Are you ready for climate change? Because it’s not coming…it’s here.
It seems there is always an extreme weather event or natural disaster of some sort headlining in the news. It’s become so constant that it’s easy to become inured to the devastation. Unless, of course, you are the village in the Philippines that got swept away by a typhoon, or a US farmer in the Midwest who had to slaughter his cattle early because he could not afford the rising cost of corn to feed them.
But take a look at all of these events together and you may start to consider preparing for a world in which everyone’s lives—your life—is affected by climate change. In some ways, the signs that point to a climate moving away from stable norms can be distinguished easily just by looking at all of the natural disasters that have happened around the world in the past decade. In other ways, these signs are much subtler. For example, in 2010 alone, 19 countries around the world set national records for extreme temperatures.
To get some insight into just how frequently extreme weather events take place, and how they affect food production, let’s look at droughts and severe heat waves that have taken place around the world in this new millennium.
Tune in and feel the heat of Drought: Greatest Hits Of The 2000’s.
The drought that took Texas in 2011 was reported as the most expensive drought ever suffered by a state in the history of the US. In one year, agricultural producers lost a total of $7.62 billion. Among those hit the hardest were livestock farmers (losing $3.23 billion) and cotton growers (losing $2.2 billion). Texas is the largest producer of these two commodities, making up 15% of beef cattle and 25% of cotton produced in the US.
As the drought ravaged the land, wilting grazing pastures and all other forages, some livestock farmers opted to pack their tens of thousands of cattle onto double decker trucks to be shipped up north where greener pastures lay in Nebraska and parts of Montana.
The cause—like many droughts and heat waves you will read about here—was the climatic event La Niña, El Niño’s counterpart, which had pushed storm paths further north in the US. This greatly reduced rainfall in the South, stretching from Arizona to the Carolinas. Unfortunately for Texas, the state happened to be at the epicenter of the area impacted by this extraordinary dry weather.
In 2012, heat waves wreaked havoc in Italy all the way to the Ukraine. This long lasting heat spell greatly reduced corn crop yields, particularly in Italy, which is the EU’s third largest corn producer. The wildfires and numerous heat related deaths in 2012 were highly reminiscent of those that took place during heat waves that Europe had endured just five years previously.
- In Hungary, heat related deaths reached up to 500.
- In Romania, 19,000 were admitted to a hospital due to symptoms caused by the heat wave, mostly respiratory problems.
- Raging wildfires spread throughout Italy, Greece and Macedonia.
- A state of national emergency was declared in both Bosnia and Macedonia when temperatures reached 45C (113F).
The Polar Jet Stream
The heat waves in southeastern Europe, the drought in the US, as well as the torrential rainfall that western Europe saw in 2012 have all been associated with the polar jet stream, one of the fast moving air currents in the atmosphere which pushes weather patterns from west to east around the Earth.
Since the Arctic has been warming nearly twice as fast as the rest of the Northern hemisphere, there has been a major alteration in the course of the polar jet stream, making it increasingly wavier. This has caused weather systems to progress slower than normal, allowing for extreme weather events such as flooding, drought, and heat waves to persist longer.
In 2012, India went through its fourth drought in the past dozen years. The copious rainfall that India normally experiences during the monsoon, its primary source of fresh water, dropped by an average of 12 percent, delaying the sowing of major crops such as rice, oilseeds and lentils.
Although agriculture contributes only 21% of India’s GDP, its importance in the country’s economic, social, and political fabric goes well beyond this indicator. The rural areas are still home to some 72 percent of the India’s 1.1 billion people, a large number of whom are poor. Most of the rural poor depend on rain-fed agriculture and fragile forests for their livelihoods.
Crops were not the only thing affected by the weak monsoon. Water levels fell so low that water powered dams which supply part of India’s electricity were not able to generate their usual supply. Short supplies of electricity were exacerbated as heat stricken Indians turned up their fans and air conditioners and farmers turned to electric pumps to irrigate their fields with well water. It was reported by the New York Times that the lack of monsoon rainfall was an underlying cause for blackouts which caused over half the country to be without power in the month of July.
Although Australia has suffered torrential floods in the past few years, it remains the world’s driest inhabited continent. Oscillation between drought and flooding has plagued the country for centuries due to the ravages of El Niño and La Niña, as well as the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD). Usually, the IOD pushes moist air to southeast Australia, creating heavier rainfalls. Occasionally however, this weather pattern will reverse, weakening the winds that would normally carry moisture to the continent, resulting in devastating drought. This explains how 2011 could be Australia’s third wettest year in the past thirty, while in the same time period the continent endured its ten hottest years on record since 1998.
The first drought on record occurred in 1803. Since then, Australia has experienced one drought almost every decade. Because of the frequency that Australia experiences droughts, many states have introduced drought-proofing methods of farming such as recycling greywater, revamping irrigation systems, and subsidizing rainwater storage tanks—while initiating projects for large-scale desalination plants.
An ongoing drought which lasted from 2003-2012 earned the name “The Big Dry”. During this long lasting event, the government disbursed 4.5 billion Australian dollars in special subsidies to farmers who had suffered losses due to the drought. In some parts of Australia, children born in 2003 lived for five or more years without ever having an experience of rain.
Even though The Big Dry has passed, things are far from cooling down for Australians. In January of this year, many parts of Australia experienced a brutal, several week long heat wave. In Sydney, records broke when the temperature reached 46C (114F).
In the summer of 2010, Russia went through a devastating drought which killed an estimated 55,000 people. The extraordinarily high death rate was due mainly to respiratory issues caused by the numerous wildfires that broke out all over the country. At one point during the summer, the country was averaging around 700 deaths per day. Furthermore, wheat and other grain yields were so low that the government barred cereal exports for almost an entire year. At the end of the drought, an estimated $15-25 billion was spent in damages.
Argentina and Brazil
In both Argentina and Brazil, La Niña has caused extreme heat waves and droughts almost every December and January for the past several years. In 2008-2009, Argentina suffered a drought which compromised its soybean production, reducing it by almost a third. More recently, the beginning of 2013 has been marked by suffocating heat for Argentinians, scorching crops in the country’s richest agricultural region. This has caused great economic damage, as Argentina is one of the world’s largest grain exporters.
In Brazil, things are not much better. This January, Brazil’s northeast underwent its worst drought in almost 50 years. The scarcity of water threatened Brazil’s economic growth, most particularly in its agricultural sector where drought has caused a reduction of sugar cane yields by 30 percent in a region that supplies 10 percent of the country’s sugar cane supply.
Furthermore, the drought devastated the country’s cattle, corn and cotton production as well as its ability to generate electricity. Brazil’s main source of electricity comes from hydro-power plants which supply the country with 67 percent of its power.
A rapidly changing climate
Weather patterns change; it is the Earth’s natural course. However, the astonishing rate at which we are pumping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere may be propelling these changes to evolve faster. With the lengthening duration of severe weather events around the world and the increasing frequency of record temperatures being broken, it seems that respite from disastrous weather events is becoming briefer every decade.
Although there has been a lot of talk about the US drought (the total impacts of which are still to be measured) it is important to consider the compounding effects of droughts and heat waves that have been occurring worldwide. It has been reported by the World Bank that global drought has contributed to the 10 percent rise in global food prices that took place last June and July.
Behind this global food price inflation is the reduction of major grain yields that are listed in every country above. This is understandable when one considers the multitude of things that grain is made into. Grain has been engineered into our biofuel, coffee cups and bioplastic trash bags. Farmers use grain to feed the livestock that provide us meat, dairy and eggs. And almost all processed foods have grain added to them in one form or another. This is the lifestyle that we have built for ourselves and it is one increasingly dependent on grain. Any hit to global grain supplies has a rippling affect throughout every aspect of our lives.