Drought Blues

by Bill Chameides | February 11th, 2009
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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Different parts of the globe are parched, while the U.K. is coping with record cold and precipitation. Are these part and parcel of the extreme weather associated with climate disruption?

In the U.S. of A., most of us have been glued to our TV sets riveted by the political battle waged in DC and beyond over the stimulus package. For others, the weather is dominating their lives.

Topping this morning’s news: tornadoes strike Oklahoma, killing eight, while the death toll from wildfires in Australia rises.

Scientists expect that global warming will bring about more extreme weather – more severe droughts but also stronger storms and the floods they bring. It’s a sort of wetter and drier scenario, as the climate shifts from one extreme to the other (see related Grok post).

While it is next to impossible to attribute any one weather event to global warming, there is evidence that the climate has already begun to trend to more extremes. And for some folks, this scenario has been playing out with a vengeance in recent months.


The Aussie state has been in the grips of a devastating drought for the last decade. Now the continent has been hit with a record-breaking heat wave that in turn has set conditions for deadly wildfires – the Associated Press reports that temperatures have peaked at 117 degrees Fahrenheit with winds up to 60 miles per hour.

While authorities believe arsonists set some of these fires, Australia, the most arid continent on the planet, is prone to wildfires, much like southern California, and the decade-long drought has made the forests “tinder dry,” as the AP put it. The intensity and unpredictability of the 400 or so blazes that caught many by surprise, razed entire towns, and resulted in almost 200 deaths (a number that could climb) has the Australian government rethinking its fire policies in light of changing demographics and climate.


Since November of last year, eight provinces in northeastern China – the nation’s breadbasket – have been hit with a severe drought – in some areas the worst since the 1950s. The government has taken extreme action to stave off disaster by sending in troops to help the population cope and diverting huge quantities of water to farms to save the winter wheat crop. As a result of these measures, along with the use of drought-resistant strains of wheat and some rainfall in recent days, the Chinese government expects a good wheat crop this year.

The longer term prospects for the region are less promising. Rapid development and rising demands for food compete for limited water resources. To address this need, Beijing has begun planning a huge water-diversion project that would bring water from southern China to the north. The project has been characterized as the largest water project in China’s history – larger than the Three Gorges Dam. It would be interesting to read the project’s environmental impact statement.


Northern California continues to be in the grips of a drought (along with parts of Texas and the Southeast). The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that California’s third year of drought along with legal battles over the state’s dwindling water supplies threatens to drive some farmers out of business; already some farmers have chosen to leave their fields fallow this year rather than risk failing crops due to a lack of water.

Interestingly … while the Central Valley grapples with a host of water and economic problems, could the requirement to use some water to save the endangered delta smelt in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta be the straw that breaks the farmers’ backs? Doubtful. The little fish is just a sign of bigger problems facing the entire delta ecosystem (see here and here).

But Floods in the United Kingdom

On the other end of the spectrum is the United Kingdom. A brutal winter has dumped record amounts of rain and snow on large swaths of England, Scotland, and Wales. Now, areas hit by extreme rainfall are already receiving flood warnings. If the thaw in the snowbound regions is precipitous, might flooding rival the great summer floods of 2007?

You know the expression – weather, everyone talks about it but nobody does anything about it. It looks like we are indeed doing something about it, albeit inadvertently and we may regret that we did.

filed under: Australia, drought, faculty, global warming, heat waves, water
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