One of the reasons why I prefer to get most of my news through Twitter is its function as an independent barometer of what keeps us busy these days. The number of retweets of an article, and the number of favourites that a tweet gets, are a good indicator. But it is especially the combination with the personal comments and experiences of my followers that makes the information more valuable than just reading magazines or newspapers.
It seems drought is on everybody’s mind these days, at least among many followers of my twitter account. I get reactions from California, Brazil, Australia or the Middle East about the impact of drought on our daily lives.
And now there is this new NASA study. It predicts that droughts in the U.S. Southwest and Central Plains at the end of this century could be drier and longer compared to drought conditions in those regions in the last 1,000 years. Severe droughts like the Dust Bowl in the 1930s lasted only about a decade or less, but this study and several other projections warn us for a much longer drought period that might last more than three decades.
Drought in the American Southwest
I remember reading about the social impact of the 1930s drought in James Michener’s book Centennial. I read it in high school; in fact, it was the first big volume book that I ever read in English. I must have been about fourteen- or fifteen-years-old and it shaped my view of the United States. It is the history of a fictional town, close to the South Platte in Northern Colorado. I still remember 35 years later the chapters about the 1930s, with the maddening wind around a small isolated farm and the young family that desperately tries in vain to survive the severe drought.
Years after I had read about the dustbowl years, I visited the U.S. for the first time. I got off the bus with my backpack in Albuquerque on the day that I turned 21. For a Dutchman, the summer in New Mexico is already very hot and dry, but it was there that I read for the first time about the terrible Great Drought in the 12th and 13th century. Those much hotter and dryer decades were blamed for the collapse of the Anasazi people. I was easily convinced of that in the New Mexico August heat, and I could well imagine a complete culture collapsing under even more heat and drought.
Since then, I lost the book about the theories of the Anasazi history and the impact of the Great Drought, but somehow I kept my T-shirt with Anasazi drawings; I still use it for jogging.
The book that I bought would be out of date by now, because since then the Anasazi archeology has been shaken with a quiet revolution. No more talks about the Great Droughts – scientist believe that there must have been other and more complex reasons, ”The mystery of the Anasazi is an open book again.” History changes fast (read more about this on RaysWeb).
The NASA study states that there is over an 80 percent chance of a megadrought lasting for decades in the second half of this century. You can read more about this in the article linked to my tweet of 14 February, or in the publication Science Advances.
If this happens, how will our higher level of technology, organization and governance help us to cope with such a threat? How will it impact life in the American southwest and the Great Plains? I hope to read more about this and will keep my followers on twitter informed. Any information that you have for me will be much appreciated.
Drought in Brazil
A drought in Brazil is difficult to imagine for anyone who got to know this country first, like I did, by reading the books about Colonel Percy Fawcett’s adventures in the hot and humid Amazon region. This mighty river discharges some 200,000 cubic meters per second into the Atlantic Ocean. Yet in the biggest and wealthiest city in the country, São Paulo in southeast Brazil, the taps are starting to run dry. Many in this metropolitan region of 20 million are frightened that the reservoir system could run dry in 2015. One of the main reservoirs that serves 9 million people is only five percent full. Water could run out before the start of the rainy season, which normally begins in November.
The New York Times reports that public schools are already prohibiting students from using water to brush their teeth. It is doubtful if that will be a structural solution (The Guardian also has an interesting article). Meanwhile, further up north, every second those 200,000 cubic meters of water fill the Atlantic Ocean.
Drought in Multiple Continents
The U.S. and Brazil are two examples, but there are so many other regions on this planet where drought will increase. In many of those countries, there will be fewer possibilities to adapt to these new challenges.
We know disasters strike unexpected and on a massive scale. We have all seen the pictures of the destruction caused by hurricanes, floods, tsunamis or earthquakes. But climate change impacts develop slowly and last much longer. The news bulletin in the morning will not open by announcing a megadrought. This is different.
If the sea level rises, it will rise in all coastal areas (albeit with different speed and impact), and if drought increases it will be in many areas at the same time. These are huge challenges, especially combined with more extreme weather and in a globalized and urbanized world with ever more people.
One of these challenges is to produce as much food in the next 40 years as we did in the past 10.000 years on a planet that is getting steadily drier. Is this certainly our future? These models are based on continued production of greenhouse gasses. It is not yet too late to take swift action and lower the impact of greenhouse gasses. And that is another big issue for our small planet.