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?

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Who’d a Thunk it?

Look out for formation-flying pigs! At last, the weight of the evidence and the severity of the crisis is hitting home for Big Business – and the ones with the biggest stakes in the denial game, too!

Some big companies have been active in climate change mitigation and adaptation schemes for some time – Apple, for instance, is a high-profile company which has for some time acknowledged climate change and sought ways to reduce its reliance on  fossil fuels. This week, Bloomberg reports Apple has invested $850 million in ensuring that it will be powering all its offices, machines, stores and data centres from solar sources for at least the next 25 years.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that the chairman of Royal Dutch Shell, one of the world’s biggest oil companies, had acknowledged the urgent necessity of dealing with climate change, reducing the world’s reliance on oil and switching to natural gas as a less polluting alternative, along with more renewables, and even called for governments to set carbon prices to discourage the use of fossil fuels.

Today, in reports from the Guardian and Telegraph, I note that British Petroleum, another massive multinational oil company, has stepped up to the plate. Increasing energy demand is not compatible with fighting climate change, its Energy Report has declared, and carbon emissions are ‘unsustainable’! BP, too, would like carbon prices, please.

Well, woo-hoo!! Finally, the emperors of carbon production are looking in the mirror and noticing a certain draftiness around their nethers! BP and Shell are two of the five biggest oil companies in the world – the others being ConocoPhillips, Chevron and ExxonMobil. When you consider the massive investment these companies have in exploiting any fossil fuel they can lay hands on, even two out of five ain’t bad (apologies to Meatloaf for misquoting!)

This is a long way from fixing any problems, but at least the big players are beginning to admit there are problems. If they withdraw their funding for climate change denial thinktanks and propagandists (and they should!)  then the artificial and false “controversy” over whether climate change exists and will be a major existential challenge for humanity should begin to die down. With their financial clout, these companies also have the ears of politicians and have for many years been stridently arguing that jobs now are more important than TEOTWAWKI for the next generation.

Maybe, just maybe, we can look forwards to getting to grips with the adaptation and mitigation measures our grandchildren need us to put in place.

On The Up: The Keeling Curve

Some time ago I posted a bit about the Keeling Curve. It’s a simple little thing, not hard to understand – every day, someone goes up to the top of Mauna Loa and takes an air sample, then measures the amount of carbon dioxide in it. When Charles Keeling started doing this back in 1958, the average CO2 was about 313ppm (parts per million),with a little seasonal variation.

In May 2013, the concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere topped 400ppm for the first time. Last year, it exceeded that amount on March 12. This year’s benchmark crossing-400ppm-date?

January 1st.

It’s going to rise all the way from here to May or June before it falls. What’s this year’s record top figure going to be?

Remember that initial starting figure of 313ppm, in 1958? That wasn’t a lowest-figure-of-the-year, that was an annual average. So, what was the lowest figure recorded 2014/15, remembering that the Curve generally hits its low point in about September/October?

396ppm.

In 2013/14 that low point was 393ppm.

It’s well worth having a look at the record of atmospheric CO2 over the last 800,000 years. Most of that record, of course, is derived from ice core samples and not direct measurements, but if that spike at the end doesn’t worry you, all I can say is: you’re not like me. It worries me a lot.

It re-inforces other recent research results indicating that climate change has jammed its foot on the throttle and is heading straight for the edge of the cliff, and we’re still worrying about our economies and whether or not we’re paying enough into our pension pots.

Shouldn’t we be thinking about uncontrollable mass migrations on a scale never before seen, as approximately 23% of the world’s population decides living within 30 feet of sea level isn’t clever in a more hurricane/typhoon prone world? Not to mention the dropping crop yields as heat-stressed rice and wheat fail to grow normally? Does anyone think those hundreds of millions of climate refugees will wait for visas and immigration paperwork?

Don’t forget, the warmer it gets, the more positive feedback loops kick in to ensure it continues getting hotter, faster. Replacing reflective white sea-ice with heat-absorbing dark water, melting perma-frost releasing the frozen bogs of the tundra to rot and produce methane, destabilising methane clathrates to release (yet more) methane…. these all push the foot harder on the climate change pedal.

What about brakes?

Sulfur dioxide from volcanic eruptions can cause short-term climate cooling by preventing sunshine from reaching the ground, reflecting it back into space high in the atmosphere – but do we want lots of volcanic eruptions? Are we willing to bet on nature conveniently tipping off a few thousand extra large volcanos just when we need them? (At any time, about 1,500 volcanoes in the world are active – and they’re not slowing things down any at the moment!) And in any case, lots of sulfur dioxide in the air means lots of acid rain coming back down, sooner or later. Remember the troubles that caused, back in the 70s and early 80s?

How about more clouds? Clouds also block sunlight and reduce the temperature at the surface. Unfortunately, to get more clouds, we’d need more water vapour in the air and water vapour (unlike the water droplets in clouds) is a greenhouse gas, so that one may not work so well either.

Eventually, the Earth’s natural cycles will deal with all the carbon we’ve liberated into the air – but it will take hundreds, in some cases thousands, of years. Eventually, sea creatures building their shells from carbonates and dying, sinking to the seabed and forming silt will become new chalk and limestone deposits. Eventually, rocks weathering in the mild carbonic acid of rain will chemically react to remove the cardon dioxide from the air.

Any volunteers to wait that long? No?

There’s only one way to slow down the acceleration of climate change, and that’s to stop putting more carbon dioxide (and soot, and methane, and water vapour) into the air to begin with, which means we (humans) need to stop burning fossil fuels. Still no sign of any movement in that direction on the part of humans as a whole, so I don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon.

Which means, logically enough, that we’re still heading towards that cliff, pedal to the metal.

We ain’t seen nothing yet. But we’re going to, and I’ll bet we see it sooner than anyone’s expecting.

A Can of Worms: How Much of Our Resources Can We Use?

I haven’t been talking about recent news reports much lately – not because there haven’t been any, but just because most of them  are continuations of existing trends, like increased oil exploration in the Arctic, or the ferocious fire-season currently under way in Australia.

This one, however, opens a can of worms most people have been avoiding even mentioning. How much of the fossil fuels available to us should we, could we, use without committing future generations to far more global warming and climate change than we can handle? In essence, this report suggests that 80% of coal, 50% of oil and 30% of gas must be sequestered if warming is to be kept under 2 degrees centigrade. If we burn those reserves, then climate change will exceed 2 degrees – possibly by as much as 3 times.

6 degrees of climate change takes us into a nightmare future – it’s the worst-case scenario that Mark Lynas used when he published his excellent and influential book Six Degrees.

But can we restrain ourselves? Can countries limit their growth to ration our energy use? I’m not optimistic on this – largely because humans have never managed to do so before. It’s the Tragedy of the Commons all over again – if we don’t use that, someone else will, so we’d better use it quick before they do, even if there’s no more and even if it’s going to ruin the future for our children.

Do I think that the US will back off fracking? Or Canada will outlaw the exploitation of oil sands? Perhaps Saudi Arabia will voluntarily shut down their economy when there’s still 40% of their reserves left? Will China stop burning coal?

It’s unlikely. In my estimation, it’s up there with formation-flying pigs and the discovery of herds of unicorns.

So, where does that leave us? It means we have to reckon on there being a lot more than 2 degrees of climate change – possibly as much as 6. If that doesn’t scare you, try reading the summary of Mark Lynas’s research into climate change scenarios. It scares me, and I’m not likely to live long enough to see it all come to pass.

I’m going to have to have a careful think about how I alter my plans for the future in light of this report. I expected things to be bad, but I did hope it wouldn’t be as bad as this!

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….

The Risks in Staple Crops

This morning the Independent ran a story entitled Wheat Rust: the fungal disease that threatens to destroy the world crop. I was reminded of another plant disease story they ran at the beginning of the month, Bananageddon: Millions face hunger as deadly fungus Panama disease decimates global crop.

Setting aside the somewhat tabloid-style “scare” headlines (not to mention an aberration of language like “bananageddon” being committed), both these stories do  have a very valid fundamental point in common. Both illustrate just how much humanity relies on a very limited number of food crops, worldwide, and being over-reliant on  a limited number of food sources means we’re more vulnerable to crop failures on a large scale.

To put our dependence into context, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations provides some figures.

Of more than 50 000 edible plant species in the world, only a few hundred contribute significantly to food supplies. Just 15 crop plants provide 90 percent of the world’s food energy intake, with three rice, maize and wheat – making up two-thirds of this. These three are the staples of over 4 000 million people.

That’s a sobering statement in the face of a wheat rust that threatens to reduce harvests.

One way to try and mitigate these disease threats is the scientific approach – to try and develop resistant varieties, to figure out ways to control the disease.

I don’t have a lab and trained staff at my disposal so I’m adopting another approach to improve my  personal food security – not just growing my own (after all, what’s to stop my plants getting some kind of disease?) but widening my diet.

If I grew nothing but wheat on my allotment, for example, then the whole crop, my entire year’s effort, could be wiped out by one disease. If I grow wheat and barley, then I halve my chance of a total crop failure. I double my chance of having something to take home to eat. If I grow wheat, barley, oats…. you get the picture.

This brings us back to my dahlia growing experiment – an alternative food crop that will widen my diet and reduce yet further the risk that I won’t have anything to eat (assuming it works, of course…).

I’m always on the lookout for novel foods to try – though I also have to watch for their growing requirements. The combination of a short growing season, a fairly dry climate (for the UK, at least!), the possibility of cold winters and, usually, a quite late spring combine to rule out some plants I’d otherwise love to experiment with – oca, for example needs a 7 month growing season and I’m lucky if I get 5. Tea needs 50 inches of rain and I only get 28 on average.

I am also trialling root parsley this year – not one I’ve grown or eaten before, but it should do well in our climate and provide us with another winter crop to help bridge the “hungry gap” of late winter and early spring, when the stored food runs short but the new year’s growth hasn’t yet matured enough to eat.

Another crop that grows very well around here is barley (as you’d expect, living as I do in Whisky country!) and I will shortly be sowing barley and, later in the year, buckwheat as cereal crops. These, particularly the barley, will also provide me with straw to make litter for the bunnies and chickens, which will cycle back through the compost heap to return the nutrients to the soil for next year. I haven’t tried growing cereals before but I’m hopeful that in time I can grow enough seed on the allotment to sprout to feed the livestock, which will further reduce our dependence on world markets and big industry.

In the meantime, this afternoon two more potatoes and another 5 jerusalem artichokes are up on the allotment and the turf wall is growing!

7 square metres of turf. Lots more still to go!

7 square metres of turf. Lots more still to go!

 

Cryoconites

The other night I watched a documentary called Chasing Ice, a quite remarkable story of the lengths a photographer went to in order to record the retreating glaciers of the world (and is still going to, given that Extreme Ice Survey are now setting up cameras in the Antarctic to complement their Arctic and Montanan coverage!)

As a testament to courage and passion in pursuing an avocation, Chasing Ice would deserve a watch. As a record of the extraordinary way in which the cryosphere (the world’s ice) is quietly vanishing away at the moment, it deserves a watch. As a memory of vanishing landscapes, which we will probably never see again in our lifetimes (ice takes a long time to form glaciers!) I felt that I had to buy a copy of the DVD in order to preserve a piece of our heritage.

Amongst the stunning scenery and the superb cinematography, I was struck by something quite extraordinary. At one point, the term “cryoconites” was mentioned. I looked it up. In general, I don’t rely on Wikipedia for information – it’s a very useful place to start off with a basic description and then I chase the links up to get to the peer-reviewed science (which usually goes slightly over my head but I’m trying to improve myself!) What really caught my attention with the cryoconites was that here, in the middle of millions of square miles of ice, were lifeforms that could survive on dust and sunlight, and which had the power to melt the ice-sheets.

Imagine that. Microscopic algae and dust, yet they are changing their environment around themselves. How? Because they’re dark in colour. It’s not even something they’re doing deliberately  – it’s just because they happen to be dark-coloured by their nature. Dark objects absorb more heat from the sun than light coloured ones do (which could also be described as dark coloured objects reflect less light than pale ones do) and because of that, each of these tiny balls of dust-and-algae warms the ice on which it sits until they’re growing in a pool of water.

I find that quite amazing, to consider the effect these algal colonies are having on the planet. Too small to affect the environment? Not one bit.

It’s also quite hopeful – surely if they can change their environment without even trying, we should be able to achieve something amazing too – if we put our combined efforts into mitigating climate change.

 

Adaptation and Mitigation – an explanation

A lot of people seem to get confused by ‘adaptation’ and ‘mitigation’. I thought I’d just make the differences and the need for both clear.

First of all, what are they?

Adaptation is the process of changing how we live, work or do things in order to reduce the risks and challenges we face from climate change, to change ourselves to live in a different set of climatic circumstances. Adaptation could be remembering to put sunglasses and a hat on in hot sunny weather, or putting on waterproofs when it rains. It could also be designing floating houses, as the Dutch have done, to cope with rising sea levels.

Mitigation is the process of changing what we do and how we live in the hope that we can prevent climate change happening, or reduce it if we can’t stop it. Mitigation involves trying to reduce our emissions so we don’t have so high a concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, or taking steps to reduce soot emissions.

Is we can adapt, why do we need to mitigate?

The answer to this one is quite simple. If we don’t mitigate climate change by taking some very drastic action in the very near future (such as reducing our emissions by 80% below 1990 levels by 2020) then we will face changes too great to adapt to. Imagine, for example, that global average temperature rises by 4 degres celsius. According to most calculations, 4 degrees of temperature rise would see dramatic changes in the Earth’s surface – sea level rise over a metre, the loss of permafrost, wildfires as far north as the Alps, summer rains failing 70% of the time in the Mediterranean, Australia, India, North, Central and South American deserts expanding, summers in the UK reaching 45 degrees Celsius, droughts commonplace across Northern Europe. Can we really ‘adapt’ to a world like that? Where do all the people from the affected countries move to? How do we feed them? Where do we find enough drinking water for that many displaced people?  So, we need to mitigate climate change as much as possible.

But if we can mitigate climate change, why bother adapting?

“Some degree of climate change is inevitable because of past and present carbon emissions. Even with strong international action to curb emissions, global temperatures still have a fifty percent chance of rising above 2 °C by the end of the century.” (from the Committee on Climate Change’s website). In other words, no matter what we do now, there is some change ‘locked in’ to the Earth’s future that can’t be prevented. We must adapt to that, and the less mitigation we do, the more adaptation will be needed.

Adapting to likely changes ahead of time is cheaper and easier than trying to play catch-up after the fact, so the time to consider adaptation strategies is now. LIkewise, the more we can mitigate the future climate change, the less adaptation we will need to do – and the sooner we take steps to mitigate, the easier it will be to achieve.