The Immediate Climate Threat Is Water Scarcity, Not Rising Sea Levels

I have been having a couple of discussions on this topic especially due to the fact that many think that the immediate threat to climate change is rising water levels. I agree 100% that rising water levels are also a big threat but water scarcity is bigger than a threat since it affects human life in so many ways. I recently read an article which supported my argument and felt the need to share;

When it comes to explaining how climate change will harm future civilization, many media outlets (including this one) tend to focus on hurricanes or rising sea levels. These are natural topics to generate interest in the heating Earth – the mental image of a city overrun with briny water, like New Orleans after Katrina, is charged with worry and doom.

But what the media should be focusing on is not the ocean but the land, specifically how dried out vast regions are becoming and the major effects it’s having on societies. Intense droughts influenced by climate change are happening now, devastating farmers, causing mass migrations, and perhaps even contributing to the recent uprisings in the Middle East.

Arguing that the media should pound less on rising sea levels might not be appropriate when talking with somebody from the Pacific islands, or any other low-lying area that’s anticipating nasty flooding. But the most punishing impacts of sea-level rise – excluding, perhaps, its debilitating amplification of tidal surges as with Superstorm Sandy – isn’t expected to occur until later in the century. Meanwhile, many researchers say that climate change is actively worsening droughts and shriveling up access to water for hundreds of millions of people.

“When talking about what the greatest threats are that we face with climate change, I would put right at the top drought and water availability,” says meteorologist Jeff Masters, who I spoke with recently. Masters, who co-founded the Weather Underground, finds it understandable that reporters don’t rush to the site of droughts as much as they do for whirling cyclones: It’s not like descriptions of hardened mud and wheat slowly dying in the field makes an intrinsically great narrative. “It’s not as exciting; people don’t run away from giant droughts like they do with hurricanes.”

But droughts are “what will be causing the greatest trouble,” Masters says. “Throughout history, that’s what caused many civilizations to fail,” from the Mayan Empire to the ancient kingdom of Egypt.

There’s evidence the parching of the planet is already helping sow chaos across the Middle East. In the years prior to the Syrian conflict, for example, a historic drought that NOAA linked with climate change had decimated up to three-quarters of crops in the country’s growing regions. That forced an exodus of roughly 1.5 million farmers and herders into the cities, injecting more unrest among crowded urban populations.

“We can’t say climate change caused the civil war,” Francesco Femia of the D.C.-based Center for Climate and Security recently told the Washington Post. “But we can say that there were some very harsh climatic conditions that led to instability.”

Femia also believes that droughts were partial motivators behind the government-toppling Arab Spring revolts. She explains:

We looked at a number of different dynamics. Troy Sternberg, Sarah Johnstone and Jeffrey Mazo looked at the impacts of climate change in Ukraine and Russia and how droughts in those parts of the world in 2010 may have contributed to a wheat shortage. That, in turn, led China to purchase a lot of wheat on the global food market [which led to spikes in the price of food worldwide].

Again, they don’t claim that the price spikes caused the revolution in Egypt or Tunisia. But they do look at how those prices spikes led to parallel bread protests in Egypt in particular. The point here is that the proximate cause of the protests that led to [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak’s downfall may have been the response to the earlier Tunisian revolt. But the broader appeal of that movement in rural areas may have been partly due to the fact that bread prices were high. The Egyptian government tried to use subsidies to keep the price of bread down, but that didn’t affect rural areas.

All this is a lead-up to point out that new research on Monday predicts that even in an optimistic warming scenario, up to 500 million people will be subject to water scarcity by the end of the century. In a more-dire scenario it could mean 1 billion lives experiencing water deprivation, mainly in North Africa, parts of Asia, the Mediterranean and (great news!) the Middle East. As one of the researchers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research put it, “Our findings support the assertion that we are fundamentally destabilizing our natural systems – we are leaving the world as we know it.”

Survey indicates ground waterpumping affects stream flow

Groundwater provides drinking water for millions of Africans and is the primary source of water to irrigate cropland in many of the nations most productive agricultural settings. Although the benefits of groundwater development are many, groundwater pumping can reduce the flow of water in connected streams and rivers — a process called streamflow depletion by wells. The USGS has released a new report that summarizes the body of knowledge on streamflow depletion, highlights common misconceptions, and presents new concepts to help water managers and others understand the effects of groundwater pumping on surface water.


“Groundwater discharge is a critical part of flow in most streams–and the more we pump below the ground, the more we deplete water flowing down the stream,” said USGS Director Marcia McNutt. “When viewed over the long term, it is one big zero-sum game.”

Groundwater and surface-water systems are connected, and groundwater discharge is often a substantial component of the total flow of a stream. In many areas of the country, pumping wells capture groundwater that would otherwise discharge to connected streams, rivers, and other surface-water bodies. Groundwater pumping can also draw streamflow into connected aquifers where pumping rates are relatively large or where the locations of pumping are relatively close to a stream.

“Streamflow depletion caused by pumping is an important water-resource management issue across the nation because of the adverse effects that reduced flows can have on aquatic ecosystems, the availability of surface water, and the quality and aesthetic value of streams and rivers,” said Paul Barlow, USGS hydrologist and author on the report. “Managing the effects of streamflow depletion by wells is challenging, particularly because of the significant time delays that often occur between when pumping begins and when the effects of that pumping are realized in nearby streams. This report will help managers understand the many factors that control the timing, rates, and locations of streamflow depletion caused by pumping.”

Major conclusions from the report:

  • Individual wells may have little effect on streamflow depletion, but small effects of many wells pumping within a basin can combine to produce substantial effects on streamflow and aquatic habitats.
  • Basinwide groundwater development typically occurs over a period of several decades, and the resulting cumulative effects on streamflow depletion may not be fully realized for years.
  • Streamflow depletion continues for some time after pumping stops because it takes time for a groundwater system to recover from the previous pumping stress. In some aquifers, maximum rates of streamflow depletion may occur long after pumping stops, and full recovery of the groundwater system may take decades to centuries.
  • Streamflow depletion can affect water quality in the stream or in the aquifer. For example, in many areas, groundwater discharge cools stream temperatures in the summer and warms stream temperatures in the winter, providing a suitable year-round habitat for fish. Reductions in groundwater discharge to streams caused by pumping can degrade habitat by warming stream temperatures during the summer and cooling stream temperatures during the winter.
  • The major factors that affect the timing of streamflow depletion are the distance from the well to the stream and the properties and geologic structure of the aquifer.
  • Sustainable rates of groundwater pumping near streams do not depend on the rates at which groundwater systems are naturally replenished (or recharged), but on the total flow rates of the streams and the amount of reduced streamflow that a community or regulatory authority is willing to accept.

 

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