There have been some recent articles about how climate change is harming agriculture. One by Kim Severson in the New York Times (here) says “Drop a pin anywhere on a map of the United States and you’ll find disruption in the fields.” It goes on to discuss the impacts on “11 everyday foods”: tart cherries (Michigan), organic raspberries (New York), watermelons (Florida), chickpeas (Montana), wild blueberries (Maine), organic heirloom popcorn (Iowa), peaches (Georgia and South Carolina), organic apples (Washington), golden kiwi fruit (Texas), artichokes (California), and rice (Arkansas).
Well, that is a sampling of foods from around the country. I’m not so sure how “everyday” many of them are, but rice is certainly one of the basic grains.
A somewhat more convincing article by Chris McGreal in The Guardian interviewed farmers in valley of the Missouri River near Langdon, in northwestern Missouri. These are corn and soybean farmers. Their problem has been moisture: they have had too much rain. In many years, the ground has been so muddy that crops were ruined or not planted at all. In other years, the rain has caused the water table to rise so much that the ground looks dry on top, but is mucky mud just a few inches down. This is something, of course, that would affect river valleys the most, and the big river valleys in Missouri are some of the richest farmland the state has.
Most climate change studies project that climate change will impact agriculture negatively. Given this blog’s focus on the large statistical perspective, I thought it might be interesting to see how crop yields are doing in Missouri. The United States Department of Agriculture publishes the data. This data is a statistical average of yields across Missouri. Results in any one location may be different.
Figure 1 shows the per-acre yield for corn. The data shows that corn yields vary significantly from year-to-year, and that some years are really terrible, with yields being roughly half of what they are in good years. That said, there is a clear trend toward increased yields from 1957 right through 2014. Yields since then have been lower, and it is possible that we are looking at the start of a downward trend, but 4 years is not sufficient to tell.
Figure 2 shows the per-acre yield for soybeans. The yearly variation here may be somewhat less, but the overall pattern is much the same. With soybeans, however, yields increased right through 2017.
This data doesn’t tell us why crop yields are rising. Perhaps they are due to improved farming practices and better seed stock. It is possible that warmer temperatures, an increase in carbon dioxide, and more rain have benefitted crop yields overall, even if they have hurt some farmers in some locations. We just don’t know, at least not from this data.
What we do know is that, overall, the predicted negative effects of climate change do not yet seem to be reducing yields in these two important crops.
McGreal, Chris. 2018. “As Climate Change Bites in America’s Midwest, Farmers Are Desperate to Ring the Alarm.” The Guardian,” 12/12/2018. Viewed online 5/1/2018 at https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/dec/12/as-climate-change-bites-in-americas-midwest-farmers-are-desperate-to-ring-the-alarm.
Severson, Kim. 2019. “From Apples to Popcorn, Climate Change Is Altering the Foods America Grows.” The New York Times, 4/30/2019. Viewed online 5/1/2019 at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/30/dining/farming-climate-change.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Fclimate&action=click&contentCollection=climate®ion=rank&module=package&version=highlights&contentPlacement=2&pgtype=sectionfront.
National Agriculture Statistics Service, United States Department of Agriculture. Quick Stats. This is a data portal that can be used to build a customized report. I focused on yield, in bushels per acre, for corn and soybeans from 1957-2018. Data downloaded 5/1/2019 from https://quickstats.nass.usda.gov.
The IPCC report Global Warming of 1.5°C, and the Fourth National Climate Assessment were not the only climate related reports to be published in the second half of 2018. The American Meteorological Society also published its annual report on the climate, State of the Climate in 2017. Rather than a document assessing the effects of climate change, this documents presents a comprehensive picture of what the climate was like in 2017.
Figure 1 shows in a single graphic the major climate variables that are discussed in the report. I will discuss each very briefly in order, going down each column before moving to the next column. I’ve made the chart to open in a separate browser tab, and you should be able to refer back and forth between my comments and the charts. In the charts, some of the data is shown as anomalies rather than as raw values, and in those cases, the reference period is given in the chart.
Charts (a) and (b) show the level of polar ozone, the 1st in March, the 2nd in October. This ozone is high-altitude ozone, and it is essential for blocking ultraviolet rays, too much of which are harmful. These charts concern the famous ozone hole of the 1980s. In general, the level in March bottomed in the 1980s, partially rebounded, but has again been trending downward. In October, the level bottomed in the 1980s and has been largely moving sideways since then.
Chart (c) shows the average surface temperature in the arctic. It has obviously been warming, some 3°C since the 1950s.
Chart (d) shows the average surface temperature of the whole earth. It has been warming, but not as much as the arctic. The recent several years show a steep spike upward.
Chart (e) shows temperature in the lower troposphere. This is the lowest layer of the earth’s atmosphere, and it is where almost all life occurs, as well as almost all weather. It has been warming, and you can see the same spike in recent years.
Chart (f) shows the temperature in the lower stratosphere. This is the next higher layer of the atmosphere. Near the equator it begins some 66,000 feet up, while at the poles it is lower, some 23,000 feet up. The temperature here has been cooling. I have seen some arguments that the cooling in the stratosphere compensates for the heat in the troposphere. This is like saying that cool weather in San Francisco means people can’t be dying from a heat wave in Chicago. Sorry, but it doesn’t mean any such thing.
Chart (g) plots the number of warm days (solid line) and cool nights (dotted line). Warm days have been increasing, and cool nights have been decreasing.
Chart (h) shows the area covered by arctic sea ice. The maximum is the solid line, the minimum the dotted line. Both have been decreasing, the minimum more severely.
Chart (i) shows antarctic sea ice. The variability between years has grown significantly, and the general trend appears to be increasing.
Chart (j) shows a measure of the amount of water locked-up as ice in all of the world’s glaciers. It has been declining at a significant rate. It will have implications for anyone and anything dependent on glaciers and/or glacial melt for water.
Chart (l) shows the amount of water vapor in the lower stratosphere. It is quite variable, but the trend appears to be toward slightly higher amounts of water vapor.
Chart (m) shows the level of cloudiness across the planet. There are several data sets. The trend appears to be towards convergence, with a slightly downward slope for at least some of the data sets.
Chart (n) shows the amount of water vapor in the entire atmosphere, top to bottom, over land. It has been increasing.
Chart (o) shows the amount of water vapor in the entire atmosphere, top to bottom, over the ocean. It, too, has been increasing.
Chart (p) shows the specific humidity in the upper troposphere. It appears to be declining slightly.
Chart (q) shows the specific humidity over land. It has been increasing. Specific humidity is not the humidity statistic we are used to, that is relative humidity (see below). The specific humidity is a measure of the mass of water vapor in an air sample compared to the mass of the other air in the sample.
Chart (r) shows the specific humidity over the ocean. It, too has been increasing.
Chart (s) shows relative humidity over the land. It has been decreasing. Relative humidity is a measure of the amount of water a sample of air is holding, compared to the maximum it could hold. Air’s ability to hold water increases with temperature, so it is possible for relative humidity to decrease, even while specific humidity increases, if the temperature rises.
Chart (t) Shows relative humidity over the ocean. It has been mostly moving sideways, but perhaps decreasing slightly.
Chart (u) shows the amount of precipitation over land. It moved mostly sideways until the 1980s, at which point it appears to have increased. The recent years have seen a significant spike upward.
Chart (v) shows the Southern Oscillation Index. This is a measure comparing air pressure in the western and eastern South Pacific. It tracks the El Niño phenomenon, with negative values indicating an El Niño, and positive values indicating a La Niña. I see no obvious trend in the data.
Chart shows the amount of heat the ocean is holding. The amount of heat is not the same as the temperature: a 100° pot of water holds much more heat than a 100° pot of air, though both are the same size. The heat content of the oceans has bee increasing.
Chart (x) shows a measure of sea level. It has been rising. The scale is in millimeters, so the chart shows about a 6-inch rise.
Chart (y) shows the tropospheric ozone level in the tropics. It has been increasing. This is not the same as arctic ozone levels, which are measured in the stratosphere, where they help to block ultraviolet light from striking the earth. This is ground level ozone, a harmful pollutant. It is the ozone I track when I report on the Air Quality Index.
Chart (z) shows a measure of the speed of the wind in the troposphere. It has been increasing slightly.
Chart (aa) shows a measure of the speed of the wind over land. It has been decreasing.
Chart (ab) shows a measure of the speed of the wind over the ocean. It has been increasing.
Chart (ac) shows the amount of biomass being burned each year. It has been deecreasing.
Chart (ad) shows a measure of soil moisture across the earth. It has been moving sideways, a surprise to me, as I would have expected increased temperatures to dry the soil.
Chart (ae) shows terrestrial water storage. Though the data series is short, it appears to be declining. This variable concerns fresh water, and reflects ice sheets, glaciers, and lakes. Its decline is a matter of concern for all people, animals, and plants that depend on stored water.
Chart (af) shows global FAPAR. FAPAR is the amount of solar radiation available for absorption by plants during photosynthesis that actually gets absorbed. Though the data series is short, it was declining, but in recent years it has increased.
Chart (ag) shows the albedo of the land surface. Though the data series is short, it appears to be decreasing. Albedo is the reflectivity of the earth. High albedo means most of the light is reflected. Low albedo means most of the light is absorbed, causing the surface to warm. Black paint has a low albedo, white paint has a high albedo.
Blunden, J., D. S. Arndt, and G. Hartfield , Eds., 2018: State of the Climate in 2017. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 99 (8), Si–S332, doi:10.1175/2018BAMSStateoftheClimate.1.
In my previous post I reported on the 4th National Climate Assessment, Volume 1. That volume deals with the natural science findings. Volume 2 deals with how climate change is projected to impact the United States, and with mitigation and adaptation. Unlike reports by the IPCC, the National Climate Assessment focuses on the United States. As with all of the IPCC and NCA reports, the 4th National Climate Assessment is far too large and substantive to fully summarize in a brief blog post. What follows is a selection of a few of the findings.
Figure 1 projects U.S. economic damage from climate change in 2090 under the low emission scenario (RCP 4.5) and the high emission scenario (8.5). The intangibles that make life worth living, what we call quality of life, are not easy to put a dollar value on, and this chart does not address them.
In the chart, the columns represent various sectors of the economy. The blue portion represents the damages under RCP 4.5, while the whole column represents the damages under RCP 8.5 Thus, the orange portion represents the difference between the two. The largest economic damages come from 3 sectors: Labor, Extreme Temperature Mortality, and Coastal Property. In addition, in most of the sectors, the damages under RCP 8.5 are more than twice the damages under RCP 4.5.
(Click on chart for larger view.)
Figure 2 shows projected carbon emissions, temperature change, and U.S. economic damage from climate change under various emission scenarios. The left side of the chart shows that observed carbon emissions are following the high scenario, and there is no evidence that they are suddenly about to revert to the low emission scenario. The right side shows that the high emissions scenarios lead to larger increases in temperature and correspondingly larger damages to the U.S. economy.
The Overview of the report summarizes some of the specific risks the USA faces from climate change. It is quite a list, but it puts real form to projections that often are statistical or vague. To paraphrase:
- Rising sea levels, higher storm surges, and increased high tide flooding will impact coastal infrastructure, damaging electrical and natural gas supply lines, and causing problems with access to goods from overseas. About $1 trillion in coastal property will be impacted. Coastal cities will experience daily flooding.
- Wildfire in the West will increase, damaging ranches and rangelands; increasingly it will damage property in cities and take human lives. Energy transmission and production will be damaged.
- Thawing permafrost in Alaska will damage roads and buildings, including oil and gas operations. This will be partially offset by a longer ice-free season.
- Yields of major U.S. crops (corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, sorghum, and cotton) are expected to decline due to higher temperatures and changes in water availability, disease, and pests. These will percolate through the economy, resulting in less availability of agricultural products, and increased prices.
- Human productivity equal to almost 2 billion labor hours is expected to be lost annually due to extreme temperatures, resulting in an estimated $160 billion in lost wages. States in the Southeast and Southern Great Plains are expected to be impacted hardest.
- Fresh water quality and quantity are threatened by rising temperatures, reduced mountain snowpack, sea level rise, saltwater intrusion, drought, flooding, and algal blooms. In some places, the availability of safe and dependable water will be threatened.
- Hydropower supplies are expected to decrease as a result of changes in mountain snowpack.
- Drought will impact oil and gas drilling and refining, all of which use water intensely.
- Tourism will be impacted by changes in snowpack and wildfire. Communities dependent on tourism will be impacted.
- Air quality will be impacted by higher temperature, higher humidity, and increased smoke from wildfires. Reduced air quality is expected to adversely impact human health.
- Species already are, and will continue, to shift their growing ranges and growing seasons in response to climate change. Mismatches between species and the availability of the resources they need to survive are expected to occur. Extinctions and transformative impacts on some ecosystems are expected.
- Heavy-to-severe coral bleaching is expected to onset across most of the Hawaiian Islands, Guam, and American Samoa by the late 2030s. This will impact fisheries yields and tourism. (Paradise Lost – where’s John Milton when you need him?)
- Rising temperatures are expected to increase illness and death (especially among older adults, pregnant women, and children), partially (but only partially) offset by a reduction in cold-weather deaths.
- Rising temperatures are expected to reduce electricity generation capacity while simultaneously increasing demand for it and its costs. Power outages and blackouts are expected to increase, and household budgets will be strained. Marginal populations and the economically disadvantaged will be impacted even more severely.
- Rising temperatures are expected to threaten human health by promoting the growth of foodborne and waterborne pathogens. Diseases like Lyme disease, West Nile, chikungunya, dengue, and Zika are expected to spread and become more common.
- Every armed service (but especially the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard), has many bases located in coastal regions. They are expected to be threatened by climate change, and in some cases made unusable. Many of the transportation routes between these bases are similarly located in coastal regions and may become unusable. Thus, climate change is expected to become a significant challenge to the national security apparatus of this country.
- All of the above expected effects of climate change are expected to cause increased stress, leading to increased rates of stress-related diseases, including mental illness.
In terms of mitigation and adaptation, the report states that power sector emissions were 25% below 2005 levels in 2016, the largest emissions reduction for a sector of the American economy over this time. This decline was in large part due to increases in natural gas and renewable energy generation, as well as enhanced energy efficiency standards and programs. Under continued business-as-usual projections, U.S. carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions show flat or declining trajectories over the next decade with a central estimate of about 15% to 20% reduction below 2005 levels by 2025. (While it is great that U.S. emission have declined, worldwide emissions continue to increase.)
The report notes that efforts to adapt to climate change and to mitigate its effects have increased across the country, but are not even close to adequate. Adaptation is an issue for local planning, as it must take into account both the specific damages anticipated in the locale and many local characteristics such as topography, local water supply, etc. Mitigation follows pathways that are more common across different locations. Figure 3 shows is a map showing the number of GHG mitigation policies in place in each state, by type of policy.
The fact that Missouri has mitigation policies in place does not necessarily mean that GHG emissions have substantially decreased. I last reported on state GHG emissions using data from 2013. At that time, Missouri’s GHG emissions from fossil fuel were still above their level in 2000. Figure 4 republishes a chart from that post showing GHG emissions over time from Missouri and some neighboring states.
The document contains a great deal more than I can report in this post. Those who are interested can follow the link in the Sources section below to the original document. The whole document is available as a single download, or you can download individual chapters.
USGCRP, 2018: Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II [Reidmiller, D.R., C.W. Avery, D.R. Easterling, K.E. Kunkel, K.L.M. Lewis, T.K. Maycock, and B.C. Stewart (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, USA, 1515 pp. doi: 10.7930/NCA4.2018. Downloaded 12/5/2018 from https://nca2018.globalchange.gov.
The National Climate Assessment is the official United States Government report on climate change. The most recent assessment is the 4th one. It was issued in 2 volumes, the first of which was published in November, 2017. It focuses on the science of climate change and the changes that are likely to occur. The second volume was published in October, 2018. It focuses how the changes outlined in Volume 1 are projected to impact our country, and on some perspectives on adaptation.
In the remainder of this post, italics represent direct quotes from the Executive Summary of Volume 1. In parentheses, I give the page of the report where the quote can be found.
Global annually averaged surface air temperature has increased by about 1.8°F (1.0°C) over the last 115 years (1901–2016). This period is now the warmest in the history of modern civilization. (p.1) In Figure 1, the chart on the left presents a graph of the increase in temperature. The map on the right shows how the change in temperature is distributed across the world.
(Click on chart for larger view.)
The last three years have been the warmest years on record for the globe. These trends are expected to continue…(p.1) Figure 2 maps the projected increase in temperature across North America at mid- and late-century under a low emission scenario and a high emission scenario. I favor the high emission scenario, because I see no sign we are slowing GHG emissions. The high emission scenario shows the average yearly temperature rising by 4-6°F in Missouri by mid-century. By the end of the century, some regions of the country will experience temperature increases of 8-10°F.
Human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century. (p.1) There is no convincing alternative explanation. See the previous post for some comments on climate change denial.
Global average sea level has risen by about 7–8 inches since 1900, with almost half (about 3 inches) of that rise occurring since 1993. (p.1)
Global average sea levels are expected to continue to rise—by at least several inches in the next 15 years and by 1–4 feet by 2100. A rise of as much as 8 feet by 2100 cannot be ruled out. (p.2) Figure 3 shows historical and projected sea level rise across 2 time scales – the upper chart goes back to 500 BCE. The lower chart goes back to 1800. The upper one especially shows that the increase in sea level is unprecedented in human history. The different colored lines in the lower chart represent projections from different future emission scenarios – high (red) to low (blue).
The incidence of daily tidal flooding is accelerating in more than 25 Atlantic and Gulf Coast cities. (p.2) Figure 4 shows the historical and projected incidence of minor tidal flooding in Charleston SC, and San Francisco CA. Minor flooding is also called nuisance flooding. Basically, it is flooding that occurs only at high tide, and is limited to a couple of feet. But it is defined differently at different locations. For an article explaining it all, see here: https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/understanding-climate-billy-sweet-and-john-marra-explain. The charts show that flooding is on the increase, though in San Francisco, the increase is small (also typical of other West Coast locations). It is much larger in Charleston (also typical of other East Coast locations). In both locations, minor flooding is expected to increase, and under the high emission scenario, which is the one we seem to be following, it will nearly become a daily event.
Heavy rainfall is increasing in intensity and frequency across the United States and globally and is expected to continue to increase. The largest observed changes in the United States have occurred in the Northeast. (p.2) Figure 5 shows the historical change in heavy precipitation events across the United States. It shows the data in several forms. The map at upper left shows the percentage change in the largest 1-day rainfall event over rolling 5-year periods. The map at upper right shows the percentage change in the number of days that fall in the 99th percentile of 1-day precipitation over the historical record. The map at lower left shows the percentage change in the number of 2-day precipitation events that exceeded the largest 2-day amount that is expected to occur, on average, once every 5 years, from 1901-2016. The map at lower right shows the number of 2-day precipitation events that exceeded the largest 2-day amount that is expected to occur, on average, once every 5 years, from 1958-2016. Thus, the two lower maps show identical data, except the reference period in the left one stretches back to 1901, while the reference period in the right one stretches back to 1958. (This is all a bit complicated, but it is necessary because the amount of precipitation that constitutes a heavy event may be different in, say, Seattle vs. Las Vegas. You just have to unpack it slowly, and it all makes sense.)
The trend in Figure 4 is strongest in the eastern part of the country, where the increase is large, no matter how you count the data. In the Southwest, however, the data is equivocal. That region may be getting heavier 1-day storms, but heavy precipitation is not lasting over 2 days as frequently as it used to.
Heatwaves have become more frequent in the United States since the 1960s, while extreme cold temperatures and cold waves are less frequent. (p.2) I have written previous posts on how the increase in temperature could lead to deadly heat waves. One series of posts starts here. Another article is here.
The incidence of large forest fires in the western United States has increased…and is expected to further increase…with profound changes to regional ecosystems. (p.2) I’ve written quite a number of posts about how fire is increasing in the West, and how that may contrast with Missouri. See here and here.
Earlier spring melt and reduced snowpack are already affecting water resources in the western United States…Long-duration hydrological drought is increasingly possible before the end of this century. (p.2) I’ve covered this extensively in my posts on the water situation in California and made a number of updates. The original series of posts is here. The most recent update is here.
The magnitude of climate change…will depend primarily on the amount of greenhouse gases (especially carbon dioxide) emitted globally…With significant reductions…the increase in annual average global temperature could be limited to 3.6°F (2°C) or less. (p.2)
The global atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration has now passed 400 parts per million (ppm), a level that last occurred about 3 million years ago, when both global average temperature and sea level were significantly higher than today. (p.2)
Continued CO2 emissions would lead to an atmospheric concentration not experienced in tens to hundreds of millions of years. (p.3)
In 2014 and 2015, emission growth rates slowed as economic growth became less carbon-intensive. A recent report, however, suggests that in 2018, the rate of emissions reversed, surging ahead at an accelerating rate. (Le Quéré et al, 2018)
The next post will focus on Volume 2 of the National Climate Report.
U.S. Global Change Research Program. 2017. Climate Science Special Report: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume I [Wuebbles, D.J., D.W. Fahey, K.A. Hibbard, D.J. Dokken, B.C. Stewart, and T.K. Maycock (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, USA, 470 pp, doi: 10.7930/J0J964J6.
Le Quéré, Corinne, and 76 other authors. 2018. Global Carbon Budge, 2018. Earth System Science Data, 10, 2141-2194. Downloaded 12/8/2018 from https://doi.org/10.5194/essd-10-2141-2018.
I ended my last post by noting that if we are to avoid devastating the planet and ourselves through climate change, drastic action is needed immediately. If you ask me, that’s been clear for a long time, but the truth has been denied by climate change deniers. Climate change deniers dislike the word “denial” because it comes from the psychological mechanism of denial, like addicts who deny that they have an addiction.
Perhaps climate change deniers do have an illness like addiction, or perhaps it is something even worse.
In a recent OpEd, Paul Krugman compares the denial of climate change to the denial that cigarette smoking is harmful. According to him, tobacco companies knew for decades that smoking was harmful, but undertook a cynical campaign to try to discredit the science around smoking. Why? Money. They were willing to let hundreds of thousands die in order to preserve profits. The denial of climate change, he says, has been undertaken by fossil fuel companies for precisely the same reason, using precisely the same tactics (and, in fact, using some of the same organizations to conduct the campaign). He also gives a nod to mistrust of government regulation, which will be required to address climate change (while also poking fun at it, noting that their mistrust somehow manages to allow governments to force consumers to subsidize coal. Thus, the real motivation is reduced back to money.) Krugman concludes that this is not just misguided, it is depraved.
The amazing thing is that their nonsense has taken hold of an entire political party (the Republicans) and a great number of people in this state (Missouri). It reminds one of how Naziism took hold of a large number of people in Germany during the 1930s. We look back and ask how rational people could have believed such obvious nonsense, such vile evil? Could such things happen in the USA? Well, try reading The Paranoid Style in American Politics for a starter. Of course it could.
The climate change deniers I have known fall into two camps. Some are simple people who are just repeating what they have heard their neighbors say, or what they have seen in the conservative media they like to follow. Others are more informed. These deniers like to see themselves as skeptics, but to me they seem pervasively suspicious, oppositional, and perhaps even querulous. They are preoccupied with unjustifiable doubts, often seeing conspiracies where none exist. They focus on details or outright fabrications to prop up their denial, while ignoring vast amounts of fact, upon which they turn their back. Because not everything is known, they argue that nothing is known.
I received an email from one, a British lord no less, who comfortably turned his back on thousands of scientific references in an IPCC report, in favor of a column written by the host of an Australian children’s TV show. Well, he claimed, climate science is a vast conspiracy.
Is that paranoia? Has it gone so far as to be a psychotic delusion? Were the German people who supported Naziism deluded? Psychotic? At what point does fear of the future – I’m fearful, too, it would be silly not to be – turn into suspicion and paranoia?
Well, this IPCC report makes it clear that global warming, if left unchecked, is going to cost hundreds of billions of dollars yearly, and is going to ruin the lives of hundreds of millions. Clinging on to denial in the face of such facts, Krugman writes, is depraved. It is no longer a viable intellectual or political position, he argues, it is a sign of depravity.
Drastic change is required immediately if we are to avoid terrible damage to our planet. Even in only economic terms, the projected damage if we do nothing is absolutely staggering. But in addition to that, the lives of hundreds of millions will be ruined. Can humankind respond with the kind of immediate, large-scale planetary change that is required, or is it already too late? Will we act, or have we sold ourselves out to the forces of depravity?
Hofstadter, Richard. 1996. The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and Other Essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Originally published in 1952.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2018. Global Warming of 1.5°C (Draft). Downloaded 11/24/2018 from https://www.ipcc.ch/report/sr15.
Krugman, Paul. “The Depravity of Climate-Change Denial.” The New York Times, November 26, 2018. Viewed online 12/1/2018 at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/26/opinion/climate-change-denial-republican.html.
In the previous post, I reported that the recent IPCC report, Global Warming of 1.5°C, concludes that it is theoretically possible to limit global warming to 1.5°C, but it would require drastic change: a 50% reduction in GHG emissions by 2030, and zero net GHG emissions by 2050. In this post, I will discuss some of what the report says about making such a change.
The IPCC reviewed a number of computer models to explore scenarios that limited global warming to 1.5°C. Assumptions varied between the models, and they consequently yielded different results. They can be grouped into several categories: models that projected an increase in Global Mean Surface Temperature (GMST) that stayed below 1.5°C, models that projected a small overshoot of 1.5°C (eventually returning to 1.5°C), models that projected a large overshoot of 1.5°C (eventually returning to 1.5°C), models that projected a 2.0°C increase in GMST, and models that projected a large increase above 2.0°C.
According to the report, limiting the increase in GMST to 1.5°F would require putting a substantial price on carbon emissions. Estimates vary widely, thus, there is substantial uncertainty about just how large the price increase would need to be. It is clear, however, that the smaller the increase in GMST, the higher the price would have to be, and in all cases, the price would need to rise over time. Figure 1 shows the findings. The required price of carbon emissions is on the vertical axis, and the year is on the horizontal axis. The different colored columns represent the categories defined in the preceding paragraph.
The projected price for 2030 ranges from $135 to $5500 per metric ton of CO2e. The projected price in 2050 ranges from $245 to $13,000 per metric ton of CO2e. For comparison, at 11:22 a.m. CST on 12/4/18, Bloomberg reported the current price for emissions on the European Emissions Exchange was €20.72 ($23.48). Thus, the estimate for 2030 ranges from about 6 to 234 times the current price. I don’t know if fossil fuel prices would increase equally, but you can be sure they would increase a lot!
Carbon pricing, however, would not be sufficient in and of itself, and other policies would be required. The strategies mentioned in the report include using less energy, converting electricity generation to methods that don’t release carbon dioxide, converting all fuels to types that don’t release carbon dioxide, converting all energy end use to use decarbonized electricity (e.g. electric cars that run on renewable electricity), and some form of carbon sequestration. This is an intimidating list of changes. It would involve transforming basically all of our energy use infrastructure.
I couldn’t find an estimate of the cost of making the required transformation.
IPCC also doesn’t make specific predictions about the consequences of unchecked global warming, such as “Miami will flood,” or “400 million people will die of famine.” Rather, they speak of threats, how many people will be exposed to them, and which natural systems will be impacted. Figure 2 shows that for all of the systems considered, the threat increases the higher GMST goes. The increase in GMST is shown on the vertical axis. In the columns, white means the system will not impacted. Yellow means it will be impacted moderately. Red indicates that the impact will be severe and widespread. Purple indicates that the impacts will not only be severe, but perhaps irreversible, and also that the ability to cope with and adapt to the change will be limited. It is easy to see that for all systems, the risks increase as global warming increases. Some of the systems enter the red or purple color at or below 1.5C. But many of them only turn red or purple between 1.5 and 2.0°C.
The consequences are dramatic. The report discusses the specifics at great length, and they are far too numerous and complex to try to summarize here. However, I will say that the reports quotes estimates that, if no policy is instituted to limit global warming, GMST would rise 3.66°F by 2100, and it would reduce global Gross World Product (GWP) by 2.6%. According to the CIA World Factbook, GWP in 2017 was $127.8 trillion. Thus, even if GWP does not grow over time, a 2.6% reduction would equate to $3.3 trillion. In comparison, limiting global warming to 2°C would result in a decrease in GWP of 0.5% ($639 billion), and the 1.5°C scenario would result in a reduction of 0.3% ($383 billion).
Thus, the damage associated with global warming increases dramatically the more it warms. Limiting climate change to 1.5°C compared to 2.0°C would prevent $256 billion in economic loss every year. Thus, over a 10-year period, if you spent $2.5 trillion on climate change prevention, it would still be justifiable on the basis of avoided damage. A few trillion dollars here, hundreds of billions of dollars there – pretty soon, it will add up to real money!
The report includes population projections in its modeling of future climate change: increasing the population increases GHG emissions, and hence, it increases future climate change. The report does NOT address, however, limiting population as a strategy for limiting climate change, and least I could not find a section that did. Hmm! (If it’s there and I missed it, please let me know in a comment.)
The report is based on more than 6,000 scientific references. It contains a great deal of information, far too much to adequately summarize here. It should make clear, however, that the denial of climate change is no longer viable. If you ask me, it’s been clear for a long time, but this is pretty definitive.
Drastic change is required immediately if we are to avoid terrible damage to our planet. Even in only economic terms, the projected damage if we do nothing is absolutely staggering. Can humankind respond with the kind of immediate, large-scale planetary change that is required, or is it already too late?
Bloomberg.com. Markets: Energy. Viewed online 12/4/2018 at https://www.bloomberg.com/energ.
Central Intelligence Agency. 2018. The World Factbook 2016-17. Viewed online 11/30/2018 at https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/index.html.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2018. Global Warming of 1.5°C (Draft). Downloaded 11/24/2018 from https://www.ipcc.ch/report/sr15.
Can we limit global warming to 1.5°C? What would it require? Would there be real advantages compared to letting earth’s climate warm more than that? These are the questions that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report 15, Global Warming of 1.5°C seeks to answer. IPCC is, of course, discussing human-induced global warming, not natural climate change. I will discuss their answer to the first question in this post, and the other two questions in the next post.
Let’s start by understanding what we can expect from this report.
Figure 1 shows an image of something. It appears to be something white. It is too far away and out of focus to see more. Figure 2 moves a little closer. Now it is possible to see that that it is a white rectangle with some gray smudges on it.
Figure 3 moves a little closer. You can’t see the whole of the white rectangle, but the gray smudges can now be seen to be a word: “Titanic.” But the writing is still out of focus. Figure 4 moves a little closer still, and the writing is now in clear focus.
Over the years, the IPCC has issued a series of reports on global warming/climate change. Over that time, the basic understanding of global warming has not changed. But as we have gotten closer, it has come more clearly into focus, and it has become possible to make out details that we couldn’t see before. We still don’t have global warming in full focus; we’re not to Figure 4 yet. But it has become possible to ask specific questions and give answers that, while not yet fully specific and detailed, are getting there. So, Global Warming of 1.5°C doesn’t contain radical new understandings. Rather, it is more detailed, and that is useful.
By the way, I chose the word “Titanic” on purpose. That ship was not built to survive a catastrophic iceberg strike, substandard steel may have been used to construct her, and she didn’t have enough lifeboats for all of the passengers. The captain denied the risk and sailed through the night into an iceberg field. By the time the iceberg was spotted dead ahead in the middle of the night, it was too late to turn and too late to stop. By that point, nothing they could do could change their fate: the Titanic was going to hit that berg and sink, and thousands were going to die.
Did I really write that? That’s really catastrophic, apocalyptic even! According to the IPCC report, we are very, very close to being like the Titanic. It may already be too late, but perhaps if we try really, really hard, it isn’t. Read on.
Human activity has already caused our planet’s global mean surface air temperature (GMST) to warm approximately 1°C (1.8°F) since pre-industrial times, according to the report. GMST is increasing by about 0.2°C (0.36°F) per decade. The rate of warming appears to be increasing. Figure 5 shows the temperature trend. The gray line shows the monthly temperatures in the datasets. The orange line shows the change forced by both humans and nature combined, while the yellow line shows the change forced by human activities alone (it is hard to see because it is embedded in the yellow band, look closely) .
GMST is an average across the globe. Some regions have warmed more than others. For instance, the temperature over land has increased more than the temperature over water; 40-60% of human population lives in regions that have already warmed 1.5°C (2.7°F) or more. Thus, a 1.5°C increase in GMST implies a larger than 1.5°C increase over land, with a smaller increase over the ocean.
Past emissions (through 2017) are probably not sufficient to cause GMST to increase more than 1.5°C. Therefore, warming limited to 1.5°C is theoretically possible if human emissions are immediately reduced. Two ways in which the 1.5°C limit could be achieved are discussed in the report. One reduces GHG emissions sufficiently quickly so that the 1.5°C limit is never exceeded. The other would allow a small overshoot of the limit, with temperature then being brought back within the limit by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
To limit the increase of GMST to 1.5°C with no overshoot would require GHG emissions of no more than 25-30 billion metric tons of CO2e per year in 2030 (compared to estimates that under business as usual they will be 50-58 billion metric tons per year). And GHG EMISSIONS WOULD NEED TO DECLINE TO NET ZERO BY 2050. That’s right – no net GHG emissions by 2050. Figure 6 shows the reductions over time in emissions of CO2, methane, black carbon (soot), and nitrous oxide consistent with a 1.5°C increase in GMST.
The no-net-emissions requirement could be met by two strategies: the first would involve reducing emissions themselves. Reducing emissions at this magnitude would require near-total transformations of our energy, transportation, and agricultural systems. The second would involve widely deploying carbon dioxide removal mechanisms. The only currently proven mechanism for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is revegetation, especially reforestation. Attempts to add carbon capture and sequestration to power plants have not yet proven viable.
The limits agreed to in the Paris Climate Agreement are not sufficient to limit the increase in GMST to 1.5°C.
In the next post, I will look at what the report has to say about strategies to meet the limit, and what the costs and benefits might be.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2018. Global Warming of 1.5°C (Draft). Downloaded 11/24/2018 from https://www.ipcc.ch/report/sr15.
Arctic sea ice apparently reached its annual maximum extent on March 17, 2018, and it was the second lowest in the record, according to a report from the National Snow and Ice Data Center.
Each summer the arctic warms, and as it does, the sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean melts, reaching an annual low-point in late summer. Then, each winter the arctic cools, the surface of the ocean freezes, and the area covered by sea ice expands. The sea ice reaches its maximum extent in late winter, this year on March 17.
The National Snow and Ice Data Center tracks the extent of the sea ice using satellite images, as shown in Figure 1. The map is a polar view, with the North Pole in the center, the sea ice in white, and the ocean in blue. The land forms are in gray, with North America at lower left, and Eurasia running from Spain at lower right to the Russian Far East at the top. The magenta line shows the 1981-2010 average extent of the ice for the month of March. It doesn’t look like much on the map, but the anomaly in 2018 amounts to 436,300 square miles less than average.
(Click on figure for larger view.)
Figure 2 shows the trend in Arctic sea ice from 1979-2018. The declining trend is easy to see. (The y-axis does not extend to zero to better show the change.) The National Snow and Ice Data Center applied a linear regression trend line to the data (blue line), and the trend shows an average loss of 16,400 square miles per year.
What about the annual minimum? That has been shrinking, too. Figure 3 shows the Arctic sea ice minimum in 1980, and Figure 4 shows it in 2012. The prevailing winds tend to blow the ice up against Greenland and the far northern islands of Canada, but you can see that in 1980 most of the sea, from the Canadian islands, to Greenland, to the Svalbard Islands, to Severnaya Zemla (anybody remember the Bond movie “GoldenEye?”), to the north of Far Eastern Russia, was covered by ice. In 2012, however, more than half of the Arctic Sea was ice-free, from north of the Svalbard Islands right around to the Canadian Islands. Even the famed Northwest Passage, a channel through the Canadian Islands, was open.
Figure 5 charts the trend in the annual minimum. At its low in 2012, it was less than half of what it was in 1980.
The volume of the polar ice cap also depends on how thick the ice is. Satellites can photograph the entire ice cap, but data on thickness come to us from on-site measurements at a limited number of points. I don’t have a chart to share with you, but the data seem to indicate that compared to the years 1958-1976, in 2003-2007 the thickness had declined about 50% to 64%, depending on where the measurement was taken. (This change is approximate, being read off of a graph by Kwok and Rothrock, 2009.)
Thus, the decline in the arctic ice cap is actually much larger than suggested by the change in its extent.
Why does arctic sea ice matter? First, Arctic sea ice does not form primarily from snowfall, as does the snowcap in the western United States. Arctic sea ice forms because the temperature is low enough to cause the surface of the water to freeze, just as the your local pond or lake freezes if it gets cold enough. Thus, declining Arctic sea ice is a sign that the Arctic is warming. The Arctic seems to be the part of the planet that is warming the most from climate change, and this is a clear and graphic sign of that change.
Oddly, the warming arctic is one reason for the bizarre weather we have had in Missouri this winter. As noted in a post on 1/22/2015, the warming arctic weakens the polar vortex, which allows arctic cold to escape and travel south, impacting us in Missouri. Figure 6 shows the anomaly in Arctic temperatures from December, 2017 through February, 2018, in C. While it was warm over the entire Arctic, as much as 7°C above average (12.6°F), it was 2-3°C cooler than average over North America (3.6-5.4°F).
Second, it matters because ice is white, but the ocean is blue. That means that sunlight hitting ice reflects back towards space, and is not absorbed. Being blue, however, the ocean absorbs the light, and converts the energy to heat. This reflective capacity is called “albedo,” and the albedo of ocean is less than that of ice. Thus, the ice is melting because of global warming, but then, the melting contributes to even more global warming through the change in albedo. People are fond of saying that the earth has buffering mechanisms that tend to inhibit large climate changes, and such mechanisms do exist, but not everywhere in all things. This is one example where the earth shows positive feedback that destabilizes the climate even further.
Melting Arctic ice is not a major factor in the rising sea level. The reason is that the ice is already in the water. When the ice in your glass of iced tea melts, it doesn’t make the glass overflow. In the same way, as this ice melts, it has only a small effect on sea level. On the other hand, the Greenland Ice Cap and the Antarctic Ice Cap are not already in the water, and as they melt, they do affect sea level.
One final word: the data above are not computer models of future events. They are the best data available of what has already been happening, and what is happening now. To deny the reality of climate change is like denying that a river will flood, even as its water already swirls around your knees.
Kwok, R., and D./A. Rothrock. 2009. “Decline in Arctic Sea Ice Thickness from Submarine and ICESat Records: 1958-2008. Beophysical Research Letters 36:L15501. Cited in National Snow & Ice Data Center. State of the Cryosphere. Viewed online 4/12/2018 at http://nsidc.org/cryosphere/sotc/sea_ice.html.
NASA Global Climate Change. Arctic Sea Ice Minimum. Downloaded 4/12/18 from https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/arctic-sea-ice.
NASA Scientific Visualization Studio. Annual Arsctic Sea Ice Minimum 1979-2015 with Area Graph. Downloaded 4/12/18 from https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/4435.
NASA Scientific Visualization Studio. Annual Arsctic Sea Ice Minimum 1979-2015 with Area Graph. Downloaded 4/12/18 from https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/4435.
National Snow & Ice Data Center. “2018 Winter Arctic Sea Ice: Bering Down. Arctic Sea Ice News & Analysis. 4/4/2018. Downloaded 4/12/2018 from http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews.
This post will focus on a few articles published recently that highlight effects that climate change is already having around the world. Though the phenomena studied in them occurred far away, they will have important consequences for us here in the USA, and even in Missouri.
Climate Change Causes Migration
Human migration into Europe has become a large political and humanitarian problem. European countries have been struggling to provide the basic services that the migrants need, and to find ways to integrate them into society. The problem of immigration has been one of the forces leading to Brexit, and to the upsurge in right-wing populism around the world (including here in America).
Missirian and Schlenker (2017) studied European asylum applications from 103 source countries, and found that the number of migrants from each country related to the weather in that country. In colder countries, when the temperature decreased, asylum applications increased. Conversely, in hot countries, when the temperature increased, asylum applications increased, and they did so in a non-linear fashion – small increases in temperature could lead to large increases in applications. Far more migrants have come to the EU from hot countries (Africa, the Middle East) than from cold countries, thus the temperature increase is the more important effect.
Holding everything else constant, Figure 1 shows the predicted increase in asylum applications by change in temperature. The red line shows the predicted increase, the shaded areas show the 90% and 99% confidence intervals. The blue line at the top should be read against the right vertical axis, and it represents the probability that asylum applications will increase. The more temperature increases, the more asylum applications are predicted to increase. Under the high emissions scenario, by the end of the century, applications are predicted to increase by 188%.
The study didn’t include migration into the USA from countries south of our border, but I suspect that the basic findings would apply here, as well. In fact, I already reported (here) that in 2014 the CNA Military Advisory Board concluded that climate change would become one of the most significant threats to national security faced by our nation. Climate change would lead to increased migration around the world, which would lead to political instability, which would cause conflicts to break out. Given the difficulty that Europe is having coping with the current problem, and that the problem could nearly triple in size by the end of the century, the Military Advisory Board’s conclusion doesn’t seem too far off. (May, 2014)
The Shrimp Are Gone From Maine
Northern Shrimp are a species of shrimp that require cold water in order to spawn. Maine has been the southern limit of their historical habitat, and they have represented a small but valuable fishery for New England states. Since 2012, the total biomass of shrimp estimated by the Gulf of Maine Summer Shrimp Survey have been the lowest on record. (Figure 2) Managers have closed the waters to shrimp fishing from 2014-2018 in an attempt to prevent shrimp from being completely eliminated from Maine waters. (Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, 2017)
The primary cause of the decline is climate change. Ocean temperatures in the Gulf of Main have increased at a rate of about 0.5°F per year – that is incredibly fast, almost 8 times faster than the global rate. Figure 3 shows the data. The blue lines show the 15-day average water temperature anomaly in the Gulf of Maine from 1980 to 2015. The black dots show the average annual temperature anomaly, and the dashed line shows the trend over the whole time period. The red line shows the trend for the decade from 2005 to 2015.
It is easy to see that the ocean has been warming. The shrimp don’t spawn well in the warmer water, so they are dying out. (Evans-Brown, 2014)
The warmer temperatures have affected more than shrimp. As temperature has increased, cod have also declined, to the point that they are now commercially extinct in the New England fishery. With the cod, a failure to recognize the effect of global warming caused fishery regulators to keep the permitted catch at a high level that could not be sustained, and they were basically fished out out existence. The moratorium on shrimp fishing is an attempt to prevent a similar occurrence. (Pershing et al 2015)
Fishing, especially off New England, was the first colonial industry when Europeans came to America. Over the past century, several species have collapsed and no longer support viable commercial fishing: Atlantic halibut, ocean perch, haddock, and yellowtail flounder. These once fed millions of Americans. No more. Even the venerable Atlantic cod, once so numerous that it was said you could walk from America to England stepping on their backs, are commercially extinct. We are killing the oceans. More below. (NOAA Fisheries Service, 2017)
Global Warming Is Ravaging Coral Reefs
To live, coral requires a symbiotic relationship with certain species of algae. Coral bleaching occurs when stressful conditions cause the algae to be expelled from the coral, which then turns white. If algae don’t reenter the coral quickly enough, the coral will starve to death.
Before global warming, bleaching events were relatively rare, and reefs had enough time to recover between them. Scientists looked at 100 reefs globally and found that the average interval between bleaching events is now less than half of what it was previously. It is now only 6 years, which is not enough time for recovery. Figure 4 shows the findings. Chart A in the figure shows the number of locations experiencing bleaching events in a given year. You can see that the trend increases left to right, and that the worst years have all occurred in the most recent 2 decades. Chart B in the figure shows the cumulative number of locations that have remained free of bleaching over the time period in blue, and the total cumulative number of bleaching events in red. You can see that, over time, none of the locations have escaped bleaching, and that the number of bleaching events has topped 600. Chart C shows the frequency of bleaching events at individual locations. Almost 30 locations have experienced 3 severe bleaching events, and a similar number have experienced 8 or more bleaching events in total. Chart D counts intervals between bleaching events, and how many times each interval occurred. It used to be (1980-1999) that the most common interval was 10-12 years. Recently, however (2000-2016), an interval of 4-6 years was the most common. (Hughes et al 2018, Pols 2017) Thus, the data show that bleaching has spread to the point that none of the locations escaped it altogether, almost 1/3 of them have experienced 8 bleaching events of some kind, almost 1/3 have experienced 3 severe events, and the most common interval between events has shrunk to half of what it was previously.
The main culprit is global warming. Coral survives only in a relatively narrow temperature band, and if the water temperature rises too high, bleaching occurs. Temperatures have, indeed, risen. As noted above in the section on the Gulf of Maine, in some places they have increased incredibly quickly.
Coral reefs are like oases. In the desert, oases are separated by vast distances where life is scarce. Similarly, coral reefs are often separated by vast distances where life is scarce. Reefs, however, support thousands of species in great abundance. Though the reefs occupy less than 0.1% of the ocean’s surface, they support at least 25% of all marine species. (NOAA Fisheries Service 2018)
These phenomena, though occurring far away, are all signs that the basic systems that support life on this planet as we know it are in danger. If we think that they could not collapse, we are seriously kidding ourselves. They may be collapsing already. If we dream that we will somehow escape being affected, we need to wake up.
Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. 2017. Northern Shrimp Species Profile. Viewed online 2/6/2018 at http://www.asmfc.org/species/northern-shrimp.
Evans-Brown, Sam. “Gulf of Maine Is Warming Faster Than Most of World’s Oceans.” New Hampshire Public Radio. Viewed online 2/6/2018 at http://nhpr.org/post/gulf-maine-warming-faster-most-worlds-oceans.
Hughes, Terry P., Kristen D. Anderson, Sean R. Connolly, Scott F. Heron, James T. Kerry, Janice M. Lough, Andrew H. Baird, Julia K. Baum, Michael L. Berumen, Tom C. Bridge, Danielle C. Claar, C. Mark Eakin, James P. Gilmour, Nicholas A. J. Graham Hugo Harrison, Jean-Paul A. Hobbs, Andrew S. Hoey, Mia Hoogenboom, Ryan J. Lowe, Malcolm T. McCulloch, John M. Pandolfi, Morgan Pratchett. Verena Schoepf, Gergely Torda, Shaun K. Wilson. 2018. “Spatial and Temporal Patterns of Mass Bleaching of Corals in the Anthropocene. Science 359 (6371), 80-83.
Missirian, Anouch, and Wolfram Schlenker. (2017). “Asylum Applications Respond to Temperature Fluctuations.” Science 358 (6370), 1610-1614.
Pershing, Andrew. Michael Alexander, Christina Hernandez, Lisa Kerr, Arnault Le Bris, Katherine Mills, Janet Nye, Nicholas Record, Hillary Scanell, James Scott, Graham Sherwood, and Andrew Thomas. 2015. “Slow Adaptation in the Face of Rapid Warming Leads to Coillapse of the Gulf of Maine Cod Fishery.” Science, 350 (6262), 809-812.
NOAA Fisheries Service. 2017. Brief History of the Groundfishing Industry of New England. Viewed online 2/6/2018 at https://www.nefsc.noaa.gov/history/stories/groundfish/grndfsh1.html.
Pols, Mary. 2018. “It’s Maine Shrimp Season, Without the Shrimp.” New York Times, 12/26/2017. Downloaded 2/6/2018 from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/26/dining/maine-shrimp-fishery-climate-change.html.
How climate change will affect water supply from the Missouri River is not yet known. Current problems with Missouri River water supply principally affect the barge transportation industry, and the agricultural and industrial clients that use it to transport their goods and supplies.
The Missouri River is important for Missouri. More than half of Missouri residents get their drinking water from the Missouri River or the alluvial aquifer it directly feeds. Not only that, the river’s water is used for agricultural irrigation, for industry, to support barge traffic along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, for recreation, and to support the ecosystems that depend on the river for their survival.
In the previous post, I reported that the snowpack in the western United States has declined by 23%, and it is forecast to decline more by 2038. The eastern border of the study area forms the western boundary of the Missouri River Basin. Will the changing western snowpack impact the Missouri River’s ability to supply Missouri’s needs?
The answer is complicated. Precipitation in the Upper Missouri River Basin has historically fallen mostly as snow, building a winter snowpack that slowly melts during the spring. The snowmelt is gathered into reservoirs created by 6 large dams along the Missouri River, plus more than 40 smaller ones on tributaries. The 6 large dams begin at the Gavin’s Point Dam on the Nebraska-South Dakota border, and extend upriver to the Ft. Peck Dam in Montana. (See Figure 1.) The result is that water flow below the reservoirs is largely controlled by man, not nature.
The annual water yield from the Missouri River is small compared to the size of its basin. The data is given in Figure 2, where the red columns represent the length of the rivers, and the blue line represents their average discharge. No other river in the USA serves such a large basin with so little water. In drought years it is already too small to fully meet all of the demands that are put on it, resulting in conflict over how to manage the river, and over which values to give priority. The conflict has primarily been between up-river interests, which would like to see water allocated to support irrigation, drinking water, and mitigation in their states during periods of drought, and down-river interests, which would like to see water released to support commercial navigation on the river.
In 2004, the Army Corps of Engineers changed the rules by which the river is operated to reduce water releases during drought. During drought years, this better supports up-stream interests, but results in a shorter season during which the river can support barge traffic. The result has been a decrease in annual tonnage moved on the river (Figure 3).
In addition, development in the Upper Missouri Basin has increased water demand in that region. A prime example would be the development of the oil and gas reserves in North Dakota. Well drilling uses large quantities of water. (See Figure 4). Given that the water yield from the Missouri River is already too small to fully support all of the demands placed on it, any increase in demand is bound to constrain supply even further.
The constraints discussed above, however, are all man-made constraints. How will climate change and the declining western snowpack affect all of this?
The snowpack decline has occurred because of increasing temperature, not decreasing precipitation. Figures 5 repeats a chart I published in January 2016, showing that precipitation has increased in the region over time.
Figure 6 shows that the 2011 National Climate Assessment projects that the annual flow on the Missouri River will actually increase by about 15% by 2070. However, more precipitation will fall as rain instead of snow, and the snow that does fall will melt sooner. This means that more water will enter the reservoirs during winter and early spring, and less during late spring and summer. In addition, increased temperature will increase evaporation from the river and reservoirs, and it will increase water consumption by crops, leading to earlier and increased demand for water. There is a potential mismatch between when the water is available and when it is needed.
The question will be whether it will be possible to manage the reservoirs successfully under the new conditions. When looking at the water situation in California (here), we discovered that water authorities expected climate change to create reservoir management problems that would result in an increased water deficit during the summer and autumn. It is possible that the reservoirs along the Missouri will encounter similar problems, but it is not certain.
One potential difference is that California has multiple, relatively short rivers, leading to only one large reservoir per river, and perhaps one or two small feeder reservoirs. The Missouri River, however, is a single long river. It has 6 large reservoirs chained along it, plus at least 40 feeder reservoirs on tributaries. This may give managers flexibility in managing the river that is not possible in California.
Five separate water resource studies have been undertaken to determine how climate change will impact the ability of the Missouri River to meet the demands placed on it. Unfortunately, they have not all been completed, and I can find no comprehensive analysis.
For the time being, problems with water supply on the Missouri River involve human decisions about how to manage the river. To date, in the State of Missouri they have primarily impacted the barge industry, plus the farmers and industries that depend on the barge industry to transport their goods and supplies.
Drew, John, and Karen Rouse. 2006. “Missouri Water in High Demand.” Missouri Resources, Winter, 2006. Downloaded 5/31/2017 from https://dnr.mo.gov/geology/wrc/docs/Water-InHighDemand.pdf?/env/wrc/docs/Water-InHighDemand.pdf.
Bureau of Reclamation. 2016. Basin Report: Missouri River. Downloaded 5/25/2017 from https://www.usbr.gov/climate/secure/docs/2016secure/factsheet/MissouriRiverBasinFactSheet.pdf.
Bureau of Reclamation. 2016. SECURE Water Act Section 9503(c) – Reclamation Climate Change and Water. Prepared for United States Congress. Denver, CO: Bureau of Reclamation, Policy and Administration. Downloaded 5/25/2017 from https://www.usbr.gov/climate/secure.
Hanson Professional Services, Inc. 2011. Missouri River Historic Timeline and Navigation Service Cycle. Missouri River Freight Corridor Assessment and Development Plan. Downloaded 5/31/2017 from https://library.modot.mo.gov/rdt/reports/tryy1018.
Melillo, Jerry M., Terese (T.C.) Richmond, and Gary W. Yohe, Eds., 2014: Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment. U.S. Global Change Research Program, 841 pp. doi:10.7930/J0Z31WJ2. Available online at http://nca2014.globalchange.gov.
Vanosdall, Tiffany. 2013. Missouri River Water Supply. US Army Corps of Engineers. Downloaded 6/1/2017 from https://denr.sd.gov/coewatersupply22Apr2013.pdf.
Wikipedia. List of U.S. Rivers by Discharge. Data retrieved online 5/31/2017 at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._rivers_by_discharge.