Everything is connected, and everything is changing
By Kate Marvel on December 30, 2019
A state of emergency was declared on November 11, 2019 and residents in the Sydney area were warned of “catastrophic” fire danger as Australia prepared for a fresh wave of deadly bushfires that have ravaged the drought-stricken east of the country.
It rains in the Amazon because the trees want it to. There is plenty of moisture in the oceans that surround the continent, but there is also a hidden reservoir on the land feeding an invisible river that flows upward to the sky. The water held in the soil is lifted up by the bodies of the trees and lost through the surfaces of their leaves to the atmosphere. The local sky plumps with moisture, primed for the arrival of the seasonal rains driven by the annual back-and-forth march of the sun’s rays. As climate scientist Alex Hall puts it, the trees are co-conspiring with the sky to attract an earlier monsoon.
This is the decade we knew we were right. It began with the warmest year on record; it then broke that record at least five times. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached levels unprecedented since humans were hominins. There were droughts and floods and brutal heat waves. Coral reefs turned white and gave up. Australia is in drought. The Amazon is on fire.
Nothing is eternal and nothing is infinite. There were once forests in the Sahara—if not quite the Amazon, still lush and tropical, clustered around the largest freshwater lake on the planet. In geologic time, this was practically yesterday: less than ten thousand years ago. The lake is mostly gone now, vanished in the span of a few hundred years. In its place there is nothing but dust.
The changes now are different. We expected most of them, and they are occurring with a terrifying rapidity that is no more reassuring because it is easily understood. We have known that carbon dioxide traps heat for over a hundred years. We have known that we are changing the planet for decades now. There is no consolation in being right.
The climate always changes. It is dry in the Sahara because the planet wobbled slightly in its orbit, weakening the monsoon rains in the west of Africa. The plants sucked the moisture from the soil; it was not replaced. They died, and no more moisture entered the atmosphere: a vicious cycle of dying and drying that led to the dusty, depopulated desert we know today. This was climate change; it was likely not the fault of humans. But the existence of past climate change does not mean we are not responsible for it this time. There have always been gentle and natural deaths. This does not make murder impossible.
The decade began with lies and ended with evasions. Hackers, probably Russian, stole the emails of a few scientists and offered single sentences, taken wildly out of context, to an eager and credulous media. We heard both sides: the truth, and the not-truth, and were encouraged to draw our own conclusions. The temperature rose; physics was not watching the debate. We learned nothing from the experience.
The winds over the Sahara come from the East, dense, sinking forced sideways as the Earth rotates away underneath it. The dust is carried across the Atlantic, enlarging the beaches of the Caribbean, scattering low-angle sunlight into brilliant purple-orange sunsets, and landing gently on the forests of the Amazon. But the air over the Sahara has arrived from the tropics, rising and shedding its moisture on a journey toward the poles. When it can go no further, it cools and sinks. There are no deserts without the tropics.
Everything is connected. Children were murdered in their schools, and were angry about it. Children saw their futures bargained away for short-term profit, and were angry about it. Children saw the changing world, and were angry about it. The streets swelled with angry children and heartbroken parents, a chorus of hurt that would have echoed through the halls of power had they been able to hear. Nothing was done, and the anger grew louder. This was the decade we saw that history was renewable. We promised to make more of it.
If you want to see the future of the Amazon, you must use physics and assumptions and know that you are almost certainly wrong. All models are wrong, but all climate models strive to be useful, to show a plausible future that may still be avoidable. If the future atmosphere is larded with even more carbon dioxide, the plants of the Amazon will not need to open the pores on their leaves quite so much to take in the gases they need. They will expel less water from these shrunken pores into the atmosphere. The trees will lose their ability to summon the monsoon. There will be fire and drought. Where there was once forest will be only dust.
Here is one thing worth remembering in the dark days of the northern mid-latitude winter. The rainforest is so lush that it cannot fertilize itself. Every nutrient is seized by the greedy vegetation, locked up in the bodies of plants before it can leach into the soil. But the forest is fertilized, given life by the dead lake in the Sahara. There is phosphorus in the lakebed, turned into dust and swept across the Atlantic by the prevailing winds.
From the old comes the new, a fragile phoenix borne upward from the tropics on the rising updrafts of thick convective cloud. The Amazon exists because the Sahara does, the desert is there because the tropics are here. None of this was ever going to stand alone.Scientific American Blog Network @ https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/hot-planet/this-was-the-decade-we-knew-we-were-right/
“While the government cites William Blackstone (an early authority on English common law) to the effect that “no one owns the water”, Blackstone was equally adamant that no water user has the right to pollute, foul, corrupt or divert and stop waterways in ways that deprive others of their “lawful enjoyment”. This might be news to many dairy farmers, foresters and developers in New Zealand.”
University of Auckland’s Distinguished Professor Dame Anne Salmond responds to the OECD’s report on New Zealand’s environmental performance with suggestions on how the fresh water crisis might be tackled
The OECD’s report on New Zealand’s environmental performance is crystal clear. New Zealand’s 100% Pure reputation is at immediate risk from the degradation of many New Zealand lakes and rivers. International media, buyers of New Zealand products, tourism interests and public opinion polls have all been ringing alarm bells, and now the OECD itself has joined the uproar.
As the report notes, “fresh water is a fundamental asset underpinning New Zealand’s economy”, in primary production as well as tourism and many other industries.
While leaders in national and local government and primary production have tried to shut down freshwater scientists and others warning about the damage to New Zealand’s waterways, they can’t ignore this message from the international community. Decisive action to enhance the state of many springs, streams, rivers, lakes, wetlands, groundwater and aquifers across the country must be taken.
Although much was hoped from the Land and Water Forum, which for almost a decade has brought key stakeholders together to agree on ways of taking care of New Zealand’s water courses, the government has not listened to most of the Forum’s recommendations. At the regional level, too, collaborative processes have often been hijacked by powerful commercial interests.
In addition, iwi claims to proprietary interests in ancestral waterways have been upheld by the Waitangi Tribunal. In response, the government has argued that “no one owns the water”. Conversations between the government and iwi leaders about this are conducted in private, despite acute public interest in how fresh water in New Zealand should be managed.
The OECD recognises that iwi interests in waterways have to be resolved if freshwater management in New Zealand is to move ahead. The report highlights the need for the application of national standards at the catchment level to be independently monitored. It also notes that charging for the commercial use of fresh water and polluter pays charges might be considered.
Sir Eddie Durie and the New Zealand Māori Council have suggested that in order to bring greater consistency to the management of waterways across the country, and to recognise iwi interests in fresh water, an independent Waterways Commission might be established. If closely linked with the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, this would have a number of advantages.
If charging for the commercial use of fresh water is introduced, it is imperative that this income flow is not privatised. All New Zealand citizens have a stake in the country’s waterways, and if water charges are introduced, this funding should be dedicated to improving fresh water quality for the benefit of all, including iwi projects to enhance ancestral waterways, as in Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act.
The visionary recognition in Te Awa Tupua Act of the rights of waterways themselves could be extended to other waterways. Rivers, springs, streams, wetlands and lakes existed long before people arrived in New Zealand, and as both the Whanganui people and the OECD recognise, human beings depend on freshwater ecosystems for our health, prosperity and survival, as much as the other way around.
While the government cites William Blackstone (an early authority on English common law) to the effect that “no one owns the water”, Blackstone was equally adamant that no water user has the right to pollute, foul, corrupt or divert and stop waterways in ways that deprive others of their “lawful enjoyment”. This might be news to many dairy farmers, foresters and developers in New Zealand.
The legal rights of all citizens to enjoy waterways across New Zealand should underpin the work of a Waterways Commission. It is vital that the application of national standards for fresh water is nationally monitored by an independent body, to ensure that the management of waterways and any funding from water rights are not hijacked by private interests.
The OECD’s report is a call to action. Declining standards for fresh water in New Zealand must be decisively tackled. A Waterways Commission – one that is truly independent and well resourced, reconciles the rights and responsibilities of iwi with those of other citizens, and takes good care of our waterways – would bring urgency and national oversight to this task.
Dame Anne Salmond is the Patron of the Te Awaroa: 1000 Rivers project. She was the 2013 Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year.
“Academic research and scientists in this country are no longer deserving of the public trust,” declared Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech civil engineering professor who helped expose the Flint water crisis. In an interview published in the Chronicle of Higher Education on Tuesday, Edwards explained how the pressures put on academics to secure funding are forcing scientists to abandon work done in the public interest and that similar financial motives are causing government science agencies to ignore inconvenient truths—like high levels of lead in public drinking water. He said he’s “very concerned about the culture of academia in this country and the perverse incentives that are given to young faculty.” Edwards describes the culture as a “hedonistic treadmill,” with “extraordinary” pressures to pursue funding, publication, and academic clout. Meanwhile, he said, “the idea of science as a public good is being lost.” Edwards, whose research also uncovered high levels of lead in the Washington, D.C. water supply in 2003, was tapped by Flint residents to help test their water after officials with both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) ignored their concerns. The cases of Flint and Washington, Edwards explained, illustrate how the failure of government scientists to acknowledge a problem, coupled with academia’s refusal to question their judgement, can drive serious public health crises. He said: In Flint the agencies paid to protect these people weren’t solving the problem. They were the problem. What faculty person out there is going to take on their state, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency? I don’t blame anyone, because I know the culture of academia. You are your funding network as a professor. You can destroy that network that took you 25 years to build with one word. I’ve done it. When was the last time you heard anyone in academia publicly criticize a funding agency, no matter how outrageous their behavior? We just don’t do these things.
If an environmental injustice is occurring, someone in a government agency is not doing their job. Everyone we wanted to partner said, Well, this sounds really cool, but we want to work with the government. We want to work with the city. And I’m like, You’re living in a fantasy land, because these people are the problem.
Edwards said that practicing “heroism” within the scientific community can be a lonely pursuit and that he has “lost friends” simply by asking questions.
“I grew up worshiping at the altar of science, and in my wildest dreams I never thought scientists would behave this way,” he said of the Centers for Disease Control’s widespread misreporting of lead levels in Washington D.C.
“If I am the river and the river is me – then emphatically, I am dying.” Whanganui elder
Across New Zealand, people from many different backgrounds have a deep and passionate connection with their waterways. From children who grow up swimming and playing in and beside streams, rivers and lakes, to those who fish for whitebait, eels or trout; from iwi with powerful connections with ancestral waterways, to kayakers, rowers and waka ama paddlers, rivers run through our lives. Rivers, waterfalls and lakes are part of who we are as Kiwis. When streams or rivers dwindle and disappear; or are choked with sediment and forestry debris; or become toxic with algae and too dangerous to fish and swim in, many of us experience grief or anger. This was evident in the videos filmed by the ‘Choose Clean Water’ group of young people who travelled around New Zealand over the summer, talking with Kiwis in many different communities about the state of their waterways. They collected thousands of signatures on a petition to Parliament, asking that the Government ensure that our streams and rivers are safe to swim and fish in. In response, the Minister for the Environment said it was not practical to achieve this, an answer that dismayed many Kiwis. Anger has also been aroused by stories about private companies extracting millions of gallons from local aquifers for derisory sums, selling the water offshore and making vast profits in the process. read more..
At least two-thirds of the global population, over 4 billion people, live with severe water scarcity for at least one month every year, according to a major new analysis. The revelation shows water shortages, one of the most dangerous challenges the world faces, is far worse previously than thought. The new research also reveals that 500m people live in places where water consumption is double the amount replenished by rain for the entire year, leaving them extremely vulnerable as underground aquifers run down. Many of those living with fragile water resources are in India and China, but other regions highlighted are the central and western US, Australia and even the city of London. Facebook Twitter Pinterest Water scarcity map. Photograph: Mekonnen et al These water problems are set to worsen, according to the researchers, as population growth and increasing water use – particularly through eating meat – continues to rise. In January, water crises were rated as one of three greatest risks of harm to people and economies in the next decade by the World Economic Forum, alongside climate change and mass migration. In places, such as Syria, the three risks come together: a recent study found that climate change made the severe 2007-2010 drought much more likely and the drought led to mass migration of farming families into cities. “If you look at environmental problems, [water scarcity] is certainly the top problem,” said Prof Arjen Hoekstra, at the University of Twente in the Netherlands and who led the new research. “One place where it is very, very acute is in Yemen.” Yemen could run out of water within a few years, but many other places are living on borrowed time as aquifers are continuously depleted, including Pakistan, Iran, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia. Hoekstra also highlights the Murray-Darling basin in Australia and the midwest of the US. “There you have the huge Ogallala acquifer, which is being depleted.” He said even rich cities like London in the UK were living unsustainably: “You don’t have the water in the surrounding area to sustain the water flows” to London in the long term. The new study, published in the journal Science Advances on Friday, is the first to examine global water scarcity on a monthly basis and at a resolution of 31 miles or less. It analysed data from 1996-2005 and found severe water scarcity – defined as water use being more than twice the amount being replenished – affected 4 billion people for at least one month a year.
Tribune News Service
Chandigarh, August 14
The worst fears about the northern region of the country losing its groundwater have been confirmed. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) satellite imagery made available to the Centre warns of fast disappearing of subsoil water in these states.
The NASA report forwarded to the Punjab Government by the Union Ministry of Agriculture says that “beneath north India’s irrigated fields, the groundwater has been disappearing”. “It is being pumped out and consumed for human activities, principally to irrigate cropland, faster than the aquifers can be replenished by natural processes such as rainwater,” the report says.
Union Agriculture Ministry’s Joint Secretary RB Sinha has urged Punjab to immediately take steps to check the steep fall in water table. Union Agriculture Secretary Shairaz Hussain also met Punjab Irrigation and Agriculture Department officials recently and asked them to arrest the declining water table.
In Peru, Kenya and India, NGOs are helping communities overcome water scarcity using wisdom from the past..
APRIL 4, 2015
LOS ANGELES — For more than a century, California has been the state where people flocked for a better life — 164,000 square miles of mountains, farmland and coastline, shimmering with ambition and dreams, money and beauty. It was the cutting-edge symbol of possibility: Hollywood, Silicon Valley, aerospace, agriculture and vineyards.
But now a punishing drought — and the unprecedented measures the state announced last week to compel people to reduce water consumption — is forcing a reconsideration of whether the aspiration of untrammeled growth that has for so long been this state’s driving engine has run against the limits of nature.
The 25 percent cut in water consumption ordered by Gov. Jerry Brown raises fundamental questions about what life in California will be like in the years ahead, and even whether this state faces the prospect of people leaving for wetter climates — assuming, as Mr. Brown and other state leaders do, that this marks a permanent change in the climate, rather than a particularly severe cyclical drought.
This state has survived many a catastrophe before — and defied the doomsayers who have regularly proclaimed the death of the California dream — as it emerged, often stronger, from the challenges of earthquakes, an energy crisis and, most recently, a budgetary collapse that forced years of devastating cuts in spending. These days, the economy is thriving, the population is growing, the state budget is in surplus, and development is exploding from Silicon Valley to San Diego; the evidence of it can be seen in the construction cranes dotting the skylines of Los Angeles and San Francisco.
But even California’s biggest advocates are wondering if the severity of this drought, now in its fourth year, is going to force a change in the way the state does business.
Can Los Angeles continue to dominate as the country’s capital of entertainment and glamour, and Silicon Valley as the center of high tech, if people are forbidden to take a shower for more than five minutes and water bills become prohibitively expensive? Will tourists worry about coming? Will businesses continue their expansion in places like San Francisco and Venice?
Continue reading the main story
On World Water Day, the World Resources Institute (WRI) has released a study that maps for the first time the water resources available to support fracking in the world’s largest shale exploration areas. The study, “Global Shale Gas Development: Water Availability and Business Risk,” found that 40 percent of countries with the largest shale energy resources could suffer from water stress: competing demands on their renewable water supply that could make it problematic to use that water for fracking.