New Year, New Normal?

I’m referring to our weather.

There’s a basic difference between weather (the stuff that goes on from day to day) and climate (defined as averages taken over at least a 3-decade period). Admittedly, what we’ve been experiencing recently by way of floods might just be weather.

On the other hand, the fingerprints of climate change appear to be all over this year’s weather (if you’ll forgive the mixing of metaphors).

It gets wet in the wintertime. This is not news. Being an island sat in the path of prevailing maritime winds, the UK can achieve ‘wet’ all year round but generally we do get more in the winter than the summer. We had floods in 2012-13 that were pretty devastating. We had floods in 2013-14 that were even worse. Now we’ve had record flooding across a massive sweep of the country starting in 2015 and more still forecast for the next few days at least.

In case anyone missed it, there was a hurricane in the Atlantic in January 2016. They aren’t supposed to show up until June. There was also an iceberg spotted off Newfoundland, where it shouldn’t have been until April. Greenland suffered a mysterious melt-water event just after Storm Frank dumped a load of hot air over that area of the world, at the beginning of the month. Hurricane Alex dumped more hot air into the Arctic last week. Arctic sea-ice, which should be growing rapidly in the depths of the Arctic winter, is at very low levels and practically stalled for a bit in early January (look at the graph of sea-ice extent on the link and you can see the growth of ice flat-lined for several days).

I’m not just listing random events, by the way. All will become clear.

All of this brings me to Storm Jonas. Like Storm Frank, Jonas started life by walloping the US East Coast and is now moving offshore, through very much warmer than usual North Atlantic waters, heading for a meeting with a pool of colder than usual water in mid-Atlantic. When Frank encountered the cool pool, the effect was to supercharge the storm with increased winds and moisture, and Frank then blew right into Britain. Jonas is forecast to do exactly the same, and should (if the forecasts are correct) be landing on our heads from about Tuesday onwards, before swinging up the coast of Norway and delivering, yet again, a dollop of hot air from lower latitudes into the Arctic.

There’s two different points here.

The first one is, should the UK be expecting storms to come off the US continent, spin up again in mid-Atlantic and smack heavily into the UK as a regular thing from now on? We’re on the side of a hill, well above local water courses, but we now know which of our sheds goes below the water table level first and if it rains non-stop for eight days, as it did during/after Frank in this area, we’re going to need a sump-pump in that shed. I’m still in the process of fitting a raised floor to Jet’s cage, because he did not take kindly to 2 inches of water underfoot! The freezers are up on bricks as a temporary measure to keep them running safely. (Bailing out a shed, on and off, for two days is not an activity that I enjoy very much.) Should we be planning for average precipitation to go up from here on in?

Of course, the point about storms gaining force in mid-Atlantic before they hit us brings us to the cool pool. This is an area of the North Atlantic that’s been anomalously colder than average (one of the very few places in the world that still is!) for a couple of years now. It seems to be cooler because it’s fresher water than the normal run of Atlantic seawater, and it’s fresh, cold water because it’s melting off Greenland. Fresh water is less dense than salt water, so Greenland’s run-off is sitting on top of the warmer Atlantic salt water like a lid.

This brings us to the second point about these storms. Since the 1940s, when the Arctic temperatures started being recorded regularly, the temperature in the Arctic has risen to or above freezing 3 times, all in December. Storm Frank made it four times, just barely getting under the bar at the very end of 2015. Jonas might do it again this coming week, which would be a first for the records. (Hurricane Alex, incidentally, pumped air across Western Greenland that was 16-22 degrees C above average – but didn’t quite get the temperatures above freezing).

The more hot air goes into the Arctic, the faster the ice melts. The faster the ice melts, the more fresh, cold water goes into the North Atlantic cool pool. The bigger the cool pool, the bigger the storms, and the bigger the storms, the more hot air goes into the Arctic? (Note that question mark – it’s not proven yet, but I’m starting to wonder!)

As a side note, the bigger the cool pool the more it stalls the Gulf Stream going up into northern waters, so there’s a sort of backlog of hot water sat alongside the US east coast as a result, both raising sea levels and providing lots of energy and water vapour for coastal storms like Jonas.

This is beginning to look suspiciously like a positive feedback loop or, as my mother prefers to call it, a vicious circle.

If it is a positive feedback loop, then each time anything increases in that loop, everything else increases too, which means we can expect more ice melt to lead to more cool pool, leading to bigger storms, leading to more warm air going north, leading to more ice melt….. etc.

It’s always been said by climatologists that the Arctic will see most climate change, faster than the rest of the planet. Feedback loops (all, alas, positive ones) will kick in there before anywhere else. There’s another feedback loop that might tie in with the cool-pool/bigger storms/more ice melt loop, and that’s the simple fact that dark water reflects only 10% of the light (and heat) that falls on it, whereas white snow/ice reflects 90%. Replace Arctic ice and snow with water and the energy absorbed in the Arctic rises, which causes temperature rise, which causes more melting….. you get the picture.

Last week, NASA and NOAA joined the various other meteorological/climate science organisations in unveiling their analysis of 2015 global temperatures and, if you line up the 16 hottest years on record, 15 of them come since 2000 (and the other was 1998, which was freakishly hot due to a very big El Nino that year). Greenland ice melt has been accelerating and Antarctic melt looks like it will be, too.

Time to get that sump-pump fitted in the shed.

Climate Catch Up: just in case you thought it was over….

It ain’t.

In fact, the state of the climate is more worrying than ever, as the rate of climate change would appear to be accelerating rather than remaining steady. In other words, it’s getting worse, faster (more details here and here). This, in turn, will cause an acceleration in all the other problems we can already see starting, and which we should expect to get much worse in the next few years – increasing migration, decreasing crop yields, more droughts, more heatwaves, etc.

Globally, we’ve just had the hottest July on record, and those records go back to 1880. July 2015 has been the hottest of all those months, so the hottest month of the last 1,627 months..

Global average sea temperatures were 0.75 degrees C above average, too – the largest departure from the average ever recorded.

If that wasn’t bad enough, it’s almost certain that temperatures will continue well above average for the rest of this year and into 2016, thanks to what started out as a limp-wristed wimp of an El Nino but has now developed into what’s been called a Godzilla El Nino, with worse expected before this time next year. El Nino conditions tend to produce record global high temperatures anyway – which is why 1998 still ranks as one of the hottest years on record, thanks to a monster El Nino that year – but with global temperatures already well above average, nobody seems to know quite how bad the Godzilla of the Pacific might be, this year or next.

Both Arctic and Antarctic sea ice are below average extent at the moment – it’s high summer in the arctic and sea-ice is approaching its minimum, with both the North-West Passage and the Northern Russian Coastal Route open as seaways. In the Antarctic, though, it’s now the depths of winter, yet sea-ice is slightly below average (National Snow and Ice Data Centre has the details).

It’s not all bad news, though. Following the Pope’s recent declaration in favour of taking care of our poor battered environment, Muslim clerics are now standing up for the biosphere, too, with a recent gathering of top clerics from 20 Muslim countries calling on all 1.6 billion Muslims in the world to work to reduce climate change and transition to a zero-carbon economy by the middle of the century.

What effect China’s current economic belly-flop will have on their carbon emissions, I don’t know. It’s probably both good (less pollution from a less-active economy) and bad (less money to plough into greener initiatives and pollution clean-ups) but I expect, as always, that it’ll all be clear with hindsight.

And now back to everyday life….

Where Did All The Snow Get To?

Here we are, in April, officially now in Spring rather than Winter, and thinking back over the past season, I find myself wondering…. where was the snow? What happened to winter?

There are years without snow in the UK, as well as years with loads of snow (by UK standards – I can certainly remember snowdrifts over 5 foot in Cheshire as a child and we’ve been snowed in from time to time in Scotland, as well as having years when snowtyres are overkill and the salt doesn’t come out of the shed at all.) That’s just normal seasonal variation – “weather” rather than “climate”.

This has been one of the less snowy years. We have had a couple of days when we’ve watched snow blow past the windows, though nothing has stuck on the roads round here and certainly a drift hasn’t even been a possibility. It’s a mixed blessing – less snow, less frost, less powercuts and storms, less inconvenience…. but also less die-off of garden pests. We had slug problems last year because they weren’t frozen down to a smaller population in the 2013/14 winter, and this year undoubtedly we’ll have slug problems again, since they won’t have been frozen this year either.

But it always makes me wonder. If the snow wasn’t here, where was it?

Apparently it hasn’t been in the Arctic, where NSIDC has just reported the lowest ever sea-ice record for winter – and not only the lowest extent but the earliest-ever winter maximum as the ice stopped growing and started melting again earlier than usual.

It hasn’t been in Alaska, either. This year’s Iditarod sled-dog race had to be moved to a more northerly route to find enough snow and ice for the sleds – and at the “official” start in Anchorage, 350 truck-fuls of snow were spread around the city to make it suitably white and scenic! I associate many things with Alaska; until now, a need to stockpile snow for winter sporting events has not been one of them.

It hasn’t been in the Rockies in California, either. California’s water utility checked the depth of the snowpack at 6,800 feet of altitude in the Sierra Nevada recently and found….. no snow at all. This is the first time in 75 years that they’ve had no snow at this altitude on the 1st April, it appears, and doesn’t bode well for California’s continuing drought conditions. Nor does the newly-confirmed El Nino event hold out much hope for restoring California’s water balance – despite taking nearly a year to go from the first indications to officially declared status, this looks like being a very weak, late El Nino that won’t have much effect on US weather patterns, but may nudge global temperatures upwards a little more.

Eurasia also had below-average snowfall in February, though not below average for the year.

So where did the snow go? Apparently it all landed on the USA, mostly in the north-east but some even in such places as Virginia and Texas – not areas I immediately think of when it comes to snow storms!

Apart from the unusually heavy  snow and low temperatures in the north-eastern USA, this winter has also thrown up an unusually chilly patch of ocean off the north-eastern US coast. This is potentially not good news for Europe, as it seems to indicate a slow-down in the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Currant (better known as the North Atlantic Drift and the Gulf Stream) which may chill northern Europe. On the other hand, it might help damp out the likelihood of heat waves, which the changing Arctic climate may be encouraging in Europe via fluctations in the Jet Stream….

That probably boils down to, if you’re in the UK, expect variable weather. It’s just a shame about all those non-frozen slugs and insects. They’re probably already anticipating a good nosh on the veg we’re starting to sow….

Drought in the Amazon

I’ve been keeping an eye on a long-running story in the Amazon basin over the past several months; an intense drought which has brought water-rationing to large areas of Brasil and just a few days ago threatened to depopulate Sao Paulo, the largest city in South America and home to 20 million people.

It’s not the first time drought has hit the Amazon basin. In 2010, the Amazon was hit by a devastating drought which caused major rivers to run dry, trees to die and led to extensive fires as the dry, dead wood was set alight by lightning strikes. There were astounding pictures of the Brazilian government flying water supplies to villages normally on the banks of the world’s biggest river, because there was nothing but sand in the riverbed. There was a lot of discussion at the time about climate change in the Amazon basin and what it could mean for the rest of the planet if we allowed the Amazon rainforest to disappear.

As we can now see, the net result of all that worry was….. nothing happened. No new reservoirs, no restrictions on logging, illegal or legal, and as a consequence, here’s another drought and it’s nearly brought Brazil’s biggest city to the point of rationing water to just 2 days a week to all its 20 million residents.

2 days a week. Think about that. How would you cope if you turned the taps on and nothing came out? You’d be okay for a day, perhaps, maybe go buy some bottled water? (Except there are other people with the same idea). Every human needs 2L of clean, potable water a day to survive – more in hot climates or if you’re working hard and losing fluids through sweat. You need more to cook food, wash clothes, clean your teeth, flush the toilet…. the average UK household uses 150L of water a day.

Do you have 150L of water stored in your home? It weighs 150kg, plus packaging, so be careful where you stack those bottles! Upstairs is not a good idea. Ideally you want it in a dark, cool place (to restrict the growth of algae) and on a solid floor, not the loft. You need to rotate your water stash – about every 18 months or so – otherwise when you crack open the bottle, you’re might find a complex ecosystem flourishing in there. A couple of drops of thin unscented household bleach per litre helps prevent it all going green, but over time the chlorine wears off and you need to empty the bottles, scrub them out and refill them.

That’s a fair bit of work, though you can spread the load over time by doing a few bottles a month rather than all at once. You can lessen the load by conserving water! 50L a day to flush the loo with clean drinking water? Do you really need a long hot shower every day? And don’t even think about watering the garden or washing the car….

Back in the mid-70s, we had a severe drought in the UK – the first I was aware of.  I remember my parents taking us for a picnic at one of the reservoirs for Manchester, up in the Peak District. I remember the cracked mud that stretched for such a long way (I was only small!) from the grass at the top to the not-very-much water at the bottom. Cars had bumper stickers reading ‘Save Water – Have a Dirty Weekend’ to remind everyone only to bathe when necessary. We shared bathwater – eldest brother had first dip, then next brother used the same (cooling) water for his bath, then my sister and I shared the (tepid and somewhat grimy) water for our quick splash around. We put a brick in the toilet cistern to reduce the capacity, so less water was used in flushing the toilet (you can get the same effect with a plastic bag of water – or anything else that displaes water and don’t bung the works up). As things continued, we had a rule that you only flushed for excrement, not urine. Then we went on to saving the washing-up water in a bucket to pour down the loo so we weren’t using drinking water for flushing at all. I’ve retained the habit of having a daily wash rather than a daily shower ever since. You can get just as clean from a basin of hot water, a bar of soap and a flannel as you can from a shower or a bath, and it saves an immense amount of water and heating energy!

Most people in the UK don’t store water. You turn the taps and it falls out, no problem. But the people of Sao Paulo thought that, too, a few months ago. Now they’re facing reservoirs with only 8.9% of their water and the taps don’t work. Restaurants can’t wash plates, people can’t wash clothes, schools can’t cook dinners. People are reduced to trudging to whatever water sources they can locate and filling up every container they can carry. The Brazilian government were getting close to telling people to leave the city and flee, apparently.

It’s now started raining there, apparently, so they’re breathing sighs of relief, but what odds they don’t learn from this lesson either? In which case, in a few years, it’ll happen again, when the next drought arrives.

I wonder if anyone in Sao Paulo will think to start storing clean drinking water?

And before everyone outside Brazil starts feeling smug, remember those drought predictions for the US? Here’s a good site to start doing some research, too. Pay attention to that throwaway comment on the fifth line about the Brazilian coffee crop not happening this year! (Hint: price of coffee likely to rise so stock up now, coffee drinkers!)

IPCC AR5 indicated that the dry areas would get drier, so a good guess as to future conditions can be made by looking at current drought areas and simply enlarging them over time. If (when?) the Amazon rainforest succumbs to drought, fire and logging, we can probably expect tropical and subtropical droughts to get much more severe and prolonged – the Amazon, like other large rainforests, creates its own climate and without it, rainfall is going to drop.

Think it can’t happen here? Think again. Think hard, particularly if you live in an area already prone to droughts, like the south-east of England. London already gets less rain than Istanbul!

There’s another question here that I’m mulling over, and that’s…. how long will people cling to their homes, jobs, businesses, when they know they face not having any water? (three days without water and your body starts to die!) And why? Did anyone look at the reservoir levels and think, blow this for a game of soldiers, I’m offski? Or do humans have this irrational attachment to place, even over survival? How bad does it have to get before you give up your belongings in favour of safeguarding your life?

More importantly yet, when dire circumstances do finally get people on the move….. how desperate are they and what will they do if you’re in the way?

Flowers on New Year’s Day

The BBC is carrying a story tonight about the annual survey of British plants in bloom on January 1st. I’ve been vaguely aware of this survey before but I’ve never seen anything like the results they’ve had in this year. Short of hitting us on the head with a sledgehammer, could nature drop a heavier hint about climate change? Actually, now I think about it, this is hitting us on the head with a sledgehammer!

This year, 2015, saw a grand total of 358 species of flowering plant, in the UK, in flower on January 1st. That might not sound too startling…… until you find out the average number from previous years is 20 or 30!

Here’s the story. Now let’s hope that the fruit trees don’t follow suit – they could get walloped with frost in February and March (given that there’s an inch of snow here at the moment!) and wreck the 2015 fruit harvest before it even gets started.

Threats and Risks

People often diss preppers, particularly the media (it makes better headlines). We’re seen as paranoid, hoarding, paramilitary wierdos. So, let’s just have a think about this.

Everyday reasons to prep:

Winter – happens regularly, invariably brings interesting driving challenges, occasionally floods, snowdrifts, blocked roads, disruptions to supplies in shops. Winter storms often cause minor and occasionally major power-cuts, meaning thousands of people at a time have no heating, lighting or cooking facilities, sometimes for days on end.

Summer – not usually a major problem up here but heatwaves down south certainly merit a bit of thinking ahead to deal with droughts, hosepipe bans and crop damage leading to food having to be imported from elsewhere at increased cost.

At any time of the year, the UK sits in the most common track for Atlantic weather so hurricanes that slam the USA often end up as gales here a few weeks later, again bringing the risks of flooding, powercuts and driving hazards.

Some slightly less generalised reasons to prep:

At the moment, on a wider front, we have an uncertain political future, with the referendum next week determining whether Scotland remains part of the UK or becomes an independent nation, with all the challenges and difficulties new nations have to face.

Beyond the UK, there are tensions and economic sanctions in play between the US/EU and Russia at the moment, over the Ukraine. India and Pakistan are being hit by severe monsoon flooding, West Africa is in the grip of an uncontained (uncontainable? WHO seems nervous!) Ebola virus pandemic that’s still spreading into new countries and increasing its impact on affected countries at an unprecedented, exponential rate. The Middle East is in an even worse state of uproar than usual, thanks to renewed Israel/Palastinian tensions and the Islamic State’s brutal violence. Iceland’s Bardarbunga volcano is erupting – beautiful, but potentially could bring weather disruption to northern Europe for a few years if she stages a major caldera eruption as well as the current fissure eruption. The sun has recently released a fairly sizeable flare and coronal mass ejection that is expected to impact the Earth over the weekend, causing geomagnetic storms.

To break down the threats from the above list – economic sanctions could lead to increased fuel prices (gas shortages in Europe due to Russia shutting the taps), India/Pakistan may need to appeal for international aid (taxes possibly affected to pay for said aid), Ebola is devastating the economies of West Africa due to lost harvests and closed borders, requiring assistance in the form of medical supplies, food and medical personnel/facilities from the UK military (and many other countries) and there’s always the risk of it jumping out of Africa and spreading into other countries of the world. The Middle Eastern situation raises the chance of terrorist attacks in the UK. Bardarbunga may cause hard winters and crop failures, leading to increased food prices and possible food shortages. Solar flares interfere with radio transmissions, disrupt sat-nav signals and can cause problems for aircraft – a big enough flare could cause problems on the ground, as Canada discovered in 1989 when a geomagnetic storm knocked out the electrical grid across Quebec in just 90 seconds.

And behind, below and above it all, there’s global climate change, which over the course of my lifetime and my daughter’s lifetime, will change what we can eat, where we can live and what we can do in massive, fundamental ways.

When you actually think about things like this, then the insanity doesn’t lie in having a few things tucked away ‘in case’, it’s in thinking you don’t need to have that buffer against the world’s risks at all.

If there’s one thing that we’ve seen over the past few years, it’s that you can’t rely on your government to look after you when things get tough. They haven’t the ability. I read the rules for the gun club yesterday (they came in the post) and they started out by stressing that responsibility for safety lies with the individual. It’s primarily my job to keep me safe – and after that, to keep every other member safe too.

Taking responsibility for my own safety, and that of my family, is the fundamental bottom line of prepping. Preppers are the sane, responsible ones. We all hope never to have to use our preps – but when the roads are icy, having winter tyres helps keep us out of the ditch, and when jobs are lost, a stash of tins in the cupboard keeps the family from hunger while we find a new job. If Bardarbunga goes bardarboom, having dustmasks, goggles, covered waterbutts and a filter fine enough to clean ash from our drinking water could help ensure our continued health.

One of the frequent responses from the unprepped to the prepped when the subject comes up is ‘oh, I’ll just come over to yours if things get bad!’

Don’t. I’ve prepped for me and mine. I haven’t prepped for my neighbours, nor the rest of the village. Why should I? I’ve taken responsibility for me and mine…. it’s up to each of us to do that, not try and freeload on a few responsible people because we can’t be bothered. A second’s thought makes it abundantly clear that the supplies carefully laid in to look after continued survival for 3 people for a month will last only 2 weeks if 3 more turn up, and only 1 week if another 6 again arrive on the doorstep. There’s 700 people in my village – I couldn’t even give them all a single square meal, and then we all starve together. Far less useful than a chocolate teapot, which apparently can hold together for all of 2 minutes while the tea brews.

So…. are we paranoid hoarders or are non-preppers complacent and irresponsible?

PS – ‘paramilitary’? Doesn’t fit with the ‘grey man’ philosophy of prepping. Paramilitary is obvious and obvious is dumb, it just tells the freeloaders where to go when things get tough. Smart preppers stay under the radar, hard to spot.

Another Prepping Diversion: Icelandic Volcanoes

Not that there’s anything particularly unexpected about Iceland’s volcanoes doing volcanic things! Iceland’s a paradise for volcano-holics (I’m a mild, amateur case) and since the place is often upwind of the UK, we often get some of the fall-out from eruptions. Anyone who can think as far back as 2010 should remember the chaos.

After the fun of learning to pronounce Eyjafjallajokull, at least Grimsvotn the following year wasn’t hard and this time it’s Iceland’s biggest volcano, Bardarbunga (the ‘d’ isn’t actually a ‘d’, it’s a letter that English gave up using a thousand years ago called an ‘eth’ and pronounced like the ‘th’ in ‘either’, apparently. I could probably go find the proper font to write it properly but I’m packing to leave for Orkney in the morning so it’s not a major priority. Apologies to any Icelanders who object to people taking liberties with their spelling.)

At present nobody seems to have a real idea of what the volcano is planning on doing. There’s some fairly significant earthquakes taking place around the rim of the volcano’s crater, which may be because of magma moving around within the plumbing system under the crater. If the crater decides to fall in, it could be quite spectacular given the half-kilometer of glacier perched on top of it (Vatnajokull) which might give us a fairly exciting ice-lands-on-molten-rock explosion. There’s also a dyke, an underground channel of magma, which is working its way roughly north-east and causing more earthquakes as it breaks and cracks its way through the cold rocks it meets. That’s currently about 40km long and a couple of kilometers underground, so we have a little time before it can reach the surface as an eruption, if that’s the end result.

Let’s be honest, this is a volcano. It doesn’t read books, predictions or other human-created stuff and it’ll do what it’s going to do regardless of anything we think or plan. It’ll do it when it’s ready, not when we want. Geological time is a great deal slower than human time – this might just be the precursor for a main event years in the future, or it might be a major eruption working up for next month some time. Or it might fizzle out as nothing but data for the next round of PhD students to work on.

So, how do you prep for a maybe-eruption of unknown size at an unknown date yet to come?

We know Icelandic eruptions can throw dust and ash our way, so it’s reasonable to consider taking a few precautions against volcanic ashfall. Dustmasks and eye-protection leap to mind, since volcanic ash has a nasty trick of turning into cement when it mixes with the fluids in your lungs, if inhaled, and is scratchy and painful in the eyes. The water-butts in the garden are already covered, so we shouldn’t get ash falling into the water. It might still land on the roofs and then get washed into the butts when it rains, of course. Volcanic ash varies in size down to about 1 micron, so our water-filters will handle that if necessary.

If it’s a big eruption, we know that volcanic gases (mainly sulfur dioxide) can cool the climate for a few years. That takes us into ‘bad winter’ preps and living in Northern Scotland, that’s hardly unexpected weather anyway – in fact the past few years we’ve been over-prepped for winter weather that just never showed up. It’s possible that we might see knock-on effects giving us poor summers in the next few years after a big eruption, in which case food prices will rise, so our stored food will come into play.

It’s unlikely to be worse than a few delayed flights and we’re taking the ferry to and from Orkney so that doesn’t really impinge on our lifestyle.

The longer the warm-up goes on, the worse the eruption could be – so my fingers are crossed that we get an eruption soon, even if I miss watching it live on the webcams because I’m off sight-seeing in Orkney! I have, however, reminded my daughter, who’s staying home, where the dust-masks are stored and packed some, just in case….

El Nino, Drought and the Price of Wheat…

I was browsing gently round the web last night and checked on a few El Nino sites to see how that fickle piece of climatic whimsy is getting along this year. I mentioned in a previous post that this year looked like it might produce an El Nino event and the forecast probability remains high (about 70%) but the predicted strength of the El Nino seems to have been downgraded to moderate/mild.

Good news for India and Australia, where the monsoon fails and temperatures rise during El Nino events, but bad news for California’s long-running and now extreme drought!

Of course California isn’t the only part of the States affected by long-term and serious drought; a glance at the US Drought Monitor site clearly shows how much of the US is now in extreme and long-term drought – practically all the south and west of the country, with dust storms reported in Nevada and Oklahoma, amongst other places.

Quite a few years ago, I read Mark Lynas’s book Six Degrees and was impressed by his account of the history of megadroughts in the American south-west; further reading and research confirmed for me that the geological history of much of the prairie lands of the US is indeed of a land that was, fairly recently, sand-dune desert – and those light, sandy soils are only tenuously held static by vegetation at the moment. These are the easily-eroded soils that are the parents of the dust-storms we’re seeing at the moment – reminescent of the infamous Dust Bowl conditions of the 1930s and certainly worrying some residents of the affected areas! – but they’re also usually part of the agricultural heartlands of the USA. California, while not affected by dust-storms, is one of the most fertile and productive farming states, exporting fruit and vegetables to the rest of the USA and beyond.

These crops can only grow, however, with a supply of water – precisely what they haven’t had falling out of the sky for the last few years. To some extent, irrigation with fossil water pumped out of aquifers or supplied from the reservoirs along the Colorado can replace the lack of rain, so the next stop on my journey of research was to look at the levels of Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two biggest reservoirs on the Colorado and responsible for supplying drinking water and irrigation water to a vast swathe of the American south-west.

Lake Mead is currently predicted to achieve its lowest ever level (since it was first filled in 1938) during this week, dropping to a water-level of only 1,080 feet. That’s still a lot of water, mind you – 10.2 million acre-feet (for those of us who can’t visualise 10.2 million acres flooded to a depth of 1 foot, 1 acre-foot is 325,851.427 gallons, or 1,233,481.84 litres… so a LOT of water!) To put it into perspective, however, one acre-foot of water is a year’s supply for 1 average Nevadan family, so assuming Nevadan families aren’t very different from other American families, that’s enough water for one year for 10.2 million households.

Lake Powell, upstream, currently holds another 12.7 million acre-feet of water. This lake, however, suffers quite high losses through seepage, as it sits on porous sandstone, as well as through evaporation (it sits in a hotter area than Lake Mead, so evaporation rates are higher) and is estimated to lose in total about 870,000 acre-feet of water a year.

Between them, these two reservoirs supply 7 states with water – California, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Wyoming – as well as Mexico. These states do have other water sources, but the Colorado is the biggest source of supply….. and between them, that’s over 58 million residents (2012 figures), plus the 40 million tourists passing through Las Vegas every year, who could be affected as water levels drop – and I haven’t even looked up the acreage of farmland that’s irrigated from the Colorado!

Figures from Scripps Oceanographic Institute suggest 1 acre-foot supplies 8 people with water for a year, so a quick and dirty calculation suggests that the available 22.9 million acre-feet in the two reservoirs can supply a population of 58 million for a little over 3 years.

Just as well they have a few other water sources, then!

Incidentally, it’s worth reading the whole of that Scripps article I linked to – they also predict a 50% chance that Lake Mead will fall so low by 2017 that the Hoover Dam won’t be able to produce electricity anymore, and they were using historically quite high levels of river flow, as seen over the past century, not the much lower figures suggested by looking at a longer history of the area. If the current drought is merely the beginning of a return to much dryer (and more normal) climatic conditions for the area, then the situation could be worse, and for far longer, than expected.

What impact do all these water-problems in the west of the USA have on a prepper in the UK? If the US wheat harvest is reduced, then the US exports less wheat to other places around the world. That reduces world supply so the price of wheat on the world markets goes up. At the moment the USDA are forecasting that increased yields on the northern plains will offset the reduced harvest further south, but it’s possible that there may be knock-on effects on the price of hard wheat (bread wheat) later in the year.

Or, to be really practical, now is the time to put away a few more kg of pasta and whole-grain wheat in the long-term stores and fill up any spare freezer space with bread and strong wheat flour!

Open Season on Climate Change News!

Last night I decided to round up some of the latest stories I’d run across concerning climate change. This morning, lo and behold, there’s a new clutch to catch up on!

The European Space Agency’s Cryosat has provided data for a new study on Antarctic ice loss, published in Geophysical Research Letters. The study confirms that, overall, the Antarctic is losing ice mass – some parts of the West Antarctic ice sheet at a rate of 9m of ice thickness per year, while the East Antarctic is basically balanced between snow falling and ice melting. While this has been the accepted position for some years, the new data confirms that the rate of thinning in West Antarctica is now 31% greater than it was between 2005-2011.

In Nature Geoscience, a paper published today suggests that Greenland’s fjords are very much longer than was thought, which in turn means that the glaciers that meet the sea in these fjords can retreat much further than previously believed before they lose contact with seawater and slow their rate of ice-loss. This, consequently, means Greenland’s ice sheet may melt faster and further than has been anticipated.

And on the adaptation front, the UK’s Environment Agency chairman has suggested that Dutch-style floating homes would be an appropriate response to the horrendous flooding experienced at the beginning of the year in some parts of England. There is, apparently, no chance that people might just stop building their homes on flood plains. I wonder why it’s taken them so long to realise that the Dutch have some excellent adaptation plans in hand and, perhaps more to the point, how long it’ll take to convince our bureaucrats to accept such ideas in the UK planning permission system? Hopefully, not too long – particularly if the exceptionally wet winter just past is any indicator of future trends!

And having rounded up these strays, I look forward to tomorrow’s fresh hatch of news….

Climate News Roundup

A few climate change-related items culled from this week’s news….

First up, a paper published in Nature this week suggests that tropical storms are tracking further from the tropics than they used to  – by about 52-63km per decade over the past three decades. That may not sound a lot, but if it means hurricanes are managing to wreck havoc over larger areas, that’s not good news. A little googling suggests that it’s already possible for Atlantic hurricanes to maintain their strength as far north as the Faroes (Huricane Faith, in 1966) so that puts “hurricane hits UK” well into the realms of possibility.

On a much longer-term note, it’s suggested in a paper to be published in Geophysical Research Letters that 6 of West Antarctica’s biggest glaciers are now in unstoppable, irreversible decline – PIne Island, Smith, Kohler, Thwaites, Haynes and Pope glaciers – have retreated by varying distances (10-35km) between 1992 and 2011 and the shape of the seabed under these glaciers has no obstacles to stop relatively warm waters circulating under the ice and melting them further. It will probably take centuries, but eventually these glaciers may completely disappear, adding about another 1.3m to global sea levels. One for our great-grandchildren to finally deal with, perhaps, yet happening now.

A startling paper released by Anglia Ruskin university in the south-east of England, suggesting that the UK has less than 5 years of fossil fuel reserves left. Given the size of the UK’s known coal reserves, not to mention the various oil and gas fields that haven’t dripped dry yet or the still hotly-contentious proposals to frack for gas in England, this paper has raised some brows, to put it mildly. Leaving aside the fact that it’d be better for the environment if we could switch off fossil fuels in the next five years, a bit of leg-work indicates that the source for this report’s take on coal is a single report by BP which clearly states under “Methodology” that

Proved reserves of coal are generally taken to be those quantities that geological and engineering information indicates with reasonable certainly can be recovered in the future from known deposits under existing economic and operating conditions.

Now, the catch here is that ‘existing economic and operating conditions’ are that the UK has 3 operating mines and 2 of them are due to close shortly. In other words, we have lots of coal left – but we’re not going to dig it up. So it might be more accurate to say that the UK will not be producing coal in 5 years…. which is a very different thing to “no coal left”!

I have no quarrel with it staying safely buried. If only we could leave a lot more of our fossil fuels underground instead of turning them into greenhouse gases in the atmosphere!

In the Pacific Ocean, the clock is ticking on declaring a state of El Nino – the pool of warm water that travelled eastwards as a “Kelvin Wave” in the early part of the year has now entered the “upwelling” phase as it’s reached the coast of South America and sea surface temperatures have risen accordingly. If the sea surface temperature remains above certain limits for three months or more, then NOAA will declare El Nino to be in existence. All the signs are that this is very likely to happen this year – most forecasts seem to be around 80% likelihood – and if the rise in temperature already seen is anything to go by, it could be a severe El Nino at that. More data and the expert opinions available from NOAA.