Could We Survive a 30-year Drought?

By Keith Kloor | July 26, 2012 4:19 pm

If you had time to read only one scholarly paper on drought, I’d suggest this one (published in 2007) by Cook et al. It’s a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary overview that amply supports this assertion made in the first sentence of the abstract:

Severe drought is the greatest recurring natural disaster to strike North America.

The Cook et al paper reads like a forensic reconstruction of the past 1000 years, revealing

the occurrence of past “megadroughts” of unprecedented severity and duration, ones that have never been experienced by modern societies in North America. There is strong archaeological evidence for the destabilizing influence of these past droughts on advanced agricultural societies, examples that should resonate today given the increasing vulnerability of modern water-based systems to relatively short-term droughts.

Speaking of those short-term droughts, they happen to be much in the news right now. The top story in today’s print edition of the New York Times starts off:

Scorching heat and the worst drought in nearly a half-century are threatening to send food prices up, spooking consumers and leading to worries about global food costs.

Many other recent stories have referenced NOAA’s state of the climate report from last month (June), which included this sobering tidbit:

In 2012, about 56 percent of the contiguous U.S. was in moderate to extreme drought at the end of June. The last time drought was this extensive was in December 1956 when about 58 percent was in moderate to extreme drought.

 At the same time, NOAA also reports:

While extensive, drought in 2012 has not been as severe or widespread, westwide, as it was in 2002-2005.

That brought back memories for me, when I was working on this archaeological story in the mid-2000s. It took me to a remote and magnificent part of Utah that I would periodically return to for the rest of the decade, reporting on additional facets of a controversy that grew out of the initial piece. (Here’s a reflective post that includes most of the links to those stories).

So for that first article, I’m interviewing two of the principal archaeologists–Kevin Jones and Duncan Metcalfe– at the main site in Utah’s Range Creek Canyon, when the conversation turns to drought. The context is Utah prehistory but the discussion also touches on the recent drought that had gripped parts of the Southwest, including Utah. At one point, Jones injects some perspective:

The drought that nearly brought this country to its knees in the 1930s wasn’t all that long.

The two archaeologists then remind me of the mega-droughts I referenced above. (Incidentally, the prehistoric Plains got nailed, too.) With that context in mind, Metcalfe wonders about modern day Utah and the United States. “Could we survive a thirty year drought?” he asks rhetorically. “Absolutely not. We don’t have that buffering capability in place.” [This is a reference to reservoirs and other means of water storage.]

Jones then muses:

Collectively, humans are very, very bad at planning for the future. We like to coast and think things are going to be the same as they are. It makes sense in terms of  your own personal decision making to not always be preparing for disaster. But collectively we’re just as bad at it as we are as individuals.

Now before we go any further, let me add another wrinkle to this longer-term perspective on drought. For that, we go a 2009 paper by Woodhouse et al and this section:

Although these “warm” medieval droughts may be considered conservative analogues for future droughts, it is important to recognize that there are many reasons that the mid-12th century drought cannot be considered an exact analogue for future worst-case droughts. Besides anthropogenic warming, there have been a multitude of changes in land cover throughout the Southwest due to human activities since the late 19th century. Conversion of desert and grassland to cropland, grazing, fire suppression, introduction of invasive species, disturbances leading to soil erosion and blowing dust, and the development of urban areas have all likely had impacts on regional climate. No systematic studies on these land cover changes and their impacts on climate or drought have been undertaken, but these changes are another important reason that droughts of the past are unlikely to be an exact analogue for current and future droughts. In addition, from an impacts standpoint, droughts have a much broader range of impacts on human activities today than in the past because of today’s greater demands on limited water resources.

Fast forward to a post I wrote at the beginning of 2012 for the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media, in which I contend that

we have yet to appreciate what science has already learned about climate change in the distant past, specifically (tree ring) evidence of devastating, prolonged droughts.

This history and the contemporary land use changes and settlement patterns that Woodhouse et al describe gives us much to chew on in the context of today’s drought. Here’s something else from that paper we might want to keep in mind:

As far as we know, there is no reason why droughts of the duration, severity, and spatial extent experienced in the medieval period could not occur in the future. Even without the anticipated increased warming in the 21st century, droughts of the magnitude of the medieval droughts would present enormous challenges to water management agencies. Worst-case droughts of the 20th century, unlike those of the paleo record, do not contain episodes of many consecutive decades without high [water] flows, so critical for refilling of reservoirs.

Could we survive a 30-year drought? Maybe it’s a question that should be part of today’s anxious conversation on drought.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Archaeology, climate change, drought
  • Bob Koss

    If it became a matter of life or death, regulations would be swept away and the 5500 cubic miles of water in the Great Lakes would be piped to where needed.

  • Gaythia Weis

    I did once attend a public hearing on water in Fort Collins, CO, where someone who had moved there from Minnesota suggested a similar “pipeline”to that proposed by Bob Koss.   Fort Collins has an elevation of 5000ft and is 814 miles from the Mississippi at  Davenport, Iowa.  Lake Superior has an elevation of 592ft.  Starting in about 1870, Chicago consistently changed the flow of the Chicago River to dispose of Chicago wastewater not into Lake Michigan (elevation 577 ft) but into the Mississippi River valley watershed.  But getting water from the Great Lakes to most places it is needed would be one heck of a high energy pumping project.  Could we irrigate more of the Mississippi Valley than we do currently?  Yes we could.  But, to a great extent, that wouldn’t fit the “where needed”.

  • Mary

    Well, I live near the ocean. With technology that exists today, desalinization is possible. And with a bit of a boost from salt-tolerant GMO plants, I’ll be eating. Sorry for the rest of you and the technophobes.

  • Jeff Norris

    @3Fifteen years into the drought, a large portion of “the rest of you” will have migrated to the coasts and other areas not heavily affected.  A thirty year drought would have several knock on effects, moving people and industry.We would change but overall we would survive.

  • BillC

    Yes, I echo the thoughts of #1-4. Would we survive? Yes. Would some people move? Yes. Would we invoke massive new infrastructure? Yes. This sort of thing is too complicated to be analyzed in brief though it’s fun to try. Reminds me of an economist’s column about how government shouldn’t have subsidized railroad expansion in the 19th Century USA. Just try to figure out how things would be different. I do think any large changes would tend to have a net negative impact due to the disproportionate impact on folks vulnerable to that sort of change (the poor, almost everywhere) and in this case, midwestern/western rural areas. Unless there is some sort of benefit that cancels out that change in the net aggregate analysis. Even then, distribution of benefits makes it way more complicated.

  • Joshua

    Billc -Would you happen to have a link to that economists’ article?

  • Leo G

    Well 2 quick points, thank God for Globalization of trade networks. For years the U.s. and Canada’s food belt has fed untold millions around the world, whilst they suffered through drought/floods etc. So I would think that the trade routes would be reversed.  

    Second, why the hell are all of these dams’ being decommisioned and “natural” flow for rivers and water courses is such a hip thing to do now-a-days?

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    If you look at what has resulted from long term changes to regional climate in the historical record, you tend to see strong impact and swift adaptation after a short, sharp period of denial. (‘It’ll get better, it’ll get better, it’ll get better–honey, throw the kids in the back of the wagon. We’re outta here.’)Jared Diamond’s book Collapse, while flawed in some ways and not as good as Guns, Germs and Steel, at least charts some of the areas that have gone through what you describe. What you see is indeed collapse of a local variant of a civilization while regions closest and unaffected grow–perhaps taking in climate refugees to help.But Keith, I’ll bet real money you could provide substantive input on this from your extensive reading about the southwestern United States. What do you think?

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    Oops! Formatted….If you look at what has resulted from long term changes to regional climate in the historical record, you tend to see strong impact and swift adaptation after a short, sharp period of denial. (“˜It’ll get better, it’ll get better, it’ll get better”“honey, throw the kids in the back of the wagon. We’re outta here.’)

    Jared Diamond’s book Collapse, while flawed in some ways and not as good as Guns, Germs and Steel, at least charts some of the areas that have gone through what you describe. What you see is indeed collapse of a local variant of a civilization while regions closest and unaffected grow”“perhaps taking in climate refugees to help.

    But Keith, I’ll bet real money you could provide substantive input on this from your extensive reading about the southwestern United States. What do you think? 

  • Joshua

    Keith – What’s the current thinking on what led to the collapse of the Anasazi civilization (or is the current thinking that it morphed but didn’t collapse)?

  • Sashka

    Soviet Union had long been planning to turn the Great Siberian rivers around to irrigate the Asian republics. Fortunately USSR died before the project was set in motion. A bit of public discussion that I witnessed highleghted a potential environmental disaster so the project died too.

    The impact on the regional climate wasn’t even discussed even though it would probably have been profound.

  • Keith Kloor

    Tom Fuller (9) has it right here:
    “What you see is indeed collapse of a local variant of a civilization while regions closest and unaffected grow”“perhaps taking in climate refugees to help.”

    The collapse meme, unfortunately, has become a bit of frankenstein. People don’t just get wiped out in entirety. And while this notion has certainly been represented in popular interpretations of SW archaeology (e.g. Anasazi), the actual truth is more along the lines of what Tom says.

    This isn’t to say that cultures haven’t been decimated by drought and env resource crashes and warfare (resulting from all interplay of all three factors), but in actuality, people do migrate, become absorbed in other cultures, etc, etc.

    Joshua (10):

    For a discussion of your very question, read my 2007 feature in Science. I can’t find my PDF, but I see a university has downloaded it here.

  • BillC

    Joshua – nope, sorry. Memory…Collapse is decent. It’s not the environmentalist screed it’s been accused of being, and is decidedly nuanced on climate change. I don’t doubt it’s not as good as GGS, as follow-on works rarely are, but I haven’t read GGS.

  • Windy

    Well this certainly gets one to ponder the thinking behind using fresh water and crop soil to create fuel as a tactic for helping the USA become fuel independent.

  • http://neven1.typepad.com/blog Neven

    Probably not all of ‘us’ survive it. It will probably not be good for economic growth either. No economic growth is the same as death, I have been taught.

  • BBD

    Best be nice to those Canadians :-) You might just be needing their lakes.

    A additional reference to those Keith provides is Dai (2010), Drought under global warming, a review.

    Contrarians can ignore this because part of the paper deals with drought projections derived from models. And not just any models but the 22-model ensemble-mean surface air temperature, precipitation, humidity, net radiation, and wind speed used in AR4. The study used the SRES A1B medium emissions scenario, which

    Everyone else may want to have a look, at least at the pretty pictures, which are high-resolution versions of the paper’s Fig. 11, panels (d), (e) and (f). Red to pink areas are extremely dry (severe drought) conditions while blue colours indicate wet areas relative to the 1950″“1979 mean.

    2030 – 2039

    2060 – 2069

    2090 – 2099

  • Tom Scharf

    What is the ratio of predictions of “experts” for doom and gloom vs. predictions things will actually improve?  At least 100 to 1?  Or is it only scare stories get covered?All things being equal we should see 50/50 of worse or better. Pessimism is so ingrained into the academic system you have to seriously discount all future predictions of gloom. 

  • harrywr2

    The US will surely survive a 30 year drought. The ethanol business will go under and those folks that depend on US exports might end up hungry.USDA estimated production and disposition of major grains. http://www.usda.gov/oce/commodity/wasde/latest.pdf

  • Tom Scharf

    BBD,

    You can count me into to dismissing model predictions.  You forgot to mention that the ensemble models have very poor consistency between different models.  Averaging high divergence isn’t a “fix” for poor results. 

  • BBD

    Tom Scharf

    As I said, just ignore it. Junk science and all that.

  • kdk33

    yes, yes, yes.  ..The worst drought since the 50′s.  Which was the worst drought since the 30′s.  Which were both worse.AFAICT, the weather is getting better.So much to worry about.

  • Fred

    Keith’s post is most interesting. I believe the idea is essentially that the “normal distribution” of climate extremes is a lot wider than would be expected if observations are limited to those of the human historical period. A very wise thought for conceptualizing what may lie ahead. That it gets presented here is a reason why this blog is worthwhile. It also has enhanced personal meaning to me because I am now spending around 9 months of the year in semi-arid western Kansas.

  • Jack Hughes

    Psychologists describe this as Omni-Phobia – a fear of everything. 

    Luckily there are simple remedies – like talking to neighbours, spending time with children, or getting a pet. 

    Some sufferers have even kicked it by getting a proper job where they interact with real people and fill their time with productive and satisfying activities 

  • BBD

    @ 23: Psychologists describe this as denial.

  • jim

    Our current land use policies, esp fed water projects, make us more vulnerable to drought.  Many coastal lowlands that have high precip and good soil have become urbanized bcz cheap water from fed water projects in desert regions devalues farmland with good access to water elsewhere.  Puget lowlands are a good example.We also have substantial aquifer drawdown in the great plains and, although dams even out the availability of water from year to year, they consume billions of gallons annually through evap loss.Ultimately, desalinization is the solution.  Piping water from the Great Lakes or Mississippi is just robbing Peter to pay Paul.  A major desal plant in the PNW, piped over the N Cascades, could distribute water throughout upper GP and along Rocky Mountain trench.  LA could reverse its current supply system and send water back to the SW interior via Owens Lake, and on to farms in SoCal and the CAP.

  • Pingback: A Closer Look at Extreme Drought in a Warming Climate - NYTimes.com

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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