States across the Mississippi River basin are experiencing drought more commonly found in the arid Southwest, federal data shows. As of Oct. 20, nearly two-thirds of Wisconsin’s land was experiencing at least “abnormally dry” conditions, while swaths of western and northern Wisconsin saw moderate to severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
The dryness has disrupted agriculture, beached barges and upset ecosystems across large swaths of the Midwest, Great Plains and beyond, in epic proportions.
Mayors along the Mississippi River are asking for more federal help as the drought that has plagued the nation’s water superhighway in recent weeks drags on.
City leaders shared wide-ranging impacts of dry conditions at a Tuesday press conference hosted by the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, from barge slowdowns to water main breaks caused by shifting dry ground.
The U.S. government warned on Friday that it may impose water supply cuts on California, Arizona and Nevada to protect the Colorado River and its two main reservoirs from overuse, drought and climate change.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation unveiled three possible action plans: one to impose cutbacks, another to allow western states to work out a reduction plan on their own, or a third and least likely option of taking no action.
The shrinking Mississippi River has hobbled the most efficient channel for moving US soybeans onto world markets, prompting a pivot to alternatives from Puget Sound to Texas to the Great Lakes.
Typically, more than half of all US soybean exports traverse the Mississippi River but after weeks of scant rainfall, water depths have dwindled, raising barge costs to an all-time high. As a result, ports in places like southeast Texas that normally handle less than 5% of the nations soybean exports are being thrust into action.
With a megadrought persisting in the Southwest, El Paso and other cities on the Rio Grande are scrambling to find alternative sources of water and are turning to innovative approaches — desalination, transporting water via pipelines, and “toilet-to-tap” wastewater recycling.
Cars and wildfires contribute to Utah’s air pollution, but the Great Salt Lake is a less obvious but important contributor. Sitting just northwest of Salt Lake City, the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere is drying up because of water use and drought amid a changing climate, sending dust with toxic metals — including arsenic — in the air of a metro area with approximately 1.2 million people.
Particle pollution in the air has been linked to asthma, heart attacks, worsened lung function and premature death.
Extreme floods are devastating Pakistan, caused by a combination of heavy monsoon rains and melting glaciers. While Pakistan is no stranger to deadly floods, this event is especially shocking with more than 1,100 people dead so far and many millions more affected.
This Northern Hemisphere summer has seen extreme weather event after extreme weather event, from record-breaking drought in Western Europe, the United States and China, to flooding in Japan and South Korea.
This begs the question of the extent climate change is to blame. And, if so, is this what we should expect from now on?
A summer of extremes
The flooding in Pakistan is the latest in a sequence of exceptional disasters in the Northern Hemisphere.
Western Europe and central and eastern China have experienced record-breaking heatwaves and droughts leading to water restrictions. These heatwaves and droughts have also caused crop shortages, which are adding to the rising costs of food around the world.
While it’s true that several of this summer’s extreme events have been exceptional, we normally see more high-impact extreme weather events in Northern Hemisphere summer than any other time. This is because extreme heat, very heavy downpours, and drought are more likely at the warmest time of year.
Two-thirds of the planet’s land and more than 85% of the world’s population are in the Northern Hemisphere. This means there are more people to be affected by extreme weather than in the Southern Hemisphere, making the Northern Hemisphere summer the prime time for disasters to have severe impacts.
Additionally, extreme weather events can occur at the same time over different places, because of large-scale atmospheric waves called “Rossby waves”, which are a naturally occurring phenomenon, like La Niña and El Niño.
Back in 2010, western Russia experienced severe heat and wildfires while Pakistan had some of their worst floods to date. These events were connected by a Rossby wave causing a high pressure pattern to get stuck over western Russia and low pressure to persist over Pakistan.
Rossby waves can also result in heatwaves occurring at the same time, thousands of kilometres apart. Earlier this Northern Hemisphere summer, we saw simultaneous heatwaves strike the western US, western Europe and China.
Rossby waves may well have contributed to simultaneous disasters this summer, but it’s too soon to say for sure.
Climate change and the never-ending extremes
With so many extreme weather events causing mass deaths and large economic and environmental problems, it’s worth considering whether climate change may be making these events worse.
Human-caused climate change has warmed the planet by about 1.2℃ to date and this has caused some types of extreme weather to become more frequent and more intense, particularly extreme heatwaves and record-high temperatures.
Every heatwave in today’s climate has the fingerprint of climate change resulting from our greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, rapid analyses have already demonstrated that the human effect on the climate greatly increased the likelihood of the extreme heat in India and Pakistan in May, and the record high UK temperatures in July.
Research also shows climate change is increasing the occurrence of simultaneous heatwaves in the Northern Hemisphere, mainly due to long-term warming.
It’s less clear whether the Rossby wave pattern that causes simultaneous heatwaves in different places is becoming more frequent.
Climate change is also shifting rainfall patterns resulting in worsening drought in some areas, such as in much of Western Europe.
And severe downpours and extreme short-duration heavy rain, such as that seen in Seoul and Dallas in recent weeks, are being intensified by climate change. This is because global warming results in the air being able to hold more moisture – for every 1℃ of warming, the atmosphere can hold 7% more moisture.
Indeed, the heavy rains in Pakistan follow an observed trend towards increasing extreme daily rainfall totals. This area of the world is projected to see a continued intensification of daily and multi-day extreme rain events over summer, as the planet warms.
Worse extremes to come
We can expect more extreme weather events in the coming years as global greenhouse gas emissions continue at near-record rates.
Some heat extremes in recent years have been far beyond what we thought would happen after just over 1℃ of global warming, such as western North America’s record heat of last summer. But it’s hard to tell if our projections are under-forecasting extreme heat.
In any case, the world must prepare for further possible record-shattering high temperatures in the months, years and decades to come. We need to rapidly decarbonise to limit the damage caused by future extreme events.
The American West is experiencing its driest period in human history, a megadrought that threatens health, agriculture and entire ways of life. DRIED UP is examining the dire effects of the drought on the states most affected — as well as the solutions Americans are embracing.
As the Western U.S. suffers under its worst drought in a millennium, the government of Texas, a state that faces its own unique set of dangers from extreme weather, is at last turning to deal with the threat that climate change poses to its long-term water supply.
Texas’s situation is sufficiently dire that in July, a majority-Republican panel on the state legislature voted unanimously to require the state water planning board to consult with the state climatologist as it advises cities in planning to meet the state’s water needs in the future.
The rule change “removes the possibility that the political climate could harm [local water officials’] ability to plan responsibly for the future,” state Sen. Nathan Johnson (D), a major backer of the shift, told The Hill.
“It kind of insulates the regional water authorities from political pressures that would harm their ability to do what they need to do,” Johnson said.
But that process won’t bear fruit for years — and Texans increasingly worry that the crisis is here now.
Conservation planners in an era of climate change attempt to model and predict outcomes of mitigation strategies for the near and distant future. Global responses to the climate crisis generally have focused on the ways ecosystems will respond to mean, long-term changes in global temperatures (warming oceans, sea-level rises, and shifting seasons). But short-term, extreme weather and temperature events could challenge these best-laid plans or even make them irrelevant. According to a group of researchers from Australia and the US, led by Sean L. Maxwell, “Extreme weather and climate events…such as cyclones, floods, heat waves and drought, have become more frequent and intense in many regions of the world as a consequence of anthropogenic climate change. This pattern is likely to accelerate.”
The latest find as water levels fall: dinosaur tracks in Texas.
Severe drought conditions at Dinosaur Valley State Park, about 60 miles southwest of Fort Worth, exposed dinosaur tracks from around 113 million years ago that were previously hidden underneath the Paluxy River, according to Stephanie Garcia, a spokeswoman for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The tracks, which were discovered this month, belong to Acrocanthosaurus, which are theropods, or bipedal dinosaurs with three toes and claws on each limb.
The dinosaur would have stood 15 feet tall and weighed close to seven tons as an adult. They would have left their tracks in sediment that hardened into what is now limestone, researchers say.