Water Supply In the Colorado River Basin

Many of the people objecting to my challenge say it should be about why we need to worry about global warming, or even about what to do. They clearly have not paid attention to what the challenge is all about.

But, they are correct in one thing, we need to discuss the effects of global warming more. Is global warming good for us? Bad for us? Or, does it even make a difference? I will be spending more time addressing this issue in the future once I am done with the challenge (come on July 31st!).

In that vein, here is a NASA news release about a study of water in the Colorado River Basin. It paints a pretty bleak picture about what is going on with water in the Southwestern U.S. Using data from the GRACE satellite, scientist have been able to identify the amount of mass the basin area has lost since 2004 and determined it has lost about 53 million acre-feet of water. That is almost twice the total volume of Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the U.S. What is really scary is that 41 million acre-feet of that amount came from ground water. Imagine you lost 75% of your income and you then started depleting your savings to maintain the same standard of living. Eventually, your savings are going to run out and you will be faced with a bad situation. That is where the Southwest is today in regards to water. The area has lost its water supply and has been relying on ground water to keep things going the same way instead of changing the way they do business. But, as they say in the new release, we don’t know how much ground water there is, so we have no idea how long it will last. If it starts to run out, then there will be a very bad situation in the Southwest.

So, what does this have to do with global warming? Well, there is growing evidence the on-going drought is the result of global warming, and there is growing evidence that the effects of droughts are made worse by global warming. Basically, rainy areas will see more rain while dry areas will see less. Additionally, precipitation that falls as snow on the mountains melts slowly over time and provides water into the summer. As the temperature goes up, it gets too warm for snow and the precipitation falls as rain, which runs off and is no longer available when the dry months of summer come along. To make it worse, the higher temperatures mean there is more evaporation and the area loses even more water. None of these scenarios are good for the future of anyone depending on the water of the Colorado River Basin.

Read this article on the effects of global warming on the area. Richard Seager, a climate scientist who studies water issues at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University in New York does not believe the drought is caused by global warming, but he goes on to point out that the Southwest has suffered drought conditions in some form for 15 years, and warmer climates have resulted in winter precipitation tending to fall as rain rather than snow. With less snow melting during the spring there is a lack of water during the hot summer months.

“It all adds up across the Southwest to an increasingly stressed water system,” he said. “That’s what they might as well get ready for.”

So, even someone who doesn’t believe the drought is caused by global warming believes it has been made worse by global warming. He also believes this is the new normal for the area.
This is not good news. 
In regards to the debate on if global warming is good or bad for us, I think we can put a very firm check mark in the “Bad for us” column on this one.

El Nino 2014

Update: You can read a nice NSF article on El Nino here.

There are many natural climate oscillations, but one of the most important is the El Nino/Southern Oscillation (ENSO).  El Nino is the ocean oscillation where Pacific waters get warmer than usual off the coast of Peru. NOAA defines El Nino as being when the Peruvian waters are at least half of a degree Celsius warmer than average for at least three months. The Southern Oscillation is the atmospheric oscillation that roughly accompanies the ocean component.

ENSO affects the weather virtually everywhere on the planet. It has caused droughts resulting in massive famines as well as widespread floods. The 1997-1998 El Nino caused the worldwide average temperature to rise more than 2.4 degrees Celsius (4.5 degrees Fahrenheit), making 1998 the hottest year ever recorded at the time. It is still the fourth hottest year on record and was so out of line with the rising temperature trend that global warming deniers continue to cherry pick it as the starting point for trend lines to claim there is no global warming. You can clearly see the isolated peak from 1998 in this graph of global surface temperatures.

Source: NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies

So, it is small wonder that we keep a close eye on the formation of El Nino. The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center has a very detailed website with weekly updates on the ENSO conditions, and it is looking more and more likely that 2014 will be an El Nino year. I wrote the other day that El Nino is back. I am a little more lax in my definition of El Nino and jumped the gun in comparison to the official agencies. In fact, forecast centers around the world are saying El Nino, if it occurs, won’t occur until later this summer or sometime in the fall. The consensus seems to be about 65% chance of it forming this summer and as much as 80% chance for it this fall. Forecasters are also saying it will be a mild to moderate event and nothing near as strong as some of the large events of the past. I have been reviewing the data and I agree with that assessment. There is a definite warming trend that has been going on this spring. The amount of warming that is being observed in the upper-level of the Pacific Ocean (upper-300 meters) is greater than the weak events of the past, but less than the strongest ones. That is not to say that something couldn’t happen that would tip it to being either stronger or weaker. Such an event is certainly possible. But, based on past behavior, this event is proceeding in much the same way that past moderate events have.

What is still unknown is what effect global warming is having on ENSO. That will take some time to figure out.

Can We Trust Climate Scientists?

One of the claims deniers are now making is that we can’t trust the climate scientist that are involved with global warming research. Their line of reasoning is that their grants and positions depend on finding evidence of global warming and they risk losing either, or both, if they ever find anything else. This, of course, is so ridiculous as to be funny, except there are people that believe this. So, let’s examine this and see if there is any truth to the claim.

The basis, and motivation, for the claim comes from the fact that deniers are paid by the fossil fuel industry to discredit climate research. The funding is dependent on finding the results the fossil fuel industry wants. In other words, it is directed funding. This funding source greatly damages the credibility of the deniers, much to their chagrin. They can’t get funding from any other source and are stuck with it. So, they respond by trying to paint authentic climate researchers with the same brush. If they are getting funding to find evidence of global warming, then we can’t trust them, either. The irony of this argument is that they are themselves saying they can’t be trusted. By making the claim that directed funding discredits you, they are admitting their own directed funding must discredit them. But, this posting is about the credibility of climate scientists, not the lack of credibility of the deniers.

The claim of the deniers depends on one thing – are the climate scientists being directed in their research? Do they receive funding to find evidence of global warming? Or, are they simply receiving funding to do research and let the chips fall where they may?  If this claim they are being directed is not true then we should be able to find research results that do not support climate change. This is actually pretty easy to do. Climate and weather are very complicated and not everything is going to lead to global warming.

A recent announcement from the National Science Foundation (NSF)  illustrates this. A researcher at the University of Michigan studied the effects of pollen on the climate and found something interesting. It had been thought pollen had little effect because it was such a large particle it would settle out. But, Dr. Allison Steiner and her team found that pollen particles actually break apart and become many small particles. These small particles lift water vapor up into the atmosphere where they assist in cloud formation. It this way, pollen actually works against global warming by providing a cooling effect.

By the way, Dr. Steiner gets her funding from the NSF. So much for being paid to find only proof of global warming.

Another example is some work done by scientists at Princeton University, the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science and the Australian University. They studied the way droughts are measured and they state there is an issue with the way droughts are measured. One of the beliefs about global warming is that the amount and severity of droughts worldwide will increase as the climate warms. The most common measure of drought, the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI), has shown that this is actually happening. However, this team of scientists studied the PDSI and their conclusion (released in November 2012) is that this measure is in error because it was dependent on climatic conditions off the past. When they adjusted the measure to account for climatic changes due to global warming they found little change in the amount of drought over the last 60 years.

Again, credible scientists at reputable institutions finding results that do not support global warming.

This is the way science works. Researchers do the work and discover what the science says. If the science does not support what they believe, then they will change what they believe. The science is irrefutable.

The deniers fail in this manner. When the science does not support what they want to sell the public, they simply discard it and find a new false argument to try and persuade people to believe in what they want them to believe.

The claim that climate scientists are getting paid to prove global warming doesn’t pass the credibility test. Climate scientists are paid to do climate research. There will be a climate with, or without, global warming. Their jobs do not depend on global warming and anyone thinking about this for even a few seconds will see that is true. If nothing else, we need a much more robust understanding of climate science for weather forecasting. That, by itself, is enough to justify all of the climate research being done and that would be true even if there were no such thing as global warming. The issue of global warming simply makes it that much more important.

Scientists are not motivated to find a specified result. They are motivated to find the correct result and to find it first. Honors go to the first, not the second. They do not give the Nobel Prize to runners-up. But, at the same time, by the scientific method, any scientific finding must be repeatable by anyone else. Scientists are not magicians and do not have special powers. They have special training and experience, but anyone with similar training and experience must be able to replicate their results. If only one person can do it, it isn’t valid. If some scientist was to announce some kind of result and it couldn’t be validated by other scientists the damage to that person’s career can be devastating. Consider what happened to Pons and Fleishmann after their cold fusion announcement.

Finally, consider this. Much of the research on climate change was done during the administration of George W. Bush between 2001 and 2009. The Bush administration was openly hostile to climate change research and worked to suppress it. The irony is that, contrary to claims by the deniers, climate scientist were actually risking their careers by finding evidence of global warming, not the other way around.

What can we conclude? Can we trust climate scientists? The answer is that we can trust climate scientists to do valid scientific research in climate change and the science they produce is not directed by the funding source.

If only the deniers could make the same claim.

El Nino is back. What does it mean?

El Nino is the name given to the natural cycle that involves the eastern Pacific getting warmer in the area close to the equator. (La Nina is the name for the alternative cycle when the waters there are cooler. The two together are known as the El Nino Southern Oscillation – ENSO.) This is one of the most significant natural cycles and occurs every few years. It has the potential to change weather around the world. Take a look at this graphic showing the sea surface temperature anomaly. The darker the red, the warmer it is relative to the long-term average.

Source: Climate Reanalyzer

You can clearly see how the water temperature off western South America is warmer than usual, which is the classic definition of El Nino. The name comes from how local fishermen noticed the change  in the water and how it seemed to always arrive in the late fall – about Christmas time. El Nino means ‘the boy’ and refers to the Christ child of Christmas. The name has stuck.

But, the important thing is to notice how the warm water stretches all the way across the Pacific Ocean. The significance of this lies in the fact that warm water creates atmospheric low-pressure areas which results in thunderstorms. There is now a Pacific Ocean-wide corridor of low pressure which will allow thunderstorms to develop and travel all the way from Asia to South America. One of the things this leads to is a change in the Hadley Cells.

Hadley Cells are circulation patterns in the atmosphere. Warm air near the equator rises and then travels towards the poles at high altitude. When the air reaches the mid-latitudes it sinks back to the surface and travels back towards the equator. This circulates heat and causes the trade winds. A stronger El Nino results in stronger Hadley Cells. Live Science has a nice graphic here showing how this all works.

You can probably see where this is going. More heat is being circulated through-out the world as a result of El Nino. Changes in the heat and water vapor input in a given region will result in changes to the weather in that region. How much of a change and what kind can be expected? That is a big variable. Some regions will experience greater rainfall. Others will experience droughts. Depending on the strength of the El Nino event, the effect could be anywhere from very mild to catastrophic.

Some of the most dramatic example of El Nino effects is a series of famines that have occurred in what is modern-day India, including the Great Famine of 1876-1878 (5.5 estimated dead) and the Bengal Famine of 1770 (10 million estimated dead). These famines occurred when the monsoons did not occur and the crops failed. The famines were greatly aggravated by British mismanagement.

What has been found is that severe droughts in India always occur during El Ninos, but not every El Nino leads to droughts in India. The apparent link seems to be where the Pacific is warmest. When it is warmer in the Central Pacific, India has droughts. When it is warmest in the Eastern Pacific, India is spared. Take a look at the plot of surface temperatures, similar to the plot above.

Source: Climate Reanalyzer

The figure above showed the difference from the average. This plot shows the actual average temperature. The way I interpret this data is that it is warmer in the Central Pacific region than in the Eastern Pacific region off of South America. This could be bad news for India. The good news is that Britain is not handling the management any more.

But, El Ninos are not bad news for everyone. Actually, for us in the U.S. it will be a good thing. A typical El Nino brings mild temperatures and more rainfall for the southern half of the country. This would be particularly welcome in the mid-Plains and the Southwest where drought has been raging for many years. In fact, several states out here are at risk of running out of water.  More rain would be good.

So, let’s talk about the White Elephant sitting in the middle of the room. Is global warming affecting the ENSO cycle? Quite simply, we don’t know yet. There are some that believe a connection exists, but more data is needed. What is known for sure though, is the El Nino affects the short-term accuracy of our computer models. The models are highly accurate when predictable conditions exist. But, unpredictable events like ENSO and volcanic eruptions disrupt them. The good news is that when the events occur and are included in the models, the models once again become highly accurate – in excess of 95% accurate and getting better. I have not heard what the models are forecasting with the this current El Nino included, but I will keep a look out for any news.

What about that expanded harvest?

So, to recap, deniers first said there was no global warming. Then, they said any warming was so small that we didn’t need to worry about it. Then, they said it was all just a natural cycle. Now, they are saying it is actually good for us. Do you see a trend here?

One of the things they are now claiming is that global warming will increase the zone where we can grow crops and increase the length of the growing season. In this way, it is actually  good for us. So, how is this turning out?

I have always been very skeptical of this claim, mainly because I grew up in agricultural areas and have always followed agriculture. I do some work in the local vineyards with some friends in this area. Growing a crop is about a lot more than planting seeds and then kicking back until harvest time. You have to worry about weeds, disease, insects, watering and weather – just to name a few things.

Droughts and heat waves have a devastating effect on crops. Just take a look at what is happening to the farms in California right now. They are having to plow their crops under because they don’t have enough water. On the other hand, too much water can be just as bad. A flooding rain can wash a whole farm out in a matter of a few hours. The evidence shows that overall, droughts and floods have been about the same so far, but dry areas are getting drier and wet areas are getting wetter. So, areas with droughts are getting worse and areas with floods are also getting worse.

Another weather event that farmers fear is the hail storm. A severe hail storm can pound a crop into the dirt in just minutes.

Of course, the obvious point is it doesn’t matter how long the growing season is if you don’t have a crop.

And, a warmer climate will also result in better conditions for insects and diseases that destroy crops.

None of this takes into account the fact that grain crops such as corn and wheat are very sensitive to heat. The yield goes down once the temperature gets higher than a certain point.

I had all of this in mind when I read an article in the May 13 issue of Eos, Transactions, American Geophysical UnionClimate change, water rights, and agriculture: A case study in Idaho reports on an investigation into the effects of climate change on agriculture. Their findings?

“They found that if climate change increases the volatility of the temperature and the water supply, irrigated agriculture in the region could face significant damages. In fact, crop revenue losses could be up to 32%.”

This is just one study for one particular region, but the point is pretty clear. Just because more land is available for growing crops and the length of the growing season is longer, it doesn’t mean there will be a larger harvest. Climate change will make certain things better for crops, but it will also make a lot of things worse at the same time.

Again, we see that all of us at the bottom will have to foot the bill for all of this. This time, in the form of higher food prices.