Category Archives: Global Warming

African Corn, American Pest

Fall Army Worms have been causing havoc with crops in Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Ghana while reports suggest Malawi, Mozambique and Ghana are also affected. The linked article indicates they have been found in Uganda, too.

“If nothing is done we could lose up to 15 percent of our maize production,” said senior agriculture minister official Okasai Opolot.

Roughly 10% of Uganda’s 38 million people are involved in corn production and 10 million are already underfed. I can’t make out exactly what percentage of the national diet is corn, but other crops are affected, too.

There are 1.2 billion people in Africa and two thirds of them are in the south. Subsistence agriculture is the rule, a 15% decrease in crops wouldn’t mean the death of 120 million, but I do think that’s a number of appropriate magnitude.

Africa Climate Zones

Africa Climate Zones

Africa Population Distribution

Africa Population Distribution

120 million dead sounds awful, but recall that we are approaching an inevitable round of Functional Triage.  Instead of that, lets consider the future of the 680 million survivors.

 

Africa is rich in resources, not well developed, and the south has already dealt with a massive long term plague – AIDS. Much of Africa can still be self sufficient, not just growing the food they need, but locally manufacturing what other goods they require. If the U.S. loses 15% of its population, things here come undone. If our national supply chain is interrupted even briefly, in just a matter of days machines and people all begin to break down.

There IS a correlation between level of development and societal preservation, but I think the relationship is inverse. Most people in Africa grow their own food, or they know the people who do. That hasn’t been at all true in this country since the Silent Generation were young adults.

Look at that climate map. Look at the population distribution map. There are six high density population centers and four of them are in the south. The Nile’s Annual Flood is already under climate driven threat, North Africa exploded into Arab Spring in 2011, and I paid some attention to The Simmering Maghreb. Nigeria is being slowly torn apart by Boko Haram. Ethiopia had massive famine in the 1980s, the African Great Lakes suffered horrendous ethnic cleansing during the 1990s.

South Africa has had its troubles, the South African Border War from the 1960s through the end of the Cold War, their own internal struggle with Apartheid. But among the BRICS countries it is they and the Brazilians who are geographically and culturally isolated from the conflicts that entangle and plague the other three. Like Wrangel Island for the mammoths, South Africa was a redoubt for our species during the Toba Eruption, some 70,000 years ago.

 

If there is any place on this planet where some portion of industrialized western capability can be preserved, it is South Africa, even ahead of climate advantaged and preparation minded Scandinavia, which is too close to Europe and Russia to avoid being dragged in to their conflicts.

 

Not Just Ice Cores, Here Is A Dead Sea Salt Core

Under the Dead Sea, warnings of dire drought jumped right at me off the Phys page.

Dead Sea Salt Core

Dead Sea Salt Core: below the seabed, drilling revealed thick layers of salt, precipitated out during past warm, dry periods. In this specimen, transparent crystals (left) formed on what was then the bottom during winter; finer white ones (right) formed on the water surface in summer and later sank. Credit: Yael Kiro/Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

The salt core was drilled in 2010 and is now receiving renewed, deeper scrutiny. During interstadial periods the Mideast becomes drier, so much so that inflows of fresh water into the Dead Sea largely stop. We’re not that dry yet, but human use of the Jordan River has effectively accomplished the same thing.

Jordan is developing the Disi aquifer and there is a Red to Dead canal planned.  The Saudis have long tapped that water for local agriculture in a foolhardy bid for food security that runs counter to the natural resources they have at their command. Jordan is engaged in a rear guard action for land that will inevitably become desiccated.

 

This triptych gives as sense of the progression of events in the Dead Sea. The south of the sea is shallow and has been steadily overtaken by human construction. Current practices involve the annual removal of two million tons of potash (potassium chloride) and other salts. You should recognize potash as a precursor for one of the three key plant fertilizers, potassium. It is the least concern of the three in terms of being a Liebig Minimum.

Dead Sea Salt & Potash Production

Dead Sea Salt & Potash Production

 

Bodies of water in the area drain and fill naturally as a consequence of Earth’s glacial cycles. There is a somewhat controversial theory, the Black Sea Deluge Hypothesis, that is thought to be an explanation of the origin of various great flood myths in the region.

The Mediterranean Sea has experienced similar events – the Messinian Salinity Crisis and the Zanclean Flood that restored the sea to its current condition. There are cores from both the Black and Mediterranean seas, but they do not receive the same level of attention that ice cores do.

Four and a half years ago I published Why Gaza Is Screwed, a review of the water supply issues faced there. This is a ticking bomb for foreign policy, a pool of 1.6 million climate refugees just waiting to happen. The entire arc from West Africa to the Indus river valley faces this problem.

 

North of the Dead Sea is the Sea of Galilee, home to the Ohalo archeological site, which was occupied 8,000 years before North America’s Blackwater Draw. Humans hunted, gathered, and apparently performed early experiments with agriculture, inhabiting the site for a few generation before a fire of unknown origin leveled the simple huts. This site was revealed thanks to an epic drought in the late 20th century.

The Denisovans and Neanderthals were already gone except for their imprint on our genetics when that site was inhabited. Humans are now so pervasive and mobile that it will be difficult to track anything based on  genetics, but the Anthropocene is going to feature a massive cull of our species. What comes next? Maybe homo futurae, two thirds of our average height today, so they’ll tolerate the heat, digging into our species’ massive middens a hundred thousand years from now, wondering why we weren’t better at understanding our place in the web of life.

Last Of The Laurentide

The last of the six ice ages Earth experienced is the Quarternary, lasting the prior 2.58 million years. Understand what an ice age is – a period in which the poles have ice caps, not a period when we see glaciers in temperate latitudes. Those are stadials, and the last time we had those glaciers was during the Younger Dryas, which ended about 12,000 years ago. One of the periodic ice sheets in North America was the Laurentide.

And researchers have found the last of the Laurentide, that solid white spot in the middle of Baffin Island is the Barnes Ice Cap.

Baffin Island

Baffin Island

This five hundred meter thick sheet has just three centuries left at our current 400 ppm of CO2.

I wonder if that last little patch of ice will be a redoubt for reindeer or polar bear/grizzly hybrids, the way Wrangel Island was for the mammoths. That’s ten generations in our future, but it’s the blink of an eye in geological terms.

I don’t know that a Barnes Ice Cap core will be joining the others in the ice core vault at Antarctica’s Concordia Station, but it seems quite likely.

There are a variety of markers that are cited as the start of the Anthropocene, often the radionuclides from the Trinity test in 1945 being the first solid entry in the geological record. The lost of this last bit of the Laurentide will surely be an important milestone in the early centuries of this fearsome new age.

 

 

West Antarctic Ice Sheet Collapse

West Antarctic Glaciers

West Antarctic Glaciers

There have been a steady drum beat of reports about the West Antarctic ice sheet, like this, and this. The news is pretty clear – four feet of sea level rise from this event alone, but playing out over the next 200 to 900 years, and another ten feet of sea level rise after that from other ice being exposed to the sea. Greenland will let go in about the same timeframe, adding another twenty feet. Here is a nice map that permits you to examine what 13m of sea level rise does to your favorite coastal city.

This article in The Hill glosses over the closure of the CIA’s Center on Climate Change and National Security. The recto-cranial inversion wing of the Republican party forced its closure as a matter of their unshakable faith that climate change is just another big conspiracy they’ve discovered. I used to worry about this, but I have decided that after Katrina, Sandy, Cyclone Gonu, Typhoon Haiyan, and a hundred other coldest/hottest/driest/wettest ever events I can simply wait for Mother Nature to hammer home the message in an undeniable fashion.

What does this mean for U.S. foreign policy?

We are loathe to admit it, but the United States is an imperial power, and after nearly 250 years with only a single major discontinuity, we are an elderly, tottering hegemony on its final legs. All empires die, even the isolated Egyptians seldom saw dynasties last more than two centuries without some sort of upheaval. Unfortunately another common characteristic of dying empires is that their elites, insulated from reality by luxury and layers of sycophants, will make exactly the wrong choices, because they can not envision a world where they don’t matter.

The United States will wake up from this eventually, but not as an empire, instead I expect us to have an experience like the Soviet Union did in the 1990s. There is a place in the Ukraine where hundreds of tanks, including the newer T-72 and T-80, are slowly rusting away. The Russian Navy deals with everything from sailors dying due to complications from malnutrition to narrowly averted meltdowns when dock side power is cut to idle submarines due to nonpayment of bills.

I am not going to rehash The Marine Corps Liability, it will suffice to say that we’re building systems today meant to solve problems we haven’t faced in two generations, and it isn’t just the Corps that is doing this, they just happened to be the example I picked that day. I expect we’ll hit some sort of financial pitfall and we’ll flip from building things we don’t need to maintaining systems we can’t afford to deploy. The Russians got bit hard by this one, particularly in submarines. The U.S. hasn’t lost a boat since 1968, but accidents for the poorly maintained Russian subs and their un-experienced crews have been all too regular.

Our soft power will still be considerable even if we do take a major financial tumble, but we’re starving diplomacy for the sake of military expenditures. The State Department’s budget is about the same as black ops, but we’ve doubled covert expenditures while slashing State’s money by a fifth. Benghazi happened in 2012 in large part thanks to an 18% budget cut the year before, which lead to RSOs (regional security officers) who didn’t speak Arabic rotating in and out of that post every thirty days. Some rotation of new staff for the sake of experience is a good move, in the case of Benghazi it was all of them, and the discontinuity was part of the deadly mix. Repairing the diplomatic damage from our adventure in Iraq will take a generation, that clock only starts ticking once we can admit we made a terrible error, and this will not come for free.

We didn’t intervene in Syria because the Russians vetoed that. We tried something terribly cheeky in the Ukraine and it backfired on us badly. I don’t watch the Pacific Rim more closely than reading Night Watch and ten months ago I assumed we were upgrading B-52s in preparation for a Cold War style standoff. I have discarded that assumption.

We’ve barely begun to process the sting of Russia saying ‘no’ and making it stick. What will we do when our first and second largest sovereign debt holders get into direct conflict over offshore oil and gas? Don’t answer unless you can factor in the absolute certainty of the initial premise of this post – anthropogenic global warming isn’t a hoax, and it’s not even a theory any more, it’s a grim reality. Mother Nature consistently offers three choices: move, adapt, or die.

A final thought. The white ones are the places the British Empire never invaded. Where are the British now?

British Invasion

British Invasion

Siberia’s Time Bomb

Russian Permafrost With Australia Overlay

Russian Permafrost With Australia Overlay

Russian Permafrost

Russian Permafrost

Last month was the warmest April on record, with Central Siberia seeing temperatures 9F above normal. When the permafrost in the region melts the plant matter in it decays, releasing carbon dioxide and methane. This is happening on land and under the waters of the East Siberian Sea.

Arctic and American Methane in Context is a dense, technical read primarily about the East Siberian Sea methane hydrates. The paper closes by stating “The Siberian Arctic, and the Americans, each emit a few percent of global emissions. Significant, but not bombs, more like large firecrackers.” This is specifically the offshore sources, it does account for the permafrost melt. This post is interested for its explanation of the life cycle of atmospheric methane. Carbon dioxide can remain resident for a very long time, but methane only lasts about a decade on average before it is oxidized to carbon dioxide and water. But during that short period methane is about 20x the greenhouse gas that carbon dioxide is.

Our current methane concentration is about double what it was before we began exhuming fossil carbon in earnest, around 1800, and concentrations in the Arctic are double our current global average. This means Siberia will experience more methane based ‘forcing’ than the rest of the world, and the warmer it gets the more the permafrost contributes to the problem. As scientists only just uncovered the Fire & Ice link between soot and major melt events in Greenland, the link between taiga wildfires and overall Arctic melting has not been explored. If this does get examined I think it would have be on in the moment use of sensors on the scene. Arctic sea ice does not provide the same chronological record we get from drilling ice cores in glaciers.

How do we interpret this in terms of foreign policy issues?

This is the big question. We appear to have crossed a threshold in terms of atmospheric carbon dioxide. If the entire human race were hit with a slate wiper virus that leaves just 350 million survivors, this would adjust the speed of the warming, but there is no way to reverse it now. We have no choice but to adapt to this new reality – Mother Nature does not negotiate.

Arab Spring came on the heels of record fires in Russia and floods in Pakistan, which fueled discontent by raising prices on staples. Lebanon may fall into disorder due to their record drought. The entire Iranian Plateau is becoming uninhabitable. Jordan is tapping the aquifer it shares with Saudi Arabia, but their fossil water endowment will last at most a few decades, even if they manage it flawlessly.

Here in the U.S. we’ve faced Katrina, Sandy, Snowmageddon, and the national drought map shows California and Texas in the hot seat again. Power plants need water for cooling or they shut down, and Texas is having trouble even when it’s cold. Another hot, dry summer could see ERCOT, which can only import 5% of its total needs, facing a statewide grid collapse as power plants go offline. We struggled with 250,000 climate refugees from Katrina and we are in no way prepared to handle a ten times that many Texans fleeing an unstable electrical supply in peak summer heat.

What would a climate change aware foreign policy look like? As a starting point, the required hard power won’t involve a 300+ ship navy, a crippled $1.5 trillion fifth generation fighter, or a huge number of troops. The concept of triage is going to apply to places like Somalia and northern Mali, where the fighting will continue until the population matches the carrying capacity. Knowing when to stay home will become a very important skill, as we grow to realize how many things are simply beyond human control.

Fire & Ice

The two biggest melts for Greenland were in 1889 and 2012. We didn’t know why the entire surface of Greenland turned to slush in a 96 hour period back when it happened, but now we know it was warm, ash laden air and that a similar event happened in 1889. This is double the normal maximum summer melt area.

Greenland Melt 2012

Greenland Melt 2012

Greenland melting is an issue on a scale of centuries to maybe a whole millennium, but there are other icy places that are much closer to fires. The Himalayas, which translates into The Abode of Snow, are commonly called Asia’s water tower. I have already mentioned the Kashmir Conflict, which affects the headwater’s of the Indus river valley at the far western end of the range. The Ganges and the Brahmaputra also originate in the Himalayas and well over a billion people depend on the mountain glaciers as a buffer for precipitation.

Himalayas

Himalayas

We already know that Pakistan suffered disastrous floods in 2010, this was most recently mentioned in Global Wildfire Patterns, and a large area of Russia burned almost simultaneously. We also know that India is moving to stabilize Afghanistan using Russia as a proxy, which I covered in Afghanistan’s New Best Friends.

A global worst case scenario would involve another kind of fire – a ‘limited’ nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan. A regional nuclear war would dramatically affect climate. Aerosols from fires would cause a nuclear winter, the ozone layer would be wiped out for a period of time, resulting in a spike in skin cancer, and as the short term winter abated the soot would fall, darkening and melting ice everywhere.

The IPCC overestimated glacial ice cover in the Himalayas by a factor of eight(!), noting 500,000 square kilometers when only 60,000 square kilometers actually exist. If natural regional fires like the ones that affected Russia in 2010 deposit ash in the Himalayas one year, we could see that other type of fire the next if the pressure on India and Pakistan over Kashmir crosses some unknowable threshold.

Even without a black swan geopolitical event like that the trend is clear. Lands that are hotter and drier burn more often and with greater intensity. Ice with more soot on it melts more quickly. The 2012 wildfire soot driven melt in Greenland is historically a hundred year event based on the two that have been found via ice core. Global Wildfire Patterns are changing. The details of the 2012 Greenland melt have just become available. I do not know if anyone has even tried to factor this into overall models.

We didn’t think we would have a summer ice free Arctic until 2100, but ice extent has declined 12% per decade since we began monitoring. What cover we do have is just one or two years old, thin, fragile, and liable to break down catastrophically. That ice free summer might happen in this decade and a glacier free Himalayas can’t be all that far behind. What comes after that? You might as well let your imagination run wild, because I don’t think we can predict …

Global Wildfire Patterns

Over the last seven years I have become interested in the following topics in roughly chronological order: peak oil, renewable energy with a focus on wind, renewable ammonia, food security, and water security. More and more I am starting to see that global wildfire patterns are also important. The video seen here was originally posted at NASA’s Earth Observatory

Fire is a natural part of all but the wettest ecosystems. Everywhere west of the Mississippi except the coastal Pacific Northwest used to burn in a fairly regular fashion. Some plant species need fire as part of their natural cycle. Humans have been exhuming fossil carbon for two hundred years and when World War II flying boats like the PBY Catalina came out of service they were repurposed into water bombers and we suppressed fire everywhere. This worked until critical masses of dead growth fueled fires of previously unseen scope and intensity. We grudgingly began to permit fire to do its work in ecosystems.

This April was the 350th month of above average temperatures. My next big birthday is fifty, the last time we had a normal month I was still a minor. This is a ‘fire tornado’, with thousand degree temperatures and category five hurricane force winds feeding into it. These are a normal event in hilly, windy country, but there are many, many more of them in California this year thanks to a record fire season. This is the hottest May for California since record keeping started in 1896, the state has a record drought, and the fires came sixty days early and at triple the normal rate.

What sort of simple, large scale predictions can we make about biological systems based on knowing that our world is warming, mostly drying, but that some areas will likely be subject to much larger rainfall events than in the past?

  • More heat means more intense fires more often. Some species don’t survive, those that do will likely developer larger open spaces between them and otherwise show adaption to hotter, drier conditions. This is seen now as cheatgrass replaces native species.
  • Fires strip hillsides bare of above ground plants and kill root systems. Normal rain events trigger mudslides. Larger rain events mean more mudslides. Hillside biomass decreases more quickly than rangeland.
  • If heat adapted crops are not available or yields are reduced due to drought, more land will be pressed into service. We already know Amazon rainforest is giving way to fire and then cattle or soybeans. Those are luxury items in a world at its limits, other less visible places are doing similar things simply for subsistence.

What sort of things might happen to human society under these conditions?

  • Excess fire wipes out the economic value of crop lands for a year and forest lands for a generation. We get less and we work harder for it.
  • Fire destroys buildings. Areas with dramatically less water than when they were built up may be slowly abandoned as fire takes its toll.
  • Power lines are heat sensitive, a large blaze under a high capacity line can cause the transmission network operator to reduce load, the worst possible thing on a peak usage hot summer day. Cascading failures can result from things like this.

Does everyone remember the Pakistani flood that began in July of 2010?

Pakistani Flood Of 2010

Pakistani Flood Of 2010

Does everyone remember the Russian fires of 2010, when a large swath of their wheat lands burst into flames in one 72 hour period?

Russian Fires August 6th - 8th 2010

Russian Fires August 6th – 8th 2010

Does everyone recall this map of geopolitical events which began four months after the Russian fires lead to a wheat embargo and Pakistani floods wiped out their summer crops?

Arab Spring: Revolutions & Reform

Arab Spring: Revolutions & Reform

I noted in Russian Purchase Of French Mistral Class. that the United States enjoyed just a decade of a unipolar world after the Soviet Union collapsed. This isn’t entirely correct – the United States was the last human construct that will ever claim to have mastered Mother Nature. We do have a new unipolar master, and with her there can be no negotiations.

So we had best get our heads around that and start treating worst case estimates as the norm.