Tag Archives: food

drought and snowpack

At the same time we are experiencing drought and groundwater depletion in populous, food growing regions, there is concern about long-term declines in snowpack. Here are a few papers on the situation – two about the western United States and one about Asia.

Large near-term projected snowpack loss over the western United States

Peak runoff in streams and rivers of the western United States is strongly influenced by melting of accumulated mountain snowpack. A significant decline in this resource has a direct connection to streamflow, with substantial economic and societal impacts. Observations and reanalyses indicate that between the 1980s and 2000s, there was a 10–20% loss in the annual maximum amount of water contained in the region’s snowpack. Here we show that this loss is consistent with results from a large ensemble of climate simulations forced with natural and anthropogenic changes, but is inconsistent with simulations forced by natural changes alone. A further loss of up to 60% is projected within the next 30 years. Uncertainties in loss estimates depend on the size and the rate of response to continued anthropogenic forcing and the magnitude and phasing of internal decadal variability. The projected losses have serious implications for the hydropower, municipal and agricultural sectors in the region.

The twenty-first century Colorado River hot drought and implications for the future

Between 2000 and 2014, annual Colorado River flows averaged 19% below the 1906–1999 average, the worst 15-year drought on record. At least one-sixth to one-half (average at one-third) of this loss is due to unprecedented temperatures (0.9°C above the 1906–1999 average), confirming model-based analysis that continued warming will likely further reduce flows. Whereas it is virtually certain that warming will continue with additional emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, there has been no observed trend toward greater precipitation in the Colorado Basin, nor are climate models in agreement that there should be a trend. Moreover, there is a significant risk of decadal and multidecadal drought in the coming century, indicating that any increase in mean precipitation will likely be offset during periods of prolonged drought. Recently published estimates of Colorado River flow sensitivity to temperature combined with a large number of recent climate model-based temperature projections indicate that continued business-as-usual warming will drive temperature-induced declines in river flow, conservatively −20% by midcentury and −35% by end-century, with support for losses exceeding −30% at midcentury and −55% at end-century. Precipitation increases may moderate these declines somewhat, but to date no such increases are evident and there is no model agreement on future precipitation changes. These results, combined with the increasing likelihood of prolonged drought in the river basin, suggest that future climate change impacts on the Colorado River flows will be much more serious than currently assumed, especially if substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions do not occur.

Changes in seasonal snow water equivalent distribution in High Mountain Asia (1987 to 2009)

Snow meltwaters account for most of the yearly water budgets of many catchments in High Mountain Asia (HMA). We examine trends in snow water equivalent (SWE) using passive microwave data (1987 to 2009). We find an overall decrease in SWE in HMA, despite regions of increased SWE in the Pamir, Kunlun Shan, Eastern Himalaya, and Eastern Tien Shan. Although the average decline in annual SWE across HMA (contributing area, 2641 × 103 km2) is low (average, −0.3%), annual SWE losses conceal distinct seasonal and spatial heterogeneities across the study region. For example, the Tien Shan has seen both strong increases in winter SWE and sharp declines in spring and summer SWE. In the majority of catchments, the most negative SWE trends are found in mid-elevation zones, which often correspond to the regions of highest snow-water storage and are somewhat distinct from glaciated areas. Negative changes in SWE storage in these mid-elevation zones have strong implications for downstream water availability.

2017 in Review

Most frightening stories of 2017:

  • January: The U.S. government may be “planning to roll back or dilute many of the provisions of Dodd-Frank, particularly those that protect consumers from toxic financial products and those that impose restrictions on banks”.
  • February: The Doomsday Clock was moved to 2.5 minutes to midnight. The worst it has ever been was 2 minutes to midnight in the early 1980s. In related news, the idea of a U.S.-China war is looking a bit more plausible. The U.S. military may be considering sending ground troops to Syria.
  • MarchLa Paz, Bolivia, is in a serious crisis caused by loss of its glacier-fed water supply. At the same time we are losing glaciers and snowpack in important food-growing regions, the global groundwater situation is also looking bleak. And for those of us trying to do our little part for water conservation, investing in a residential graywater system can take around 15 years to break even at current costs and water rates.
  • April: The U.S. health care market is screwed up seemingly beyond repair. Why can’t we have nice things? Oh right, because our politicians represent big business, not voters. Also, we have forgotten the difference between a dialog and an argument.
  • May: We hit 410 ppm at Mauna Loa.
  • JuneThe Onion shared this uncharacteristically unfunny observation: “MYTH: There is nothing mankind can do to prevent climate change. FACT: There is nothing mankind will do to prevent climate change”. It’s not funny because it’s probably true.
  • July: Long term food security in Asia could be a problem.
  • August: The U.S. construction industry has had negligible productivity gains in the past 40 years.
  • September: During the Vietnam War the United States dropped approximately twice as many tons of bombs in Southeast Asia as the Allied forces combined used against both Germany and Japan in World War II. After the Cold War finally ended, Mikhail Gorbachev made some good suggestions for how to achieve a lasting peace. They were ignored. We may be witnessing the decline of the American Empire as a result.
  • October: It is possible that a catastrophic loss of insects is occurring and that it may lead to ecological collapse. Also, there is new evidence that pollution is harming human health and even the global economy more than previously thought.
  • November: I thought about war and peace in November. Well, mostly war. War is frightening. The United States of America appears to be flailing about militarily all over the world guided by no foreign policy. Big wars of the past have sometimes been started by overconfident leaders thinking they could get a quick military victory, only to find themselves bogged down in something much larger and more intractable than they imagined. But enemies are good to have – the Nazis understood that a scared population will believe what you tell them.
  • December: A lot of people would probably agree that the United States government is becoming increasingly dysfunctional, but I don’t think many would question the long-term stability of our form of government itself. Maybe we should start to do that. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been doing a decent job of protecting consumers and reducing the risk of another financial crisis. The person in charge of it now was put there specifically to ruin it. Something similar may be about to happen at the Census Bureau. A U.S. Constitutional Convention is actually a possibility, and might threaten the stability of the nation.

Most hopeful stories of 2017:

Most interesting stories that weren’t particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • January: Apple, Google, and Facebook may destroy the telecom industry.
  • February: The idea of growing human organs inside a pig, or even a viable human-pig hybrid, is getting very closeTiny brains can also be grown on a microchip. Bringing back extinct animals is also getting very close.
  • March: Bill Gates has proposed a “robot tax”. The basic idea is that if and when automation starts to increase productivity, you could tax the increase in profits and use the money to help any workers displaced by the automation. In related somewhat boring economic news, there are a variety of theories as to why a raise in the minimum wage does not appear to cause unemployment as classical economic theory would predict.
  • April: I finished reading Rainbow’s End, a fantastic Vernor Vinge novel about augmented reality in the near future, among other things.
  • May: The sex robots are here.
  • June: “Fleur de lawn” is a mix of perennial rye, hard fescue, micro clover, yarrow, Achillea millefolium, sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima, baby blue eyes, Nemophila menziesi, English daisy, Bellis perennis, and O’Connor’s strawberry clover, Trifolium fragiferum.
  • July: Ecologists have some new ideas for measuring resilience of ecosystems. Technologists have some wild ideas to have robots directly counteract the effects of humans on ecosystems. I like ideas – how do I get a (well-compensated) job where I can just sit around and think up ideas?
  • August: Elon Musk has thrown his energy into deep tunneling technology.
  • September: I learned that the OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook named “ten key emerging technology trends”: The Internet of Things, Big data analytics, Artificial intelligence, Neurotechnologies, Nano/microsatellites, Nanomaterials, Additive manufacturing / 3D printing, Advanced energy storage technologies, Synthetic biology, Blockchain
  • October: Even if autonomous trucks are not ready for tricky urban situations, they could be autonomous on the highway with a small number of remote-control drivers guiding a large number of tricks through tricky urban maneuvers, not unlike the way ports or trainyards are run now. There is also new thinking on how to transition highways gradually through a mix of human and computer-controlled vehicles, and eventually to full computer control. New research shows that even a small number of autonomous vehicles mixed in with human drivers will be safer for everyone. While some reports predict autonomous taxis will be available in the 2020s, Google says that number is more like 2017.
  • November: It’s possible that the kind of ideal planned economy envisioned by early Soviet economists (which never came to pass) could be realized with the computing power and algorithms just beginning to be available now.
  • DecemberMicrosoft is trying to one-up Google Scholar, which is good for researchers. More computing firepower is being focused on making sense of all the scientific papers out there.

I’ll keep this on the short side. Here are a few trends I see:

Risk of War. I think I said about a year ago that if we could through the next four years without a world war or nuclear detonation, we will be doing well. Well, one year down and three to go. That’s the bright side. The dark side is that it is time to acknowledge there is a regional war going on in the Middle East. It could escalate, it could go nuclear, and it could result in military confrontation between the United States and Russia. Likewise, the situation in North Korea could turn into a regional conflict, could go nuclear, and could lead to military confrontation between the United States and China.

Decline…and Fall? A question on my mind is whether the United States is a nation in decline, and I think the surprisingly obvious answer is yes. The more important question is whether it is a temporary dip, or the beginning of a decline and fall.

Risk of Financial Crisis. The risk of another serious financial crisis is even scarier that war in some ways, at least a limited, non-nuclear war. Surprisingly, the economic effects can be more severe, more widespread and longer lasting. We are seeing the continued weakening of regulations attempting to limit systemic risk-taking for short-term gain. Without a pickup in long-term productivity growth and with the demographic and ecological headwinds that we face, another crisis equal to or worse than the 2007 one could be the one that we don’t recover from.

Ecological Collapse? The story about vanishing insects was eye-opening to me. Could global ecosystems go into a freefall? Could populous regions of the world face a catastrophic food shortage? It is hard to imagine these things coming to a head in the near term, but the world needs to take these risks seriously since the consequences would be so great.

Technology. With everything else going on, technology just marches forward, of course. One technology I find particularly interesting is new approaches to research that mine and attempt to synthesize large bodies of scientific research.

Can the human species implement good ideas? Solutions exist. I would love to end on a positive note, but at the moment I find myself questioning whether our particular species of hairless ape can implement them.

But – how’s this for ending on a positive note – like I said at the beginning, the one thing about 2017 that definitely didn’t suck was that we didn’t get blown up!

ignorance and common sense

You would think ignorance and common sense would be opposites. But the term “common sense” has been in fact ruined because of its adoption by ignorant people. I’m not going to name names, but I have one particular U.S. President and political party in mind. Having common sense has come to be defined as believing one’s opinion is the truth. If you believe your opinion is the truth, you not only don’t know the limits of your knowledge, you can take willful steps to avoid acquiring knowledge, and you are completely impervious to evidence or logic others might attempt to share with you. Here are some illuminating quotes from a 2016 Washington Post article somewhat sadly titled Donald Trump doesn’t read much. Being president probably wouldn’t change that.

He said in a series of interviews that he does not need to read extensively because he reaches the right decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words ‘common sense,’ because I have a lot of common sense and I have a lot of business ability.”

Trump said he is skeptical of experts because “they can’t see the forest for the trees.” He believes that when he makes decisions, people see that he instinctively knows the right thing to do: “A lot of people said, ‘Man, he was more accurate than guys who have studied it all the time…’ ”

Trump said reading long documents is a waste of time because he absorbs the gist of an issue very quickly. “I’m a very efficient guy,” he said. “Now, I could also do it verbally, which is fine. I’d always rather have — I want it short. There’s no reason to do hundreds of pages because I know exactly what it is.”

What is that old saying – he who knows not he knows not, he is a fucking idiot with control of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. Hopefully his age, propensity for temper tantrums, and fast food habit will lead to him having a stroke and dropping dead relatively soon.

If the Secret Service is reading this, yes I hope he dies soon of natural causes, no I wouldn’t pull the trigger myself, but I would be happy to bring the next silver-plated platter of Big Macs.

On the lighter side, Trump is not the first President with a supposed Big Mac habit. Maybe he will join Bill Clinton’s vegan club. No word yet on whether Hillary has come up with a vegan cookie recipe.

National Climate Assessment – censored?

13 U.S. agencies, including NOAA, NASA and EPA, are required to produce a National Climate Assessment every four years. The thing about bureaucracy, which is sometimes good and sometimes bad, is that it grinds on somewhat disconnected from the political process. So the latest National Climate Assessment has been produced. It has to be approved by political appointees in the agencies before it can be officially released, but no matter because the New York Times has posted the key appendix here, called the U.S. Global Change Research Program: Climate Science Special Report. I’ll post a couple excerpts below:

First, a bit of the up-front matter:

The findings in this report are based on a large body of scientific, peer-reviewed research, as well as a number of other publicly available sources, including well-established and carefully evaluated observational and modeling datasets. The team of authors carefully reviewed these sources to ensure a reliable assessment of the state of scientific understanding. Each source of information was determined to meet the four parts of the IQA Guidance provided to authors: 1) utility, 2) transparency and traceability, 3) objectivity, and 4) integrity and security. Report authors assessed and synthesized information from peer-reviewed journal articles, technical reports produced by federal agencies, scientific assessments (such as IPCC 2013), reports of the National Academy of Sciences and its associated National Research Council, and various regional climate impact assessments, conference proceedings, and government statistics (such as population census and energy usage).

“Fake news published by the failing New York Times”, indeed! I vowed never to forgive the New York Times for their role in the Iraq invasion debacle, but they are beginning to redeem themselves. The Trump junta seems to be getting frustrated that their Goebbels-esque propaganda isn’t just getting parrotted unopposed.

And now, I’ll just share this graphic which I found a bit shocking:

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/08/07/climate/document-Draft-of-the-Climate-Science-Special-Report.html

One interesting thing is you might think Florida or Georgia might be the wrong place to be, but these maps suggest they may not change as much and the rest of the country will sort of catch up to create one big Jurassic stew. Now, people live in hotter places than Florida and Georgia and manage to get along just fine. The real question is whether we can grow food under these conditions.

If you don’t believe me that this is disconnected from the political process, read this Guardian article about how the USDA has been instructed to avoid the term climate change. That is the agency responsible for our nation’s food security.

Staff at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) have been told to avoid using the term climate change in their work, with the officials instructed to reference “weather extremes” instead…

The primary cause of human-driven climate change is also targeted, with the term “reduce greenhouse gases” blacklisted in favor of “build soil organic matter, increase nutrient use efficiency”. Meanwhile, “sequester carbon” is ruled out and replaced by “build soil organic matter”.

Reading on, I have to say it isn’t clear how high up the political chain this directive came from, or whether it is a mid-level supervisor advising staff how to stay out of political trouble. Self-censorship is still censorship though, and indicates the politicians have created a climate (no pun intended) of caution and fear for scientists. I can’t argue with building organic matter though, which would be good with or without climate change.

July 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

Most hopeful stories:

  • A new cancer treatment genetically modifies a patient’s own immune system to attack cancer cells.
  • Shareholders of big fossil fuel companies are starting to force some action on climate change business risk disclosure.
  • Richard Florida offers five ideas for solving poverty and what is wrong with cities: taxing land based on its improved value, massive investment in public transportation and public education, ending the mortgage interest tax deduction, and guaranteed minimum income.

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • Technology is marching on, whether or not the economy and human species are. The new thing with satellites is to have lots of small, cheap ones instead of a few big, expensive ones. Even if the coal industry were to make a comeback, today’s coal jobs are going to data analysts, remote control machine operators, mechanical and electrical engineers, not guys underground with pickaxes and headlamps. But the coal can be produced with a lot less human effort (i.e. jobs) than it used to be. Iris scans like in Minority Report are now a thing.
  • Ecologists have some new ideas for measuring resilience of ecosystems. Technologists have some wild ideas to have robots directly counteract the effects of humans on ecosystems. I like ideas – how do I get a (well-compensated) job where I can just sit around and think up ideas?
  • Isaac Asimov says truly creative people (1) are weird and (2) generally work alone.

Some combination of the Trump news, the things I see every day on the streets of Philadelphia, and events affecting friends and family led me to question this month whether the United States is really a society in decline. Actually, I don’t question that, I think the answer is yes. But the more important question is whether it is a temporary or permanent decline, and what it means for the rest of the globe. I am leaning slightly toward permanent, but maybe I will feel better next month, we’ll see. Maybe I need to get out of this country for a little while. Last time I did that I felt that the social glue holding Americans together is actually pretty strong compared to most other places, even if our government and its approach to other governments have become largely dysfunctional. We need to get through the next couple years without a nuclear detonation, hope the current vacuum of leadership leads some quality leaders to emerge, and hope things have nowhere to go but up. There, I talked myself off the ledge!

 

organic farming and soil fertility

This study in Ecological Economics looked at the effects of organic vs. conventional farming and owner vs. tenant farmers on soil biochemical activity. To paraphrase and oversimplify, what they found is that owners take better care of the soil than tenants, but organic farming methods can offset this effect so that the soil remains active under either type of farmer. I also found it interesting to hear how scientists use enzymes to measure the health of soil, which is a living system after all.

Various effects of land tenure on soil biochemical parameters under organic and conventional farming − Implications for soil quality restoration

Land tenure insecurity is one of the worldwide problems that often leads to soil degradation. We tested whether owner-operators maintain a higher level of soil quality and biochemical activity than tenant-operators and how this effect is modified by the agricultural system (organic vs. conventional) in arable fields. We selected 45 plots with cambisol soil based on a factorial design of owner-operator vs. tenant-operator and organic vs. conventional management. On all tested plots, the crop was wheat in shortly after harvest. We measured total carbon in soil and a set of 8 soil enzymes: acid phosphatase, β-glucosidase, α-glucosidase, cellobiohydrolase, β-xylosidase, chitinase, glucuronidase and arylsulfatase. These enzymes participate in the main geochemical nutrient cycles in soils.

Differences in the activity of 4 out of these 8 enzymes and differences in the weighted means of the total enzyme activity show a joint effect and indicated higher biochemical activity of the soil under conventional farming in plots farmed by owners. However, when organic farming was practiced, no obvious differences in enzymatic activity were found between soils farmed by owners or by tenants. The total carbon showed a similar pattern, although not significant.

Generally, we conclude that farmer’s motivation for making investments in soil health is driven by tenure security, especially in cases where the farm economy depends on profit from crop yields. However, the positive features of tenure security can also be ensured by effective agroecological standards, strict rules, higher levels of subsidies and other incentives that are typically provided for organic farming. We propose that changes in agricultural policies may not only stop land degradation in various parts of the world but also support ecosystem restoration process.

I think research on organic farming is crucial. (And no, “organic” is not the perfect word to describe it, but everybody knows what it means so it works.) If we are going to feed 10 billion or more people, we have to get more food from the same land because there is not going to be a whole lot more farm land opening up on this planet. In the past, we have done exactly this by dumping fossil fertilizer and irrigation water on our crops. This may continue to work for awhile, but it doesn’t seem sustainable for a number of reasons, ranging from overpumping of groundwater to loss of glaciers and snowpack we have relied on to nutrient pollution of our coastal waters to desertification to collapse of fisheries, all at the same time the population is not only growing but each individual’s impact is growing. If we can find ways to actually improve the land and soil over time, without causing pollution downstream, and without losing yield, that would be ideal.

food security in Asia and the Pacific

This 2013 report from the Asian Development Bank has some eye-popping statistics.

Trends in population, economic growth, industrialization, urbanization, and changing dietary patterns have largely encumbered already scarce natural resources. Total arable land per person in East and South Asia has been shrinking, falling from almost one-quarter hectare per person 50 years ago to an estimated one-tenth hectare by 2050. Water resources are also strained. Across Asia, between 60% and 90% of water is used for agriculture. However, share of household and industrial water consumption almost doubled during 1992–2002. The region would need an additional 2.4 billion cubic meters of water each day to provide each consumer with 1,800 calories per day by 2050. The growth in yields has been declining in Asia. And the projected impact of climate change will significantly affect soil and water resources in many subregions.

Expanding cultivated lands is no longer an option for food production growth in nearly all countries in Asia and the Pacifi c. Although most arable land is accounted for, there remains considerable room to increase crop yields even with currently available resources and existing technologies—provided appropriate market incentives and public support mechanisms are in place. Agricultural output and productivity can be raised in two broad ways: (i) through improved productivity at the farm level, and (ii) through better postharvest productivity. In South and Southeast Asia, about one-third of food production is lost as it travels through the supply chain.

During my brief time living in Asia and working on urban development and water resources projects, I started to have a sense that the sheer scale of human activity in Asia is such that it will determine our civilization’s future. What we do here in the United States or the western hemisphere more generally is less consequential, simply because we don’t have the scale of population, agricultural and industrial production, consumption, and more importantly, exponential growth of all these things that Asia is experiencing.

I am not an expert on agriculture, so it is easy for me to sit here and opine on organic farming and sustainable agriculture. Feeding people by the billions is a serious business where any missteps have unacceptable consequences, and so far a combination of irrigation, fossil-fuel derived fertilizer, massive surface water diversion and groundwater mining has largely managed to do that, although the poor sometimes get left behind. In the short term I don’t think we want to disrupt this system. But we better give some serious thought to whether it is sustainable (in the dictionary sense) in the face of exponential population and consumption growth. If not, the scale of human misery that will result could be truly awful.

So I would look for incremental improvements to farming practices that increase sustainability and reduce long-term risk without decreasing output. Soil and water conservation seem like a good place to start to me. If your farming practices are building the amount and fertility of the soil from year to year without causing water scarcity or pollution, that is a good clue that you may be doing something sustainable.

what’s going on with mad cow?

Mad cow disease is scary because there is such a long time between when someone is infected and when they begin to show symptoms, the kind of disease that could spread through large portions of a population before anyone realizes it is there. I am not saying it has, I don’t know. This article in Alternet doesn’t really address the current status, but it goes through some interesting history of the first outbreak in the U.S.

On December 23, 2003, the USDA announced that a Holstein cow, imported from Canada and slaughtered in Moses Lake, Washington, tested positive for mad cow disease. Ann Veneman, USDA secretary at the time and other USDA officials, said the cow was discovered because she was a “downer”––unable to walk—which was how the system screened for mad cows. In other words, the system “worked.” The problem was three workers said the cow had walked just fine suggesting that the entire federal mad cow testing program was worthless. Congressional hearings ensued.

As it turned out, congressional troubles were the least of cattle producers’ problems. Within hours of the mad cow announcement, China, Mexico, Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, South Korea and ninety other countries banned US beef and 98 percent of the $3 billion overseas beef market vanished. (The only reason the EU didn’t ban US beef was it was already banned for its hormones oestradiol-17, trenbolone acetate, zeranol and melengestrol which EU officials said increased breast and prostate cancer risks.)

After the first mad cow, things got worse. Two more mad cows were found in the US in 2004 and they weren’t from Canada. One was born in Texas and the other Alabama. Worse, a USDA export verification report admitted that 29 downers at two unidentified slaughterhouses went into the human food supply and twenty were not tested for mad cow disease.

Most of the countries mentioned lifted their ban shortly afterward, but China apparently is just lifting it now, according to NPR:

Cooked chicken from birds grown and raised in China soon will be headed to America — in a trade deal that’s really about beef…

The Chinese appetite for beef is huge and growing, but American beef producers have been locked out of that market since a case of mad cow disease cropped up in the U.S. in 2003. In response, many countries, including South Korea, Japan, Mexico and China, banned imports of U.S. beef…

Many people long had seen China’s refusal to lift its ban on U.S. beef imports as a negotiating tactic, a tit for tat aimed at allowing Chinese chicken imports into the United States. The negotiations that led to the new trade deal have been going back and forth for more than a decade, stalled at one point by worries in Congress over China’s food-safety practices.

This might be good for the U.S. beef industry in the short term, but an exploding demand for beef can’t really be good for the world in the longer term. Maybe this is not the kind of industry of the future that the U.S. should be focusing on. I’ll admit I’m a hypocrite – I love a good cheeseburger, but I try to treat it as an occasional treat rather than a staple food.