The new normal of extreme weather events

Ilaria Meggetto explains how “crazy storms” of today are likely to become harmfully normal.

Science tells us that we should expect increased temperatures in the upcoming years and that, even if we were to suddenly cease all anthropic emissions of greenhouse gases today, the global thermometer would still go up by some points, due to the climate system’s inertia, and stabilize only in the long term. As discouraging as it is, this is not the worst thing about climate change. The data we have is also consistent in indicating not only an increase in temperature records, but also an increase in their variance, so that while all temperatures rise on average, so does the frequency of their extremes and the events connected to them – droughts, floods, heatwaves and storms.

Hong Kong. Together with the Pearl River Delta cities, this coastal area hosts about 50 million people. Source: Author (August 2014)

I have lived in different places, experiences hot and cold climate. Before 2013, though, I had never been to the Tropics so when I moved to South China I did know what a typhoon is but had no idea what it means. During my first week there I was awoken by a strong thundering noise, so overwhelming and continuous that it could not be ignored. They sky over the 14-million-people-megacity of Guangzhou had turned deep red and, together with the intense smog above the whole area – making the horizon smoky all the time – for a moment I was under the impression the city was being bombed. Then, all of a sudden, a violent wind carried a mountain of water down the place. The rain did not stop for 4 days. Streets flooded. Electricity failed. Typhoon Utor had landed.

Typhoon Haiyan’s trail, 11 November 2013. Source: GDACS – Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System

A typhoon is a tropical cyclone is a storm system generated by the evaporation of massive amounts of water and it is characterized by intense thunderstorms whose winds blow above 118 km/h. As I learnt, locals call the period from May to September the “Season of Storms” and 2013 was the most active Pacific typhoon season since 2004 and the deadliest since 1975. A total of 52 depressions, 31 storms, 13 typhoons and 5 super typhoons formed in that year, the last being Category 5 Super Typhoon Haiyan that, with its winds up to 230 km/h, bought devastation across the South China Sea and 6,300 victims in the Philippines.

Understanding how this system works was crucial for me as it will be for many: deciding whether the apartment you want to rent is at risk of flood, knowing where to go when the typhoon alarm rings, stocking water supplies, putting together an emergency kit… are only some of the basic things needed to live in a place hit by intensified weather events. This situation, however, is not a local problem as it is transforming in geography and occurrence as we speak.

Oceans are warming up all over the world. The duration, intensity and number of storms has already increased by 50% compared to the 1970s. 70 to 100 tropical storms used to be the annual average but in the past few years this number has been almost matched by the storms generated in the North Pacific Ocean alone

Half of the world’s population resides along the coast, threatened by the sea level rise and the violence of weather events. When it comes to climate talks, water scarcity is in the spotlight but where water is too much, rising above the 2-meter-threshold and storming densely inhabited shores, the situation is equally dreadful. As disrupted climate patterns and unpredictable trends reach areas considered stable or safe in the past, being able to “read the signs”, subscribing to weather alerts, living “prepared” is likely to become the new normal for most of us.

IMIlaria Meggetto (email) is a Project Manager at Hydroaid (Italy), researcher, traveller, and passionate about climate change.

Look offshore, a deep subsea well to sink

Todd Jarvis proposes that undersea freshwater aquifers mean that we never need worry about water scarcity.

Water, water everywhere
Nor any drop to drink
Water, water everywhere
Look offshore, a deep subsea well to sink

Apologies to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by English poet Samuel Coleridge, but this passage is a fitting introduction to the future of water supplies as our Earth “ship” slips into uncharted waters in the wake of climate change.  Yes, desalination of sea and brackish waters will likely become ever more popular as the costs per cubic meter continue to decrease. But the real opportunity is not the sea, per se, but rather what lies below the sea.

Researchers located on the driest continent, Australia, posit that 500,000 cubic km of freshwater are stored in subsea aquifers on continental shelves around the world. “The volume of this water resource is a hundred times greater than the amount we’ve extracted from the Earth’s sub-surface in the past century since 1900.” While the Australians are famous for hosting some of the most famous water diviners in the world, this discovery is not wishful thinking, but rather the result of careful examination of offshore drilling data for oil and gas on the continental shelves across the globe.

Source: Creative commons/Wikipedia

With so much water at our disposal as we spin towards Life plus 2 Meters (and perhaps then some), why would there be any future talk of water wars? This is where things get deep as the legal arguments for who has access and ownership for sub-seabed water is not crystal clear.  Does “groundwater” fall under the UN Commission on the Law of the Sea where countries can claim ownership to an Exclusive Economic Zone that extends 370 km offshore from its coastal baseline? Or is it possible that a variant such as the Law of the Hidden Sea might apply to deep groundwater that is hydraulically connected to the sea? Perhaps water stored in “fossil aquifers” such as offshore aquifers should be viewed as part of the common(s) heritage of humans? Or, perhaps government should step aside and let business into the world of groundwater governance much like how the US and Mexico are dealing with subsea hydrocarbons in the Gulf of Mexico by “unitizing” maritime transboundary reservoirs?

The underwater village of Atlit-Yam located offshore of Israel provides evidence that there is Life afterplus 2 Meters.  The water supply of the village of Atlit Yam was apparently based in part on groundwater. One of the oldest wells in the world, a 7,500-year-old water well, lies between 8 to 12 meters beneath sea level in the Bay of Atlit.

Samuel Coleridge once said “Common sense in an uncommon degree is what the world calls wisdom.” While climate change may be the “albatross around one’s neck”, the “commons” sense development of offshore aquifers will ultimately lead to more cooperation and wiser use of onshore water resources.

Todd Jarvis is a hydrogeologist with over 30 years of experience. Prior to joining Oregon State University with the Institute for Water & Watersheds and the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, he worked for global water/wastewater engineering and groundwater engineering firms. He blogs on water at Rainbow Water Coalition and wrote Contesting Hidden Waters: Conflict Resolution for Groundwater and Aquifers. He serves as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Oregon Law School teaching Environmental Conflict Resolution and a consultant to UNESCO in their Shared Waters training program.