Thursday, October 14, 2010

Yet more water troubles

This time it's in Syria:
AR RAQQAH, Syria — The farmlands spreading north and east of this Euphrates River town were once the breadbasket of the region, a vast expanse of golden wheat fields and bucolic sheep herds.

Now, after four consecutive years of drought, this heartland of the Fertile Crescent — including much of neighboring Iraq — appears to be turning barren, climate scientists say. Ancient irrigation systems have collapsed, underground water sources have run dry and hundreds of villages have been abandoned as farmlands turn to cracked desert and grazing animals die off. Sandstorms have become far more common, and vast tent cities of dispossessed farmers and their families have risen up around the larger towns and cities of Syria and Iraq.
From the New York Times. This should be a familiar refrain to regular readers of this blog (see for example this or this). And we're not likely immune to this stuff either. Danny Blair, a climatologist at the University of Winnipeg, thinks we should be preparing in advance for trouble:
It's time for Canadians to wake up to the reality of climate change. Many already do understand that the consequences of climate change for our part of the world and the world as a whole are profound, but many do not. Of course, there are both positive and negative aspects to climate change, but it is increasingly clear the climate trends that will almost certainly prevail throughout this century will leave us with a world in which the benefits of climate change will be swamped by its environmental, economic and humanitarian costs.
From the Free Press. And what might some of these costs be?

On the other hand, insects and weeds will also flourish in a warmer world, perhaps necessitating an increase in the use of pesticides. Warmer summers will also increase the demand for energy to cool our buildings and will increase the frequency of heat-related health problems. Forest fires will become more frequent and the winter recreation season will be shortened. Importantly, the network of winter roads across Manitoba will become even less reliable than is already the case, causing significant and costly impacts.

Impacts related more directly to water are likely to be even more significant. Climate change will likely result in higher annual precipitation totals across Canada, but they also show that the summers will be drier. With more of the annual precipitation falling in the winter and more heat available to evaporate surface water, it is quite likely that the Prairie provinces will have to suffer through more frequent and more severe droughts. Ironically, it is also likely that floods will become even more problematic than they are today, as the hydrological cycle kicks into a higher gear. Thus, the survivability of the settlements of the southern prairies already stressed by the ups and downs in agricultural productivity may become even more tenuous.

It's worth noting that when scientists try to predict the fine details of the effects of climate change there is an element of speculation involved (and it should be noted that Blair is cautious himself, using words like "likely" rather than making definitive statements). Climate is pretty complicated stuff, and we should be preparing for a number of eventualities.

One eventuality that Manitoba should definitely be preparing for, though (and yes, I've harped on this in the past) is the melting of the glaciers in the Rockies. Right now, the Saskatchewan and Churchill Rivers are flowing very nicely indeed, fed by the melting glaciers... but in a few decades the glaciers will be gone, and then those rivers will be a lot smaller. The probably won't dry up entirely, since it will still rain and snow periodically, but Manitoba Hydro should be planning for this now by getting other clean energy sources online as quickly as possible. Ideally, what we should have is enough solar and wind capacity to keep Jenpeg closed enough of the time that Lake Winnipeg can be kept near its current level. Will we do it? That remains to be seen...

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