Monday, August 30, 2021

Wild Free and Happy Sample 57


[Note: This is the fifty-seventh sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews.  These samples are not freestanding pieces.  They will be easier to understand if you start with sample 01, and follow the sequence listed HERE — if you happen to have some free time.  If you prefer audiobooks, Michael Dowd is in the process of reading and recording my book HERE.

[Continued from Climate Crisis 02 Sample 56]

Water and Climate

In The Great Acceleration, McNeill and Engelke described how a warming climate is disturbing the relationship between water and the family of life.  The precipitation patterns of the past are changing, creating new challenges for ecosystems, human societies, and life as we know it.

Extreme weather events are expected to occur more frequently.  When ocean surface temperatures get warmer, cyclones are more likely to be spawned.  Warmer air can hold more moisture.  In regions having a moist climate, clouds bloated with water are more likely to form.  More and more often, storms are dumping huge loads of rain, sudden deluges that cause destructive floods and landslides.  In regions having a dryer climate, warmer air will create fewer clouds, produce less rain, crank up the air temperature, intensify drought conditions, and encourage wildfires. 

With a warming climate, the glaciers of the world are melting and retreating more rapidly.  Winter precipitation is delivering more rain, less snow.  Winter rain tends to run off promptly.  Snowpack retains the moisture longer.  It melts later, closer to the growing season, when the water can be used to irrigate thirsty cropland. 

The water flowing out of the Himalayas feeds the Indus, Yangzi, Mekong, Ganges, Yellow, Brahmaputra, and Irrawaddy rivers.  Two billion people depend on this water arriving in adequate amounts, at the appropriate time.  In the coming years, more water shortages and major changes are expected.

Paul Ehrlich and John Harte wrote that a third of global crop production depends on irrigation.  Melting snow has been an essential source of irrigation water.  “The winter snowpack in mountainous regions such as the Himalayas, the Rockies, the Sierra, and the Andes is a most efficient reservoir, storing water through the cold months and releasing it gradually as snowmelt in warm months when farmers need it.”

“In response to severe and prolonged drought in many regions of the world, including China, India, Thailand, Italy, and California, loss of surface irrigation water has resulted in excessive pumping of groundwater, which in turn has led to land subsidence, groundwater depletion, and irreversible loss of aquifer volume.”  Food production is also challenged by droughts, deluges, super storms, heat waves, aggressive wildfires, declining insect pollinators, soil salinization, soil depletion, erosion, and so on.

Sahana Ghosh reported that the once mighty Ganges River is wheezing.  Over the years, river volume has been declining, because farmers have been diverting too much water via their irrigation canals.  The river got shallower.  Then, they switched to tube wells with motorized pumps.  Naturally, overpumping the groundwater has serious consequences.  In the dry months, the river now looks more like a mudflat.  Reduced flow also concentrates the load of pollutants.  Researcher Abhijit Mukherjee said, “Our prediction shows that about 115 million people can be impacted due to insufficient food availability in the next few decades.”

Jim Robbins wrote about the Colorado River blues.  The 1,450 mile (2,333 km) watershed starts in the Rocky Mountains and ends at the Pacific.  It used to empty into the Gulf of California, but not a single drop of water enters the Gulf today.  In 2018, river volume was just two-thirds of normal, tied for the record low.

The Colorado is one of the most heavily engineered waterways in the world — designed for the benefit of humans, not nature.  It is the source of much contention.  It serves 40 million people, and the number of users keeps growing.  A drought since 2000 has reduced its flow.  It is the most severe drought in 1,250 years.  The Lake Mead reservoir at Hoover Dam, and the Lake Powell reservoir at Glen Canyon Dam, are at all-time lows.

Some suspect that climate change is drying out the West.  This is not just a temporary drought, the West may actually be getting permanently dryer.  “Worst case, if the reservoirs ever hit ‘dead pool’ — when levels drop too low for water to be piped out — many people in the region could become climate refugees.”

Agriculture uses 80 percent of the Colorado’s water, cities use 10 percent.  As demand exceeds supply, some users will be cut off.  Dewatering agriculture would snuff out many farms and nearby towns.  Wildlife does not have a top priority. 

Frederick Pleitgen and team described an emerging water shortage crisis in the Middle East, caused by persistent drought and extreme heat.  Temperatures sometimes soar to life threatening levels.  Rainfall mostly evaporates.  Rivers, lakes, and wetlands are drying up.  As Iran’s once large and beautiful Lake Urmia shrinks, its water is getting too salty, so farmers are pumping groundwater for irrigation.  Aquifers are being overpumped, depleting the limited reserves.  If current trends continue, some regions will become uninhabitable.

Homes in Jordan receive some water once or twice a week.  Numerous upstream dams limit the amount of water that eventually arrives at the end of the watershed.  Israel has a huge water desalinization program that requires large amounts of fossil energy to operate, adding still more carbon into the atmosphere.

Agriculture and Climate

Every variety of plant and animal has different environmental requirements for optimal health.  They all have evolved to survive within a limited range of conditions.  Humans can’t survive extreme conditions, nor can the livestock and crops we depend on.  When reality is shifting into a new and unusual trend, the family of life will struggle, and some will blink out.  Evolution is not a speedy process. 

With regard to crop plants, important variables include temperature, sunlight hours, pH, available moisture, soil fertility, and so on.  As warming proceeds, the regions that have a tropical climate are expanding from their equatorial homeland toward the poles.  Regions that used to be temperate are getting hotter.  In the good old days, frigid winters used to provide beneficial pest control, by freezing lots of insects and other things that harmed crops and humans.  Winter precipitation was stored in ice and snow.

Brian Halweil emphasized how important a stable climate is to agriculture.  In 2003, for the first time, the potato blight fungus came to visit the town of Chacllabamba, Peru.  It almost totally destroyed their crop.  Located at an altitude of 13,000 feet (4,000 m), a cool climate had protected the potato fields for thousands of years.  No more.  Spuds had been their staple food.

Jerry Hatfield and John Prueger investigated how rising temperatures affected a variety of crop plants.  Extreme heat events may last a few days, and have a big impact.  When temperatures are outside of the ideal range, plant growth, pollination, and reproductive processes can be affected.  Pollination is especially sensitive to rising temperatures.  High temperatures during the reproductive phase of the life cycle can reduce corn yields by as much as 80 to 90 percent. 

When wheat is maturing, a frost can cause the grains to be sterile.  Too much heat can reduce the number of grains that form.  Rice is especially vulnerable to high heat during the pollination process.  For the major crops, yields are expected to decrease as global temperatures rise. 

Kimberly Cartier noted that growing conditions are getting less predictable than in the past.  Rainy seasons may be more intense than usual, or less.  Their arrival may be earlier than the ideal time, or later.  The El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) pattern is associated with precipitation patterns, and it is a well-known troublemaker.  In 1983, an unusual ENSO coincided with the largest global failure of corn (maize) crops in modern records.  ENSO can also alter wheat and soybean production on a global scale.

Mike Davis wrote about a horrific era of ENSO related droughts and famines.  In the years 1876-79 and 1896-1902 between 12.2 and 29.3 million died of famine in India.  In the Madras Deccan, “the only well-fed part of the local population were the pariah dogs, ‘fat as sheep,’ that feasted on the bodies of dead children.”  In the same period, between 19.5 and 30 million died of famine in China, and 2 million in Brazil.  Famine hit these three nations the hardest, but many other nations were also affected.  In the U.S., churches organized to send relief to hungry farmers in the Dakotas and western Kansas.

Samuel Markings wrote about the relationship between photosynthesis and temperature.  In plants, photosynthesis is the process that uses sunlight to transform water and CO2 into food (glucose) and oxygen.  Optimum temperatures range between 50 to 68°F (10 to 20°C).  Above this range, higher temperatures slow photosynthesis.  The process declines sharply when temps rise above 104°F (40°C).  When temps persist in this range, plant survival is endangered.

Abdul Wahid and team wrote an extensive report on heat tolerance in plants.  Each crop species has a threshold temperature.  If this temperature is exceeded too long, the result is heat stress — irreversible damage to plant growth and development.  Harm varies based on intensity (temperature in degrees), duration, and the rate at which the temperate rose.

Qunying Luo extensively described threshold temperatures for a number of major crop species.  At different stages of a plant’s life, they can be damaged by excess heat — leaf initiation, shoot growth, root growth, sowing to emergence, grain filling, etc.  For example, “Several studies found that temperatures of above 35°C (95°F) are lethal to maize pollen viability”

Tnau Agritech Portal published a report on the effects of high temperature on plant growth in India.  Each plant species has a thermal death point.  For many annual crops, 122°F (50°C) is fatal.  Excess heat can reduce yields, and inhibit the absorption and assimilation of nutrients.  It can cause pollen abortion, which reduces the grain set.  Even short exposure can affect the growth of shoots and roots. 

Evelyn Lamb wrote that rice provides 16 to 20 percent of the calories consumed by humankind.  Corn and wheat are similarly popular.  Thus, more than half of the calories consumed by humans are provided by rice, corn, and wheat.  Growing rice in flooded paddies produces more greenhouse gas emissions per calorie than corn or wheat, twice the emissions from wheat.

Santosh Koirala reported that most rice crops begin by transplanting young plants in flooded paddies (“puddling”).  “When rice is grown under puddled transplanted conditions, paddy soil becomes anoxic — depleted of dissolved oxygen — and then, in the absence of oxygen, microbes that break down plant matter produce methane.”  Puddling “is becoming less profitable because of the costs of labour, shortage of water, and high energy costs.”  It results in depletion of soil quality, and higher methane emissions.

 “Methane is the second major greenhouse gas, after carbon dioxide, and agriculture accounts for 40% of these greenhouse emissions.  Although farm animals are a major source, flooded rice paddies emit as much as 500 million tons, which is around 20% of total manmade emissions of this gas.”

Kritee Kritee and team noted that rice is a staple food for almost half of humankind, so it’s especially important to pay attention to its climate impacts.  Globally, one third of water used for irrigation goes to rice farming.  Rice receives one seventh of all fertilizer used.  “Methane from global rice cultivation currently accounts for one-half of all crop-related greenhouse gas emissions.”

Experts recommended that these methane emissions could be reduced by shifting from continuously flooded rice fields to intermittent flooding.  Unfortunately, the team was surprised to discover that this brilliant solution had an unintended consequence.  The emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O) tripled — a greenhouse gas that persists in the atmosphere much longer than methane.  It is an unintended consequence of using nitrogen rich fertilizer.

Janet Ranganathan and team wrote a hefty and thorough report filled with recommendations for reducing the environmental harm caused by high impact diets and overpopulation.  Consumption of animal-based foods is growing, and these foods (especially beef), result in higher emissions of greenhouse gases. 

Meat and dairy foods are not necessary for adequate nutrition, so less is better.  “Plant-based foods can be readily combined to provide the full set of essential amino acids, as with rice and beans or peanut butter and bread.”  The only essential not provided by a vegetarian diet is vitamin B12, which supplements can provide. 

Obesity is a growing trend, even among low-income people.  “Globally, there are now two-and-a-half times more overweight than undernourished people.  More than one in three adults are overweight.”  Folks around the world are overdoing the consumption of calories and protein. 

The Second State of the Carbon Cycle Report is a spellbinding 878 page report on the carbon cycle in North America.  I learned a very important fact of life:  “Globally, soils contain more than three times as much carbon as the atmosphere, and four and a half times more carbon than the world’s biota [living things]; therefore, even small changes in soil carbon stocks could lead to large changes in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2).”

Carbon compounds are central to the existence of the entire family of life.  The CO2 that plants extract from the atmosphere allows them to live and grow.  Plants exhale oxygen that animals need, and animals exhale CO2 that plants need.  Soil is home to an amazing community of fantastic microbes.  Dead organic material contains carbon.  When it drops to the ground, soil microbes eagerly decompose it, and do so in a way that stabilizes the carbon, so it is more likely to be retained in the soil, rather than float away.  Soil microbes that encourage carbon retention do not enjoy unusual shifts in moisture or temperature.  They don’t enjoy deforestation, tilling, or being sprayed with farm chemicals. 

Livestock production is a significant source of greenhouse gases — CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide.  Ruminants include cattle, sheep, goats, elk, deer, bison, etc.  The digestive system in ruminants includes a process called enteric fermentation, which produces methane emissions (3% farts, 97% belches).  Poultry, hogs, and horses emit greenhouse gases in smaller volumes via different processes.  Manure stored in large quantities generates large emissions of methane.  Pools of deep shit contain little or no oxygen, so they provide ideal conditions for producing methane.

“Soils in North America have lost, on average, 20% to 75% of their original topsoil carbon with historical conversion to agriculture.”  Most of this conversion took place in the last 200 years or so.  To add insult to injury, “On a per-person basis, food loss and waste in North America is 375 to 500 kilograms per year.” (826 to 1,102 pounds)

Arctic Fires

Zombie fires were the subject of a BBC story.  They are also called overwintering fires or peat fires.  They occur in Russia, Canada, and Alaska.  In recent years, temperatures in the Arctic have been soaring, and permafrost has been thawing.  When tundra and forest lands dry out, they become prone to wildfires.  These fires can ignite ancient peat deposits beneath the surface.  Toasty peat can smolder all winter, beneath the snow cover.  When spring arrives, the snow melts, oxygen reaches the embers, and the fire can reignite.  They “come back from the dead,” hence the zombie tag. 

Alexandra Witze reported that in the summer of 2020, there were many Siberian tundra fires, and they emitted 244 megatons of CO2, a 35 percent increase over the intense 2019 fire season.  About half of the fires were burning on peat lands, the most carbon-dense ecosystems.  When shallow layers near the surface dry out, they are more susceptible to burning.  Warmer winters and springs mean the fire season starts sooner.  In the Arctic, the fire zone is moving northward, into lands that have traditionally been fire-resistant. 

Portia Kentish reported that the climate crisis is well underway in Arctic regions, causing huge and spooky impacts — a powerful warning to the rest of the world, which is not leaping to action.  During a May 2020 heat wave, locations in Siberia that are normally close to freezing had temperatures hotter than Athens or Rome.  Some Arctic permafrost is up to 80,000 years old.  When permafrost thaws, methane emissions begin.  Heat waves encourage wildfires.  They are burning peat deposits that have been building up for 15,000 years.  About half of Russia’s Arctic fires are consuming peat soil. 

Forest Impacts

We could sequester lots of CO2 by planting enormous numbers of trees.  That sounds wholesome.  Sadly, the current fad is deforestation — cutting enormous numbers of trees to grow soybeans, create livestock pastures, make charcoal, produce wood products, and clear the way for urban sprawl.

As the planet gets warmer, forests will become more vulnerable to pests and pathogens.  Droughts will become hotter, longer, and dryer.  This encourages wildfires.  Wikipedia is posting pages that, year by year, document wildfire activity in the world.  The report for the record breaking year of 2021 is [HERE].  As of August 19, fires had been reported in Algeria, South Africa, Cyprus, India, Israel, Russia, Turkey, France, Greece, Italy (10 regions), Canada, and United States (9 states), Argentina, and Australia.

Rodrigo Pérez Ortega reported that climate change is encouraging trees to grow fast and die young.  Research suggests that this may be universal, affecting almost all tree species and climates.  Based on tree ring analysis, this trend corresponds with the exponential growth of human caused CO2 emissions, as well as rising temperatures — a combo that stimulates rapid growth.  This reduces their potential for maximum long term CO2 absorption. 

Nate McDowell and team studied changing forests.  “Shifts in forest dynamics are already occurring, and the emerging pattern is that global forests are tending toward younger stands with faster turnover as old-growth forest with stable dynamics are dwindling.”  These shifts are occurring because of “anthropogenic-driven exacerbation of chronic drivers, such as rising temperature and CO2, and increasing transient disturbances, including wildfire, drought, windthrow, biotic attack, and land-use change.”  Their findings indicate that it is “highly likely that tree mortality rates will continue to increase.” 

Robert Hunziker reported on new information linking rising temperatures with the increase in tree deaths.  In the U.S., giant sequoias are dying from the top down.  In the Southwest, drought has killed hundreds of millions of trees.  In Africa, 2,000 year old baobab trees are wheezing and dying.  In Germany, dead trees are everywhere.  Dead and dying trees are more vulnerable to insects and disease.  They provide abundant fuel for forest fires.  Siberia is burning up.  “New studies show drought and heat waves will cause massive die-offs, killing most trees alive today.” 

Dahr Jamail visited Glacier National Park, home to a formerly thriving boreal forest.  A warming climate has delighted millions of hungry pine bark beetles, some of whom can now have two life cycles per year.  In the last 20 years, beetles have killed 40 million acres (16 million ha) of trees.  They kill fewer pines now, because fewer pines remain alive.  The latest serial killer is white pine blister rust, which has infected almost 85 percent of the trees in the park.

Songlin Fei and team studied how insects and diseases are hammering U.S. forests, which are now home to more than 450 nonnative tree-feeding insects and tree pathogens.  The study focused on the 15 most destructive nonnative forest pests.  It found that “41.1% of the total live forest biomass in the conterminous United States is at risk of future loss from these 15 pests.  These results indicate that forest pest invasions, driven primarily by globalization, represent a huge risk to U.S. forests and have significant impacts on carbon dynamics.” 

Peter Wohlleben shared his intimate knowledge of the trees in his beloved German forest.  Trees can’t walk, but forests are always slowly wandering.  Since the end of the last ice age, a warming climate has enabled the trees of central Europe to gradually migrate northward.  Animals and winds move seeds away from their source.  Today, the climate is warming way too fast, which presents a mortal threat to temperature sensitive species.  Human tree huggers are working to relocate and transplant as many types of trees as possible.  Assisted migration is a heroic effort to “help forests walk.”

Climate and Disease

The climate crisis is not expected to promote miraculous advances in the health of humankind.  The huge herd is moving into an era of food insecurity, power shortages, water scarcity, poor sanitation, infectious diseases, deteriorating medical care systems, and so on.  A hotter climate and extreme weather events will add to these challenges.

The Lancet’s 2020 report presented a competent 42 page discussion on the climate change impacts on health.  Warming trends are increasing the frequency and intensity of floods, drought, storms, wildfire, temperature anomalies, and food scarcity.  These changes are killing more folks in the 65+ age range.  In 2018, heat waves killed about 296,000 people.

“The climate suitability for infectious disease transmission has been growing rapidly since the 1950s.”  The dengue virus is spreading across South America.  “From 1950 to 2018, the global climate suitability for the transmission of dengue increased by 8.9% for Aedes aegypti and 15% for Aedes albopictus.  In 2015 to 2019, suitability for malaria transmission in highland areas was 38.7% higher in the African region and 149.7% higher in the Western Pacific region compared with a 1950s baseline.”

David Wallace-Wells added that malaria also thrives in hotter regions because “for every degree increase in temperature, the parasite reproduces ten times faster.”  Consequently, by 2050, up to 5.2 billion people may be infected, according to World Bank estimates.  As tropical climates move northward, so will tropical pathogens.

Tipping Points

A tipping point in an ecosystem is a threshold that, when exceeded, can lead to large changes.  Sometimes an imbalance can reach a level of intensity that triggers an irreversible cascade of events, like a chain reaction of falling dominoes.  The climate crisis is a momentous tipping point in the human saga.  Melting Arctic ice has busted loose an avalanche of devastating changes.  Clever humans, with all their gee-whiz technology, are powerless to refreeze the Arctic, halt the avalanche, put the carbon back where it came from, and make everything nice again.

Over the millennia, high impact cultures have increasingly evolved into aggressive control freaks, radically manipulating ecosystems to satisfy their impulsive whims.  They are unencumbered by foresight, and display little respect for the family of life and the generations yet to come. 

For a very long time, their enthusiastic cleverness usually didn’t slam head-on into devastating limits.  They kept nature on a short leash, and brutally abused her.  The game is different now.  We’ve created changes that threaten our survival, changes we can’t undo.  We are no longer in the driver’s seat. 

Nature has put a tight leash around our necks, and we’re about to discover what it’s like to be powerless, kicked, and beaten.  Mistakes indeed have consequences (ouch!).  Our seat in the family of life is not a throne.  We are not the Crown of Creation.  We’re often more like hyperactive children who get completely lost, confused, and anxious.

Many folks who deliberately pay acute attention to reality are totally spooked.  These hyper alert folks have developed a special ability to comprehend the obvious — we’re in the <bleeping> express lane to surprising changes.  Many of them seem to perceive tipping points to be elements of a remarkable cosmic drama.  Tipping points are fire-breathing dragons that we must heroically slay in order avert runaway warming, and a hellish ecological apocalypse called Hothouse Earth.  

The alert ones are jumping up and down and shouting about tipping points, in a desperate frantic effort to wake up the clueless billions.  Dudes!  It’s time for action!  We only have ten years to fix this mess!  It’s not too late!  The presumption is that the mess is a solvable problem.  We are heavily indoctrinated with the illusion that technology can overcome any challenge. 

At the same time, the titans of industry assure us that they are ready and eager to sell us the miracles we need: electric cars, solar panels, wind turbines — clean green energy, and a prosperous economy that will grow until the end of time!  We can simply shop our way to a better tomorrow.  Everything will be OK.  Think happy thoughts.  Hope will save the world.

Will electric cars will be so cool that the Arctic ice refreezes?  Will the glaciers rise and shine again?  Will green energy be so cool that the permafrost stops thawing, and the methane seeps go back to sleep?  Is learning how to walk as hard as they say?  To learn more about tipping points, check out Fred Pearce, Timothy Lenton, Katharyn Duffy, and Will Steffen. 

[Continued in Climate Crisis 04, Sample 58]

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