So, it's official. The latest IPCC report is out and it does link man-made global warming directly to the climate change we've been experiencing. The report also concludes that man-made global warming will lead to a continuation of severe storm events of increasing intensity and frequency; cyclical droughts and floods, and sea level rise. In other words, bad as the weather has been the past several years, it's going to worsen for the foreseeable future - i.e. your lifetime, your kids' lifetimes and your grandkids' too.
It won't be the same everywhere. What's happening is still often unpredictable. Some regions will get inundated with rain when they don't need it and then suffer drought when they do. Other regions are simply drying up. Most places will be getting hotter, some a lot more so than others. Only now are we beginning to appreciate that, for the past many centuries, we've been living in a meteorological Eden with quite moderate temperatures, precipitation patterns and storm events. Now we're shifting into what, contrasted to our benign climate of the past, is considered extreme.
Take the American and Canadian mid-west, the heartland regions, the Great Plains, the prairie. When Europeans showed up they had no way of knowing this vast region was enjoying a protracted and abnormal "wet" period. There was a reason it was all grassland but we didn't twig to it. Prairie grasses dominated instead of boreal forest because its normal climate state featured extended, severe drought cycles. Some are now understood to have lasted up to 60-years at a stretch. The absence of forests in an otherwise heavily forested continent ought to have been a giveaway but we didn't get it. Oopsie!
Europeans stumbled upon an area ideal for agriculture. Easy to plough under. Flat. Ample (for the time) precipitation. Enormous stocks of freshwater in huge aquifers. Good growing season. And so we transformed it into our grain belt and for a good, long time it fed us and plenty of others abroad. We built communities and then cities along the breadth and width of the region although, blessedly, the populations remained fairly small.
The Americans fell for it hardest. They populated not only their prairie but even their deserts. Masses flocked to the southwest for the dry heat always assuming that hot and dry though it was there was still plenty of water for their needs. Another oopsie!
And it's hardly better in the US southeast. McClatchey Newspapers last month reported that Florida, Georgia and Alabama are locked in a fierce dispute over water rights. Unable to come to agreement about sharing their watersheds, the states are each pressuring the Army Corps of Engineers to come through, even threatening to sue the Corps if they don't get their way.
The Corps said it's trying to steer clear of picking sides in the regional squabble.
"We don't own the water — the water is owned by the states," said Rob Holland, a spokesman for the Corps' regional office in Atlanta. "We encourage the states to resolve their problems, but we can't solve them for them."
..."The drought in the Southeast is far more widespread," said Mike Hayes, the director of the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. "People wonder, 'Can I ask my neighbor for water if they are in the same boat?' Other natural disasters, like hurricanes and floods, bring people together. Drought, if people aren't careful, can really set one sector against another sector and can create chronic tension."
But in the historically water-rich South, the battle over dwindling water sources already has turned nasty.
Georgia's congressional delegation is pushing legislation that would give all states the power to suspend the Endangered Species Act during extreme droughts, a move that would cut short Florida's claims to extra water.
"While they're worrying about an endangered species of mussels in Apalachicola, we're worried about the endangered people," Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., said Thursday.
The turmoil of the US southeast illustrates how the future impacts of climate change can compound problems in "me first" societies where inequality is embraced as a bulwark against supposedly tyrannical socialism. It is why winning the battle against inequality - of wealth and opportunity - is a pressing concern. Adapting to what's coming is going to require the most cohesive societies possible and inequality fractures that cohesiveness.
Bad as the water problem is in the southeast, conditions are worse in the US southwest. A new report examining tree rings has found that megadroughts lasting upwards of 50-years and extending from New Mexico as far as Idaho can be found as far back as the second century.
Paleoclimatologist Connie Woodhouse, a co-author of the study that will be published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, said scientists have wondered if the severe Western droughts that occurred between 900 and 1400 were unique.
The new tree ring record indicates they weren't -- and could occur again. “There is no good reason that we shouldn’t expect to have those,” Woodhouse said.
The southwest is currently reeling from a sustained, severe drought. In Texas, where governor Rick Perry denounces the very idea of man-made global warming and prays for rain instead, horse owners, unable to provide either feed or water to their animals, are simply abandoning them to face starvation.
Even once ever-soggy Britain worries about droughts continuing into next year.
The latest drought scenarios follow some of the driest weather since the Met Office records began in 1910, with rainfall in much of central England below 60% of the average for the last year, and much lower than that in some pockets. The mild, dry weather has continued into November in much of the UK, though regions in the north and west have become much wetter and colder.
The Met Office has told government emergency planning groups that there is only a low risk of an exceptionally dry year, however the European Centre for Medium Range Forecasting expects above average pressure over the next few months, which would usually lead to lower rainfall.
In a new approach, Thames Water, the country's biggest water supplier, said it was planning what is thought to be the first poster campaign showing customers the local river their water comes from in a bid to persuade more of them to help protect it while levels are low. Posters showing a pretty-looking stretch of the Kennet will be put up around Marlborough and Swindon in December as part of the push.