July 18, 2011 – – Drought Spreads Throughout United States and World: Floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis and other extreme weather have left a trail of destruction during the first half of 2011. But this could be just the start to a remarkable year of bad weather. In the Southern U.S., 14 states are now baking in blast-furnace conditions — from Arizona, which is battling the largest wildfire in its history, to Florida, where fires have burned some 200,000 acres so far. Worse, drought, unlike earthquakes, hurricanes and other rapid-moving weather, could become a permanent condition in some regions. The NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) world map above, reflects drought conditions around the world. Latitude is shown on the left of the map. Zero degrees latitude is the equator, where most of the rain falls. Extreme drought is shown in red and orange, while less extreme but still dangerous drought is shown in light brown. Yellow is cautionary drought. The world is in a drought crisis!
Climatologists call drought a “creeping disaster” because its effects are not felt at once. Others compare drought to a python, which slowly and inexorably squeezes its prey to death.
The great aridification (the process of a region becoming increasingly dry) of 2011 began last fall; now temperatures in many states have spiked to more than 100 degrees for days at a stretch. A high pressure system has stalled over the middle of the country, blocking cool air from the north. Texas and New Mexico are drier than in any year on record. New high temperature records are being set across the United States and around the world.
In the U.S. alone, deadly heat led to 138 deaths last year, more than hurricanes, tornadoes or floods, and it turns brush to tinder that is vulnerable to lightning strikes and human carelessness. Already this year, some 40,000 wildfires have torched over 5.8 million acres nationwide — and the deep heat of August (next month) is likely to make conditions worse before they get better.
Climatologists disagree about what caused this remarkable dry-out. But there is little disagreement about the severity of the drought — or its long-term implications. The National Weather Service models show an advanced and continual aridification. The problem is, you don’t say, “The Sahara is in drought,” no It’s a desert. If the models are right, then the Southwest will face a permanent drying out.
Growing population has increased the burden on our water supply. There are more people on earth than ever, and in many places we are using water at unsustainable rates. Cultural shifts contribute to subtle, far-reaching effects on water supplies. In 2008, for the first time, more people lived in cities than in rural communities worldwide, and water is becoming urbanized. Yet some of the world’s biggest cities — Melbourne, Australia; Barcelona, Spain; and Mexico City — have already suffered drought emergencies. Further drying could lead to new kinds of disasters. Consider Perth, Australia: its population has surpassed 1.7 million while precipitation has decreased. City planners worry that unless drastic action is taken, Perth could become the world’s first “ghost city” — a modern metropolis abandoned for lack of water.
Similar fates may await America’s booming desert cities: Las Vegas, Phoenix or Los Angeles. Las Vegas is actually losing population due to the lack of jobs, for the first time in decades.
Our traditional response to dryness has been to build dams, pipelines, aqueducts and levees. Many advocate building even bigger dams and ambitious plumbing projects including one that calls for “flipping the Mississippi,” a scheme to capture Mississippi floodwater and pipe it to the parched West. But it is now widely believed that large water diversion projects are expensive, inefficient and environmentally destructive.
The ocean is a promising water source. For centuries people have dreamed of converting saltwater into a limitless supply of fresh water. By 2008 over 13,000 desalination plants around the world produced billions of gallons of water a day. But desalination, which is costly and environmentally controversial, has been slow to catch on the United States. In some countries with vast wealth, such as Saudi Arabia, it has been very successful. However, it is much too expensive in an era of tight U.S. Federal, State and Municipal budgets and cut-backs at every level. For poorer world economies it is simply not possible.
Meanwhile, global demand for water is expected to increase by two-thirds by 2025, and the United Nations fears a looming water crisis.
Something has to change about how we manage and use water. There is no question this will be an expensive, politically cumbersome effort. But as reports from New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Georgia and Florida make plain, business as usual is not a real option. Drought is already a major U.S. and world problem and in the months and years to come it will become a disaster of dryness.
The Master of Disaster