigm – through mass-movement counter-pressure – is humanity’s best shot at avoiding catastrophe…. we have lost so much time to political stalling and weak climate policies – all while global consumption (and emissions) ballooned – that we are now facing cuts so drastic that they challenge the fundamental logic of prioritising GDP growth above all else… Climate change is a cumulative issue! Now, in 2013, we in high-emitting (post-)industrial nations face a very different prospect. Our ongoing and collective carbon profligacy has squandered any opportunity for the ‘evolutionary change’ afforded by our earlier (and larger) 2°C carbon budget. Today, after two decades of bluff and lies, the remaining 2°C budget demands revolutionary change to the political and economic hegemony…. The fact that the business-as-usual pursuit of profits and growth is destabilising life on earth is no longer something we need to read about in scientific journals. The early signs are unfolding before our eyes.” -Naomi Klein

“Yep. Business as usual, Limitless growth, ever higher toxic emmissons, relentless barrier free resource extraction, are a certain recipe for global systems failure. Systems that supersede those of GDP, Profit, Politics, national boundaries, policy.  The whole length and breadth of contrived reality we’re being led to believe is real must be done away with. it’s just no longer sustainable or feasible. irreversable non-linear feedbacks have already begun. The warmest September on record just passed. The pacific ocean is warmer than it’s been in 144,000 years. We need to revolutionarily change our global systems that have caused the malfunctions in our global ecological and environmental systems, to have an inkling of a chance to avert a coming unlivable climate. Radical & immediate de-growth strategies are critical for all wealthy nations. There is no profit on a dead planet.” -OSJ

By Naomi Klein @ The New Statesman:

Is our relentless quest for economic growth killing the planet? Climate scientists have seen the data – and they are coming to some incendiary conclusions.

In December 2012, a pink-haired complex systems researcher named Brad Werner made his way through the throng of 24,000 earth and space scientists at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, held annually in San Francisco. This year’s conference had some big-name participants, from Ed Stone of Nasa’s Voyager project, explaining a new milestone on the path to interstellar space, to the film-maker James Cameron, discussing his adventures in deep-sea submersibles.

But it was Werner’s own session that was attracting much of the buzz. It was titled “Is Earth F**ked?” (full title: “Is Earth F**ked? Dynamical Futility of Global Environmental Management and Possibilities for Sustainability via Direct Action Activism”).

Standing at the front of the conference room, the geophysicist from the University of California, San Diego walked the crowd through the advanced computer model he was using to answer that question. He talked about system boundaries, perturbations, dissipation, attractors, bifurcations and a whole bunch of other stuff largely incomprehensible to those of us uninitiated in complex systems theory. But the bottom line was clear enough: global capitalism has made the depletion of resources so rapid, convenient and barrier-free that “earth-human systems” are becoming dangerously unstable in response. When pressed by a journalist for a clear answer on the “are we f**ked” question, Werner set the jargon aside and replied, “More or less.”

There was one dynamic in the model, however, that offered some hope. Werner termed it “resistance” – movements of “people or groups of people” who “adopt a certain set of dynamics that does not fit within the capitalist culture”. According to the abstract for his presentation, this includes “environmental direct action, resistance taken from outside the dominant culture, as in protests, blockades and sabotage by indigenous peoples, workers, anarchists and other activist groups”.

Serious scientific gatherings don’t usually feature calls for mass political resistance, much less direct action and sabotage. But then again, Werner wasn’t exactly calling for those things. He was merely observing that mass uprisings of people – along the lines of the abolition movement, the civil rights movement or Occupy Wall Street – represent the likeliest source of “friction” to slow down an economic machine that is careening out of control. We know that past social movements have “had tremendous influence on . . . how the dominant culture evolved”, he pointed out. So it stands to reason that, “if we’re thinking about the future of the earth, and the future of our coupling to the environment, we have to include resistance as part of that dynamics”. And that, Werner argued, is not a matter of opinion, but “really a geophysics problem”.

Plenty of scientists have been moved by their research findings to take action in the streets. Physicists, astronomers, medical doctors and biologists have been at the forefront of movements against nuclear weapons, nuclear power, war, chemical contamination and creationism. And in November 2012, Nature published a commentary by the financier and environmental philanthropist Jeremy Grantham urging scientists to join this tradition and “be arrested if necessary”, because climate change “is not only the crisis of your lives – it is also the crisis of our species’ existence”.

Some scientists need no convincing. The godfather of modern climate science, James Hansen, is a formidable activist, having been arrested some half-dozen times for resisting mountain-top removal coal mining and tar sands pipelines (he even left his job at Nasa this year in part to have more time for campaigning). Two years ago, when I was arrested outside the White House at a mass action against the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, one of the 166 people in cuffs that day was a glaciologist named Jason Box, a world-renowned expert on Greenland’s melting ice sheet.

“I couldn’t maintain my self-respect if I didn’t go,” Box said at the time, adding that “just voting doesn’t seem to be enough in this case. I need to be a citizen also.”

This is laudable, but what Werner is doing with his modelling is different. He isn’t saying that his research drove him to take action to stop a particular policy; he is saying that his research shows that our entire economic paradigm is a threat to ecological stability. And indeed that challenging this economic paradigm – through mass-movement counter-pressure – is humanity’s best shot at avoiding catastrophe.

That’s heavy stuff. But he’s not alone. Werner is part of a small but increasingly influential group of scientists whose research into the destabilisation of natural systems – particularly the climate system – is leading them to similarly transformative, even revolutionary, conclusions. And for any closet revolutionary who has ever dreamed of overthrowing the present economic order in favour of one a little less likely to cause Italian pensioners to hang themselves in their homes, this work should be of particular interest. Because it makes the ditching of that cruel system in favour of something new (and perhaps, with lots of work, better) no longer a matter of mere ideological preference but rather one of species-wide existential necessity.

Leading the pack of these new scientific revolutionaries is one of Britain’s top climate experts, Kevin Anderson, the deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, which has quickly established itself as one of the UK’s premier climate research institutions. Addressing everyone from the Department for International Development to Manchester City Council, Anderson has spent more than a decade patiently translating the implications of the latest climate science to politicians, economists and campaigners. In clear and understandable language, he lays out a rigorous road map for emissions reduction, one that provides a decent shot at keeping global temperature rise below 2° Celsius, a target that most governments have determined would stave off catastrophe.

But in recent years Anderson’s papers and slide shows have become more alarming. Under titles such as “Climate Change: Going Beyond Dangerous . . . Brutal Numbers and Tenuous Hope”, he points out that the chances of staying within anything like safe temperature levels are diminishing fast.

With his colleague Alice Bows, a climate mitigation expert at the Tyndall Centre, Anderson points out that we have lost so much time to political stalling and weak climate policies – all while global consumption (and emissions) ballooned – that we are now facing cuts so drastic that they challenge the fundamental logic of prioritising GDP growth above all else.

Anderson and Bows inform us that the often-cited long-term mitigation target – an 80 per cent emissions cut below 1990 levels by 2050 – has been selected purely for reasons of political expediency and has “no scientific basis”. That’s because climate impacts come not just from what we emit today and tomorrow, but from the cumulative emissions that build up in the atmosphere over time. And they warn that by focusing on targets three and a half decades into the future – rather than on what we can do to cut carbon sharply and immediately – there is a serious risk that we will allow our emissions to continue to soar for years to come, thereby blowing through far too much of our 2° “carbon budget” and putting ourselves in an impossible position later in the century.

Which is why Anderson and Bows argue that, if the governments of developed countries are serious about hitting the agreed upon international target of keeping warming below 2° Celsius, and if reductions are to respect any kind of equity principle (basically that the countries that have been spewing carbon for the better part of two centuries need to cut before the countries where more than a billion people still don’t have electricity), then the reductions need to be a lot deeper, and they need to come a lot sooner.

To have even a 50/50 chance of hitting the 2° target (which, they and many others warn, already involves facing an array of hugely damaging climate impacts), the industrialised countries need to start cutting their greenhouse-gas emissions by something like 10 per cent a year – and they need to start right now. But Anderson and Bows go further, pointing out that this target cannot be met with the array of modest carbon pricing or green-tech solutions usually advocated by big green groups. These measures will certainly help, to be sure, but they are simply not enough: a 10 per cent drop in emissions, year after year, is virtually unprecedented since we started powering our economies with coal. In fact, cuts above 1 per cent per year “have historically been associated only with economic recession or upheaval”, as the economist Nicholas Stern put it in his 2006 report for the British government.

Even after the Soviet Union collapsed, reductions of this duration and depth did not happen (the former Soviet countries experienced average annual reductions of roughly 5 per cent over a period of ten years). They did not happen after Wall Street crashed in 2008 (wealthy countries experienced about a 7 per cent drop between 2008 and 2009, but their CO2 emissions rebounded with gusto in 2010 and emissions in China and India had continued to rise). Only in the immediate aftermath of the great market crash of 1929 did the United States, for instance, see emissions drop for several consecutive years by more than 10 per cent annually, according to historical data from the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centre. But that was the worst economic crisis of modern times.

If we are to avoid that kind of carnage while meeting our science-based emissions targets, carbon reduction must be managed carefully through what Anderson and Bows describe as “radical and immediate de-growth strategies in the US, EU and other wealthy nations”. Which is fine, except that we happen to have an economic system that fetishises GDP growth above all else, regardless of the human or ecological consequences, and in which the neoliberal political class has utterly abdicated its responsibility to manage anything (since the market is the invisible genius to which everything must be entrusted).

So what Anderson and Bows are really saying is that there is still time to avoid catastrophic warming, but not within the rules of capitalism as they are currently constructed. Which may be the best argument we have ever had for changing those rules.

In a 2012 essay that appeared in the influential scientific journal Nature Climate Change, Anderson and Bows laid down something of a gauntlet, accusing many of their fellow scientists of failing to come clean about the kind of changes that climate change demands of humanity. On this it is worth quoting the pair at length:

 . . . in developing emission scenarios scientists repeatedly and severely underplay the implications of their analyses. When it comes to avoiding a 2°C rise, “impossible” is translated into “difficult but doable”, whereas “urgent and radical” emerge as “challenging” – all to appease the god of economics (or, more precisely, finance). For example, to avoid exceeding the maximum rate of emission reduction dictated by economists, “impossibly” early peaks in emissions are assumed, together with naive notions about “big” engineering and the deployment rates of low-carbon infrastructure. More disturbingly, as emissions budgets dwindle, so geoengineering is increasingly proposed to ensure that the diktat of economists remains unquestioned.

In other words, in order to appear reasonable within neoliberal economic circles, scientists have been dramatically soft-peddling the implications of their research. By August 2013, Anderson was willing to be even more blunt, writing that the boat had sailed on gradual change. “Perhaps at the time of the 1992 Earth Summit, or even at the turn of the millennium, 2°C levels of mitigation could have been achieved through significant evolutionary changes within the political and economic hegemony. But climate change is a cumulative issue! Now, in 2013, we in high-emitting (post-)industrial nations face a very different prospect. Our ongoing and collective carbon profligacy has squandered any opportunity for the ‘evolutionary change’ afforded by our earlier (and larger) 2°C carbon budget. Today, after two decades of bluff and lies, the remaining 2°C budget demands revolutionary change to the political and economic hegemony” (his emphasis).

We probably shouldn’t be surprised that some climate scientists are a little spooked by the radical implications of even their own research. Most of them were just quietly doing their work measuring ice cores, running global climate models and studying ocean acidification, only to discover, as the Australian climate expert and author Clive Hamilton puts it, that they “were unwittingly destabilising the political and social order”.

But there are many people who are well aware of the revolutionary nature of climate science. It’s why some of the governments that decided to chuck their climate commitments in favour of digging up more carbon have had to find ever more thuggish ways to silence and intimidate their nations’ scientists. In Britain, this strategy is becoming more overt, with Ian Boyd, the chief scientific adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, writing recently that scientists should avoid “suggesting that policies are either right or wrong” and should express their views “by working with embedded advisers (such as myself), and by being the voice of reason, rather than dissent, in the public arena”.

If you want to know where this leads, check out what’s happening in Canada, where I live. The Conservative government of Stephen Harper has done such an effective job of gagging scientists and shutting down critical research projects that, in July 2012, a couple thousand scientists and supporters held a mock-funeral on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, mourning “the death of evidence”. Their placards said, “No Science, No Evidence, No Truth”.

But the truth is getting out anyway. The fact that the business-as-usual pursuit of profits and growth is destabilising life on earth is no longer something we need to read about in scientific journals. The early signs are unfolding before our eyes. And increasing numbers of us are responding accordingly: blockading fracking activity in Balcombe; interfering with Arctic drilling preparations in Russian waters (at tremendous personal cost); taking tar sands operators to court for violating indigenous sovereignty; and countless other acts of resistance large and small. In Brad Werner’s computer model, this is the “friction” needed to slow down the forces of destabilisation; the great climate campaigner Bill McKibben calls it the “antibodies” rising up to fight the planet’s “spiking fever”.

It’s not a revolution, but it’s a start. And it might just buy us enough time to figure out a way to live on this planet that is distinctly less f**ked.

Naomi Klein, the author of “The Shock Doctrine” and “No Logo”, is working on a book and a film about the revolutionary power of climate change. You call follow her on twitter @naomiaklein

West Coast Of North America To Be Hit Hard By Fukushima Radiation That Could Be 10 Times Higher Than In Japan

In Uncategorized on August 27, 2013 at 5:29 pm

https://i0.wp.com/iprc.soest.hawaii.edu/news/marine_and_tsunami_debris/2011/11_04_maximenko_tsunami_debris/map_of_trajectory_med.jpgOldspeak” This ongoing and uncontrolled ecological catastrophe continues, with no end in sight. Untold billions of tons of water are being dumped into the Pacific ocean by the Japanese. The contamination is expected to get worse as time passes and impact Baja California and other North American west coast hotspots. And no one knows how to fix it. “Last year, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory and 3 scientists from the GEOMAR Research Center for Marine Geosciences showed that radiation on the West Coast of North America could end up being 10 times higher than in Japan“. These are reputable research scientists saying this. Yet, universal silence in state media. Citizens from Hawaii to Alaska to Baja should be demanding information about what’s going on and what’s being done in response to the threat. The civil war in Syria is infinitesimally less threatening to the millions of people to be affected.” –OSJ

By Washington’s Blog:

Radiation Levels Will Concentrate in Pockets In Baja California and Other West Coast Locations

An ocean current called the North Pacific Gyre is bringing Japanese radiation to the West Coast of North America:

North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone FDA Refuses to Test Fish for Radioactivity ... Government Pretends Radioactive Fish Is Safe

The leg of the Gyre closest to Japan – the Kuroshio current – begins right next to Fukushima:

Kuroshio Current - Colour show water speed.  Blue slowest; red fastest

While many people assume that the ocean will dilute the Fukushima radiation, a previously-secret 1955 U.S. government report concluded that the ocean may not adequately dilute radiation from nuclear accidents, and there could be “pockets” and “streams” of highly-concentrated radiation.

The University of Hawaii’s International Pacific Research Center created a graphic showing the projected dispersion of debris from Japan (see pic at top)

Last year, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory and 3 scientists from the GEOMAR Research Center for Marine Geosciences showed that radiation on the West Coast of North America could end up being 10 times higher than in Japan:

After 10 years the concentrations become nearly homogeneous over the whole Pacific, with higher values in the east, extending along the North American coast with a maximum (~1 × 10−4) off Baja California. 

***

With caution given to the various idealizations (unknown actual oceanic state during release, unknown release area, no biological effects included, see section 3.4), the following conclusions may be drawn. (i) Dilution due to swift horizontal and vertical dispersion in the vicinity of the energetic Kuroshio regime leads to a rapid decrease of radioactivity levels during the first 2 years, with a decline of near-surface peak concentrations to values around 10 Bq m−3 (based on a total input of 10 PBq). The strong lateral dispersion, related to the vigorous eddy fields in the mid-latitude western Pacific, appears significantly under-estimated in the non-eddying (0.5°) model version. (ii) The subsequent pace of dilution is strongly reduced, owing to the eastward advection of the main tracer cloud towards the much less energetic areas of the central and eastern North Pacific. (iii) The magnitude of additional peak radioactivity should drop to values comparable to the pre-Fukushima levels after 6–9 years (i.e. total peak concentrations would then have declined below twice pre-Fukushima levels). (iv) By then the tracer cloud will span almost the entire North Pacific, with peak concentrations off the North American coast an order-of-magnitude higher than in the western Pacific.

(“Order-of-magnitude” is a scientific term which means 10 times higher.  The “Western Pacific” means Japan’s East Coast.)

In May, a team of scientists from Spain, Australia and France concluded that the radioactive cesium would look more like this:
And a team of top Chinese scientists has just published a study in the Science China Earth Sciences journal showing that the radioactive plume crosses the ocean in a nearly straight line toward North America, and that it appears to stay together with little dispersion:

On March 30, 2011, the Japan Central News Agency reported the monitored radioactive pollutions that were 4000 times higher than the standard level. Whether or not these nuclear pollutants will be transported to the Pacific-neighboring countries through oceanic circulations becomes a world-wide concern.

***

The time scale of the nuclear pollutants reaching the west coast of America is 3.2 years if it is estimated using the surface drifting buoys and 3.9 years if it is estimated using the nuclear pollutant particulate tracers.

***

The half life of cesium-137 is so long that it produces more damage to human. Figure 4 gives the examples of the distribution of the impact strength of Cesium-137 at year 1.5 (panel (a)), year 3.5 (panel (b)), and year 4 (panel (c)).

***

It is worth noting that due to the current near the shore cannot be well reconstructed by the global ocean reanalysis, some nuclear pollutant particulate tracers may come to rest in near shore area, which may result in additional uncertainty in the estimation of the impact strength.

***

Since the major transport mechanism of nuclear pollutants for the west coast of America is the Kuroshio-extension currents, after four years, the impact strength of Cesium-137 in the west coast area of America is as high as 4%.

Note: Even low levels of radiation can harm health.

USGS Study: Drop In U.S. Underground Water Levels Has Accelerated; 3 Times Greater Than At Any Time In 20th Century

In Uncategorized on May 24, 2013 at 7:00 pm

U.S. Drought Monitor map from March 19, 2013Oldspeak: “Tell your crew use the H2 in wise amounts since/it’s the New World Water; and every drop counts/You can laugh and take it as a joke if you wanna/But it don’t rain for four weeks some summers/And it’s about to get real wild in the half/You be buying Evian just to take a fuckin bathYasiin Bey, “New World Water”
“With the U.S. currently embroiled in historic drought with no end in sight and nearly 80 percent of farmland experiencing drought, this is definitely not good. No surprise, petrochemical/”natural” gas extraction and petrochemical based factory farming are the largest users of water from aquifers. Coincidentally, the process of  extracting of petrochemicals that serve as fertilizer and energy to produce food, has the wonderful side effect of poisoning these same rapidly depleting aquifers with hundreds of secret proprietary “fracking” chemicals that sicken and or kill all life that comes into prolonged contact with them. The burning of these petrochemicals, pollutes the air, and continuously pumps dangerous amounts of  greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which has the nifty side effect of warming the planet to prehistoric levels, causing “less rain and snow filtering underground to replenish what was being pumped out“. Mix it all together and you have a completely avoidable, undeniably man-made slow motion shitshow of a global ecological catastrophe. Human activity is significantly disrupting the water cycle. We are using/poisoning more water than can be replenished naturally. We need to abandon energy and food production that is destroying our water supply.  There’s only so much left. We can’t continue to use water as if it’s supply is infinite. Over 1 Billion have no access to clean drinking water. Count on that number to rise. With that rise will come a rise in disease, as around 80% of all disease in the world stems from unclean water, poor sanitation, or crude living conditions (hygiene). We must put the safety our most vital and indispensable resource ahead of profit.  Water is the Eco-currency we can’t afford to run out of.”

By Deborah Zabarenko @ Reuters:

Water levels in U.S. aquifers, the vast underground storage areas tapped for agriculture, energy and human consumption, between 2000 and 2008 dropped at a rate that was almost three times as great as any time during the 20th century, U.S. officials said on Monday.

The accelerated decline in the subterranean reservoirs is due to a combination of factors, most of them linked to rising population in the United States, according to Leonard Konikow, a research hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey.

The big rise in water use started in 1950, at the time of an economic boom and the spread of U.S. suburbs. However, the steep increase in water use and the drop in groundwater levels that followed World War 2 were eclipsed by the changes during the first years of the 21st century, the study showed.

As consumers, farms and industry used more water starting in 2000, aquifers were also affected by climate changes, with less rain and snow filtering underground to replenish what was being pumped out, Konikow said in a telephone interview from Reston, Virginia.

Depletion of groundwater can cause land to subside, cut yields from existing wells, and diminish the flow of water from springs and streams.

Agricultural irrigation is the biggest user of water from aquifers in the United States, though the energy industry, including oil and coal extraction, is also a big user.

The USGS study looked at 40 different aquifers from 1900 through 2008 and found that the historical average of groundwater depletion – the amount the underground reservoirs lost each year – was 7.5 million acre-feet (9.2 cubic kilometers).

From 2000 to 2008, the average was 20.2 million acre-feet (25 cubic kilometers) a year. (An acre-foot is the volume of water needed to cover an acre to the depth of one foot.)

One of the best-known aquifers, the High Plains Aquifer, also known as the Oglala, had the highest levels of groundwater depletion starting in the 1960s. It lies beneath parts of South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico, where water demand from agriculture is high and where recent drought has hit hard.

Because it costs more to pump water from lower levels in an aquifer, some farmers may give up, or irrigate fewer fields, Konikow said. Another problem with low water levels underground is that water quality can deteriorate, ultimately becoming too salty to use for irrigation.

“That’s a real limit on water,” Konikow said. “You could always say that if we have enough money, you build a desalization plant and solve the problem, but that really is expensive.”

(Reporting by Deborah Zabarenko; Editing by Leslie Adler)

Water Scarcity: A Widening Global Emergency & The Coming Water Wars

In Uncategorized on February 26, 2013 at 6:23 pm

Oldspeak: “The wars of the 21st century will be fought over water.” –Ismail Serageldin.A comprehensive report from the global conservation organization WWF, released August 16, details how the looming water crisis is now affecting rich countries as well as poor. Global warming, diminishing wetlands, and inadequate resource management are the main causes of expanding water shortages worldwide, according to the group.” As water scarcity grows worldwide, mighty rivers to tiny streams dry up. We continue unabated to expand our obviously unsustainable use of water intensive and contaminating production of our food and energy. While 40% of the world population lives with little or no access to clean water (expected to jump to 50% in 12 years).  Investors are positioning themselves to profit from water shortages and the water purification technology that will be come essential. This is seen as normal and sound business in a civilization animated by greed and exploitation. Cannibal capitalism is that particularly vicious and vampiristic form of capitalism that encourages greed, austerity, prefers gambling to investing and advances the economic interest of the top 00.1% at the expense of all others.  At what point will we shift our priorities from manufactured crises like “The Sequester”, “The Debt Ceiling”, “Entitlement Spending” and “Crises of Confidence” to actual existential crises, threatening our water, soil, air and environment?

By Doug Hornig & Alex Daley @ Casey Research:

Water is not scarce. It is made up of the first and third most common elements in the universe, and the two readily react to form a highly stable compound that maintains its integrity even at temperature extremes.

Hydrologist Dr. Vincent Kotwicki, in his paper Water in the Universe, writes:

“Water appears to be one of the most abundant molecules in the Universe. It dominates the environment of the Earth and is a main constituent of numerous planets, moons and comets. On a far greater scale, it possibly contributes to the so-called ‘missing mass’ [i.e., dark matter] of the Universe and may initiate the birth of stars inside the giant molecular clouds.”

Oxygen has been found in the newly discovered “cooling flows” – heavy rains of gas that appear to be falling into galaxies from the space once thought empty surrounding them, giving rise to yet more water.

How much is out there? No one can even take a guess, since no one knows the composition of the dark matter that makes up as much as 90% of the mass of the universe. If comets, which are mostly ice, are a large constituent of dark matter, then, as Dr. Kotwicki writes, “the remote uncharted (albeit mostly frozen) oceans are truly unimaginably big.”

Back home, Earth is often referred to as the “water planet,” and it certainly looks that way from space. H2O covers about 70% of the surface of the globe. It makes all life as we know it possible.

The Blue Planet?

However it got here – theories abound from outgassing of volcanic eruptions to deposits by passing comets and ancient crossed orbits – water is what gives our planet its lovely, unique blue tint, and there appears to be quite a lot of it.

That old axiom that the earth is 75% water… not quite. In reality, water constitutes only 0.07% of the earth by mass, or 0.4% by volume.

This is how much we have, depicted graphically:

Credit: Howard Perlman, USGS; globe illustration by Jack Cook, Woods Hole
Oceanographic Institution (©); Adam Nieman.

What this shows is the relative size of our water supply if it were all gathered together into a ball and superimposed on the globe.

The large blob, centered over the western US, is all water (oceans, icecaps, glaciers, lakes, rivers, groundwater, and water in the atmosphere). It’s a sphere about 860 miles in diameter, or roughly the distance from Salt Lake City to Topeka. The smaller sphere, over Kentucky, is the fresh water in the ground and in lakes, rivers, and swamps.

Now examine the image closely. See that last, tiny dot over Georgia? It’s the fresh water in lakes and rivers.

Looked at another way, that ball of all the water in the world represents a total volume of about 332.5 million cubic miles. But of this, 321 million mi3, or 96.5%, is saline – great for fish, but undrinkable without the help of nature or some serious hardware. That still leaves a good bit of fresh water, some 11.6 million mi3, to play with. Unfortunately, the bulk of that is locked up in icecaps, glaciers, and permanent snow, or is too far underground to be accessible with today’s technology. (The numbers come from the USGS; obviously, they are estimates and they change a bit every year, but they are accurate enough for our purposes.)

Accessible groundwater amounts to 5.614 million mi3, with 55% of that saline, leaving a little over 2.5 million mi3 of fresh groundwater. That translates to about 2.7 exa-gallons of fresh water, or about 2.7 billion billion gallons (yes billions of billions, or 1018 in scientific notation), which is about a third of a billion gallons of water per person. Enough to take a long shower every day for many lifetimes…

However, not all of that groundwater is easily or cheaply accessible. The truth is that the surface is the source for the vast majority – nearly 80% – of our water. Of surface waters, lakes hold 42,320 mi3, only a bit over half of which is fresh, and the world’s rivers hold only 509 mi3 of fresh water, less than 2/10,000 of 1% of the planetary total.

And that’s where the problem lies. In 2005 in the US alone, we humans used about 328 billion gallons of surface water per day, compared to about 83 billion gallons per day of water from the ground. Most of that surface water, by far, comes from rivers. Among these, one of the most important is the mighty Colorado.

Horseshoe Bend, in Page, AZ. (AP Photo)

Tapping Ol’ Man River

Or perhaps we should say “the river formerly known as the mighty Colorado.” That old Colorado – the one celebrated in centuries of American Western song and folklore; the one that exposed two billion years of geologic history in the awesome Grand Canyon – is gone. In its place is… well, Las Vegas – the world’s gaudiest monument to hubristic human overreach, and a big neon sign advertising the predicament now faced by much of the world.

It’s well to remember that most of the US west of the Mississippi ranges from relatively dry to very arid, to desert, to lifeless near-moonscapes. The number of people that could be supported by the land, especially in the Southwest, was always small and concentrated along the riverbanks. Tribal clusters died out with some regularity. And that’s the way it would have remained, except for a bit of ingenuity that suddenly loosed two powerful forces on the area: electrical power, and an abundance of water that seemed as limitless as the sky.

In September of 1935, President Roosevelt dedicated the pinnacle of engineering technology up to that point: Hoover Dam. The dam did two things. It served as a massive hydroelectric generating plant, and it backed up the Colorado River behind it, creating Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the country.

Early visitors dubbed Hoover Dam the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” and it’s easy to see why. It was built on a scale unlike anything before it. It’s 725 feet high and contains 6 million tons of concrete, which would pave a road from New York to Los Angeles. Its 19 generators produce 2,080 MW of electricity, enough to power 1.75 million average homes.

The artificially created Lake Mead is 112 miles long, with a maximum depth of 590 feet. It has a surface area of 250 square miles and an active capacity of 16 million acre-feet.

Hoover Dam was intended to generate sufficient power and impound an ample amount of water, to meet any conceivable need. But as things turned out, grand as the dam is, it wasn’t conceived grandly enough… because it is 35 miles from Las Vegas, Nevada.

Vegas had a permanent population in 1935 of 8,400, a number that swelled to 25,000 during the dam construction as workers raced in to take jobs that were scarce in the early Depression years. Those workers, primarily single men, needed something to do with their spare time, so the Nevada state legislature legalized gambling in 1931. Modern Vegas was born.

The rise of Vegas is well chronicled, from a middle-of-nowhere town to the largest city founded in the 20th century and the fastest-growing in the nation – up until the 2008 housing bust. Somehow, those 8,400 souls turned into a present population of over 2 million that exists all but entirely to service the 40 million tourists who visit annually. And all this is happening in a desert that sees an average of 10 days of measurable rainfall per year, totaling about 4 inches.

In order to run all those lights, fountains, and revolving stages, Las Vegas requires 5,600 MW of electricity on a summer day. Did you notice that that’s more than 2.5 times what the giant Hoover Dam can put out? Not to mention that those 42 million people need a lot of water to drink to stay properly hydrated in the 100+ degree heat. And it all comes from Lake Mead.

So what do you think is happening to the lake?

If your guess was, “it’s shrinking,” you’re right. The combination of recent drought years in the West and rapidly escalating demand has been a dire double-whammy, reducing the lake to 40% full. Normally, the elevation of Lake Mead is 1,219 feet. Today, it’s at 1,086 feet and dropping by ten feet a year (and accelerating). That’s how much more water is being taken out than is being replenished.

This is science at its simplest. If your extraction of a renewable resource exceeds its ability to recharge itself, it will disappear – end of story. In the case of Lake Mead, that means going dry, an eventuality to which hydrologists assign a 50% probability in the next twelve years. That’s by 2025.

Nevadans are not unaware of this. There is at the moment a frantic push to get approval for a massive pipeline project designed to bring in water from the more favored northern part of the state. Yet even if the pipeline were completed in time, and there is stiff opposition to it (and you thought only oil pipelines gave way to politics and protests), that would only resolve one issue. There’s another. A big one.

Way before people run out of drinking water, something else happens: When Lake Mead falls below 1,050 feet, the Hoover Dam’s turbines shut down – less than four years from now, if the current trend holds – and in Vegas the lights start going out.

What Doesn’t Stay in Vegas

Ominously, these water woes are not confined to Las Vegas. Under contracts signed by President Obama in December 2011, Nevada gets only 23.37% of the electricity generated by the Hoover Dam. The other top recipients: Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (28.53%); state of Arizona (18.95%); city of Los Angeles (15.42%); and Southern California Edison (5.54%).

You can always build more power plants, but you can’t build more rivers, and the mighty Colorado carries the lifeblood of the Southwest. It services the water needs of an area the size of France, in which live 40 million people. In its natural state, the river poured 15.7 million acre-feet of water into the Gulf of California each year. Today, twelve years of drought have reduced the flow to about 12 million acre-feet, and human demand siphons off every bit of it; at its mouth, the riverbed is nothing but dust.

Nor is the decline in the water supply important only to the citizens of Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles. It’s critical to the whole country. The Colorado is the sole source of water for southeastern California’s Imperial Valley, which has been made into one of the most productive agricultural areas in the US despite receiving an average of three inches of rain per year.

The Valley is fed by an intricate system consisting of 1,400 miles of canals and 1,100 miles of pipeline. They are the only reason a bone-dry desert can look like this:

Intense conflicts over water will probably not be confined to the developing world. So far, Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado have been able to make and keep agreements defining who gets how much of the Colorado River’s water. But if populations continue to grow while the snowcap recedes, it’s likely that the first shots will be fired before long, in US courtrooms. If legal remedies fail… a war between Phoenix and LA might seem far-fetched, but at the minimum some serious upheaval will eventually ensue unless an alternative is found quickly.

A Litany of Crises

Water scarcity is, of course, not just a domestic issue. It is far more critical in other parts of the world than in the US. It will decide the fate of people and of nations.

Worldwide, we are using potable water way faster than it can be replaced. Just a few examples:

  • The legendary Jordan River is flowing at only 2% of its historic rate.
  • In Africa, desertification is proceeding at an alarming rate. Much of the northern part of the continent is already desert, of course. But beyond that, a US Department of Agriculture study places about 2.5 million km2 of African land at low risk of desertification, 3.6 million km2 at moderate risk, 4.6 million km2 at high risk, and 2.9 million km2 at very high risk. “The region that has the highest propensity,” the report says, “is located along the desert margins and occupies about 5% of the land mass. It is estimated that about 22 million people (2.9% of the total population) live in this area.”
  • A 2009 study published in the American Meteorological Society’s Journal of Climate analyzed 925 major rivers from 1948 to 2004 and found an overall decline in total discharge. The reduction in inflow to the Pacific Ocean alone was about equal to shutting off the Mississippi River. The list of rivers that serve large human populations and experienced a significant decline in flow includes the Amazon, Congo, Chang Jiang (Yangtze), Mekong, Ganges, Irrawaddy, Amur, Mackenzie, Xijiang, Columbia, and Niger.

Supply is not the only issue. There’s also potability. Right now, 40% of the global population has little to no access to clean water, and despite somewhat tepid modernization efforts, that figure is actually expected to jump to 50% by 2025. When there’s no clean water, people will drink dirty water – water contaminated with human and animal waste. And that breeds illness. It’s estimated that fully half of the world’s hospital beds today are occupied by people with water-borne diseases.

Food production is also a major contributor to water pollution. To take two examples:

  • The “green revolution” has proven to have an almost magical ability to provide food for an ever-increasing global population, but at a cost. Industrial cultivation is extremely water intensive, with 80% of most US states’ water usage going to agriculture – and in some, it’s as high as 90%. In addition, factory farming uses copious amounts of fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides, creating serious problems for the water supply because of toxic runoff.
  • Modern livestock facilities – known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) – create enormous quantities of animal waste that is pumped into holding ponds. From there, some of it inevitably seeps into the groundwater, and the rest eventually has to be dumped somewhere. Safe disposal practices are often not followed, and regulatory oversight is lax. As a result, adjacent communities’ drinking water can come to contain dangerously high levels of E. coli bacteria and other harmful organisms.

Not long ago, scientists discovered a whole new category of pollutants that no one had previously thought to test for: drugs. We are a nation of pill poppers and needle freaks, and the drugs we introduce into our bodies are only partially absorbed. The remainder is excreted and finds its way into the water supply. Samples recently taken from Lake Mead revealed detectable levels of birth control medication, steroids, and narcotics… which people and wildlife are drinking.

Most lethal of all are industrial pollutants that continue to find their way into the water supply. The carcinogenic effects of these compounds have been well documented, as the movie-famed Erin Brockovich did with hexavalent chromium.

But the problem didn’t go away with Brockovich’s court victory. The sad fact is that little has changed for the better. In the US, our feeble attempt to deal with these threats was the passage in 1980 of the so-called Superfund Act. That law gave the federal government – and specifically the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – the authority to respond to chemical emergencies and to clean up uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous-waste sites on both private and public lands. And it supposedly provided money to do so.

How’s that worked out? According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), “After decades of spearheading restoration efforts in areas such as the Great Lakes and the Chesapeake Bay, improvements in these water bodies remain elusive … EPA continues to face the challenges posed by an aging wastewater infrastructure that results in billions of gallons of untreated sewage entering our nation’s water bodies … Lack of rapid water-testing methods and development of current water quality standards continue to be issues that EPA needs to address.”

Translation: the EPA hasn’t produced. How much of this is due to the typical drag of a government bureaucracy and how much to lack of funding is debatable. Whether there might be a better way to attack the problem is debatable. But what is not debatable is the magnitude of the problem stacking up, mostly unaddressed.

Just consider that the EPA has a backlog of 1,305 highly toxic Superfund cleanup sites on its to-do list, in every state in the union (except apparently North Dakota, in case you want to try to escape – though the proliferation of hydraulic fracking in that area may quickly change the map, according to some of its detractors – it’s a hotly debated assertion).

About 11 million people in the US, including 3-4 million children, live within one mile of a federal Superfund site. The health of all of them is at immediate risk, as is that of those living directly downstream.

We could go on about this for page after page. The situation is depressing, no question. And even more so is the fact that there’s little we can do about it. There is no technological quick fix.

Peak oil we can handle. We find new sources, we develop alternatives, and/or prices rise. It’s all but certain that by the time we actually run out of oil, we’ll already have shifted to something else.

But “peak water” is a different story. There are no new sources; what we have is what we have. Absent a profound climate change that turns the evaporation/rainfall hydrologic cycle much more to our advantage, there likely isn’t going to be enough to around.

As the biosphere continually adds more billions of humans (the UN projects there will be another 3.5 billion people on the planet, a greater than 50% increase, by 2050 before a natural plateau really starts to dampen growth), the demand for clean water has the potential to far outstrip dwindling supplies. If that comes to pass, the result will be catastrophic. People around the world are already suffering and dying en masse from lack of access to something drinkable… and the problems look poised to get worse long before they get better.

Searching for a Way Out

With a problem of this magnitude, there is no such thing as a comprehensive solution. Instead, it will have to be addressed by chipping away at the problem in a number of ways, which the world is starting to do.

With much water not located near population centers, transportation will have to be a major part of the solution. With oil, a complex system of pipelines, tankers, and trucking fleets has been erected, because it’s been profitable to do so. The commodity has a high intrinsic value. Water doesn’t – or at least hasn’t in most of the modern era’s developed economies – and thus delivery has been left almost entirely to gravity. Further, the construction of pipelines for water that doesn’t flow naturally means taking a vital resource from someone and giving it to someone else, a highly charged political and social issue that’s been known to lead to protest and even violence. But until we’ve piped all the snow down from Alaska to California, transportation will be high on the list of potential near term solutions, especially to individual supply crunches, just as it has been with energy.

Conservation measures may help too, at least in the developed world, though the typical lawn-watering restrictions will hardly make a dent. Real conservation will have to come from curtailing industrial uses like farming and fracking.

But these bandage solutions can only forestall the inevitable without other advances to address the problems. Thankfully, where there is a challenge, there are always technology innovators to help address it. It was wells and aqueducts that let civilization move from the riverbank inland, irrigation that made communal farming scale, and sewers and pipes that turned villages into cities, after all. And just as with the dawn of industrial water, entrepreneurs are developing some promising tech developments, too.

Given how much water we use today, there’s little doubt that conservation’s sibling, recycling, is going to be big. Microfiltration systems are very sophisticated and can produce recycled water that is near-distilled in quality. Large-scale production remains a challenge, as is the reluctance of people to drink something that was reclaimed from human waste or industrial runoff. But that might just require the right spokesperson. California believes so, in any case, as it forges ahead with its Porcelain Springs initiative. A company called APTwater has taken on the important task of purifying contaminated leachate water from landfills that would otherwise pollute the groundwater. This is simply using technology to accelerate the natural process of replenishment by using energy, but if it can be done at scale, we will eventually reach the point where trading oil or coal for clean drinking water makes economic sense. It’s already starting to in many places.

Inventor Dean Kamen of Segway fame has created the Slingshot, a water-purification machine that could be a lifesaver for small villages in more remote areas. The size of a dorm-room refrigerator, it can produce 250 gallons of water a day, using the same amount of energy it takes to run a hair dryer, provided by an engine that can burn just about anything (it’s been run on cow dung). The Slingshot is designed to be maintenance-free for at least five years.

Kamen says you can “stick the intake hose into anything wet – arsenic-laden water, salt water, the latrine, the holding tanks of a chemical waste treatment plant; really, anything wet – and the outflow is one hundred percent pure pharmaceutical-grade injectable water.”

That naturally presupposes there is something wet to tap into. But Coca-Cola, for one, is a believer. This September, Coke entered into a partnership with Kamen’s company, Deka Research, to distribute Slingshots in Africa and Latin America.

Ceramic filters are another, low-tech option for rural areas. Though clean water output is very modest, they’re better than nothing. The ability to decontaminate stormwater runoff would be a boon for cities, and AbTech Industries is producing a product to do just that.

In really arid areas, the only water present may be what’s held in the air. Is it possible to tap that source? “Yes,” say a couple of cutting-edge tech startups. Eole Water proposes to extract atmospheric moisture using a wind turbine. Another company, NBD Nano, has come up with a self-filling water bottle that mimics the Namib Desert beetle. Whether the technology is scalable to any significant degree remains to be seen.

And finally, what about seawater? There’s an abundance of that. If you ask a random sampling of folks in the street what we’re going to do about water shortages on a larger scale, most of them will answer, “desalination.” No problem. Well, yes problem.

Desalination (sometimes shortened to “desal”) plants are already widespread, and their output is ramping up rapidly. According to the International Desalination Association, in 2009 there were 14,451 desalination plants operating worldwide, producing about 60 million cubic meters of water per day. That figure rose to 68 million m3/day in 2010 and is expected to double to 120 million m3/day by 2020. That sounds impressive, but the stark reality is that it amounts to only around a quarter of one percent of global water consumption.

Boiling seawater and collecting the condensate has been practiced by sailors for nearly two millennia. The same basic principle is employed today, although it has been refined into a procedure called “multistage flash distillation,” in which the boiling is done at less than atmospheric pressure, thereby saving energy. This process accounts for 85% of all desalination worldwide. The remainder comes from “reverse osmosis,” which uses semipermeable membranes and pressure to separate salts from water.

The primary drawbacks to desal are that a plant obviously has to be located near the sea, and that it is an expensive, highly energy-intensive process. That’s why you find so many desal facilities where energy is cheap, in the oil-rich, water-poor nations of the Middle East. Making it work in California will be much more difficult without drastically raising the price of water. And Nevada? Out of luck. Improvements in the technology are bringing costs of production down, but the need for energy, and lots of it, isn’t going away. By way of illustration, suppose the US would like to satisfy half of its water needs through desalination. All other factors aside, meeting that goal would require the construction of more than 100 new electric power plants, each dedicated solely to that purpose, and each with a gigawatt of capacity.

Moving desalinated water from the ocean inland adds to the expense. The farther you have to transport it and the greater the elevation change, the less feasible it becomes. That makes desalination impractical for much of the world. Nevertheless, the biggest population centers tend to be clustered along coastlines, and demand is likely to drive water prices higher over time, making desal more cost-competitive. So it’s a cinch that the procedure will play a steadily increasing role in supplying the world’s coastal cities with water.

In other related developments, a small tech startup called NanOasis is working on a desalination process that employs carbon nanotubes. An innovative new project in Australia is demonstrating that food can be grown in the most arid of areas, with low energy input, using solar-desalinated seawater. It holds the promise of being very scalable at moderate cost.

The Future

This article barely scratches the surface of a very broad topic that has profound implications for the whole of humanity going forward. The World Bank’s Ismail Serageldin puts it succinctly: “The wars of the 21st century will be fought over water.”

There’s no doubt that this is a looming crisis we cannot avoid. Everyone has an interest in water. How quickly we respond to the challenges ahead is going to be a matter, literally, of life and death. Where we have choices at all, we had better make some good ones.

From an investment perspective, there are few ways at present to acquire shares in the companies that are doing research and development in the field. But you can expect that to change as technologies from some of these startups begin to hit the market, and as the economics of water begin to shift in response to the changing global landscape.

We’ll be keeping an eye out for the investment opportunities that are sure to be on the way.

While profit opportunities in companies working to solve the world’s water woes may not be imminent, there are plenty of ways to leverage technology to outsized gains right now. One of the best involves a technology so revolutionary, its impact could rival that of the printing press.