Soil will provide future food security

John Simaika warns that soil erosion is likely to be a big source of food insecurity.

As seen from space, we live on a blue planet – a planet full of water – with a little green and brown here and there. A closer look, however, reveals that especially around coasts, there is often a brown soup coming from streams entering the ocean, for example off the east coast of Madagascar (Green & Sussman 1990). The majority of times, this is associated with land use, starting far upstream of the wide rivers that then carry once fertile soils, accumulated over hundreds of kilometers, into the oceans. A lot of this soil will have been washed into streams by a process known as erosion, the natural enemy of soil formation. Erosion can be water-based or wind-based. In most cases, water erosion is of concern. In a world where the weather is predicted to become more extreme, soil erosion by water will, for many reasons increase significantly.

But why should we care about ‘dirt’? Well, because dirt is alive, an ecosystem of its own, that is so diverse, that it carries a plethora of organisms in just a teaspoon. In that teaspoon will be bacteria and fungi, part of the so-called microfauna, and nematode worms, mites and springtails, to name a few of the larger mesofauna. This might not seem all that significant, but soil ecosystems are responsible for the global storage and release of CO2 (Guo & Gifford 2002), a greenhouse gas known to cause global climate change (IPCC 2014). It is the capacity of soils overall to store carbon that aids in mitigating climate change (Lal 2004), but this capacity, and its response to a changing climate is not yet well understood (Frey et al. 2013). With limits on time for action, soil conservation and the creation of carbon sinks or pools is high on policy agendas.

Apart from their role in climate change mitigation, soils are responsible for good plant growth and thus maintain animal life, including human life. Soil quality, topography and microclimate are essential ingredients to plant crop health and thus good quality food. The effects of climatic change on soil per se are complex, as they depend on soil type (the physical composition), topography, biological soil composition (those little microbes and invertebrates mentioned earlier), ecosystem type (for example grassland or forest), local climate, the direction of rainfall change, land use and land management (Blankinship et al. 2011; Panagos et al. 2015).

Rainfall patterns and intensity in particular, are a direct concern: While areas that are already dry are predicted to become drier, those that are wet are becoming wetter still (Burt et al. 2016). The real concern is with the intensity of rainfall events. Fewer rainfall days are predicted, with more rainfall overall, in those days. It is the intensity of the rainfall that causes more soil to erode quicker. In a warmer, wetter world, rates of soil erosion will therefore increase (Burt et al. 2016). Already, in Europe, the mean soil loss rate (2.2 t ha-1 yr-1 for non-erosion-prone areas) exceeds the average soil formation rate (1.4 t ha-1 yr-1) by a factor of 1.6. About 12.7% of arable land in the European Union experiences unsustainable rates of soil loss (>5 t ha-1 yr-1), a pattern which is considered a major threat to food security for the European Union (Panagos et al. 2015). Factoring in more intense rainfall events in the future, would translate to higher incidences of crop damage (IPCC 2012) and to even greater losses of soils and carbon stocks across greater agricultural landscapes (Reichstein et al. 2013).

With about 11 billion people to feed, agriculture will have to intensify, presumably on smaller pockets of land, as increasingly erosion and salinization take their toll on the landscape. Anti-erosion measures will have to be implemented such as reduced or no tillage, the planting of cover crops, keeping plant residues at the soil surface, the maintenance of stone walls, and the increased use of grass margins and contour farming (Panagos et al. 2015). Urban populations will have to adapt, and new innovative ways of making food in cities will have to take precedence. Urban agriculture might take the shape of roof-top and balcony gardens, and hydroponic installations. Urban gardens and public parks could also increasingly play a role in food security, as they will be increasingly used to grow food. It could also mean that our reliance on high impact foods such as red meat will have to take a backseat to eating insects (van Huis 2013). Food production in the city would not only add utilitarian value, but potentially decrease greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality (Lee et al. 2015), while increasing the aesthetic appeal of city life, where at least some people would experience a sense of place and being.


John P. Simaika is a Conservation Ecologist at the Department of Soil Science, Stellenbosch University. His research is applied, focusing predominantly on the conservation of insects in land- and water-scapes. He is an active member of the IUCN Freshwater Conservation Sub-Committee, and is Conservation Chair of the South African Chapter of the Society for Conservation Biology. To find out more, visit https://johnsimaika.wordpress.com/.

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.

HK
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.

Hayian
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.

Oil_platform_in_the_North_Sea
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.

Flying the not-so-friendly skies

NB: This “sample” post of 680 words explores one dimension of Life Plus 2 Meters. Many perspectives are valid!

The 2010 eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano led to the cancellation of flights in 20 countries and delays for 10 million passengers. The interruptions highlighted our dependence on moving people and things by air. The economic “loss” from 7 days of cancelled flights totalled approximately 1.7 billion USD. Thankfully, nobody was killed by high winds, low visibility or increased air pollution.

The "new normal" of Texas weather?
“New normal” weather for Dallas, Texas? Source

My girlfriend and I experienced a different kind of delay in December 2013 when Dallas airport was closed down by “unexpected” snowfall. Our trip from Vancouver to the Galapagos was saved, thankfully, by rerouting via Miami.

Air travel has a disproportionate impact on climate change because its GHG emissions occur at high altitudes, but air travel also brings disproportionate benefits to many. Most people in the developed world fly to do business, see family, and enjoy vacations. The falling cost of air travel means that many people in developing countries are joining them.

The sad news is that the delays and dangers of air travel are going to increase in the future. Although Life plus 2 Meters is unlikely to mean more volcanic eruptions, it is going to deliver similar interruptions in a different pattern. Increasing GHG concentrations are warming the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans at different rates. Changed heat patterns are affecting the rate of glacial melting and the circulation of water between the ocean’s surface and depths. Those impacts are, in turn, affecting the mighty currents that circulate water between the tropics and polar regions. Hansen et al (2016) predict — based on models, paleo-climate evidence, and extrapolation of current ocean temperatures and currents — that the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) will slow and shut down in the next few decades. The AMOC — by moving water from the Caribbean to the North Atlantic — modulates temperatures and storms in the North Atlantic. We can expect, therefore, more extreme temperatures and storms without the AMOC.

Colder winters and stronger storms will force humans, activities and infrastructure into unfamiliar territory. Impacts will be felt at all levels and sectors of society as “weird weather” disrupts agriculture, tests heating and power infrastructure, stresses ecosystems, and forces people to revisit habits of work and life, but the rest of this post will focus on air travel.

Temperature extremes are going to disrupt and endanger air travel. In northern latitudes, planes will need to “de-ice” more often, airports will face more snow and ice, and softer materials — everything from rubber to human skin — will need to be protected or replaced. More, stronger storms will increase risks from lightning strikes, floods and updrafts that will make it harder for planes to maneuver, take-off, fly and land. The situation might be worse in the tropics if hurricanes and rising sea levels attack airports from above and below. (This article discusses vulnerabilities at 14 major American airports, including 5 in the tropics.)

Strained and broken equipment and systems will increase danger for passengers, so flight schedules will need to be padded to cope with delays and cancellations. These changes will add to the cost of air tickets as well as the risk of travel. Airports in poorer areas may have to shut down if adaptation is too expensive, increasing social distance and economic inequality.

People will cope in different ways. Virtual business meetings will become more common, family reunions less frequent. Deaths will increase from current levels (117 per billion journeys, better than motorcycles but worse than cars) to higher levels. Innovations in technology and best practices will reduce or perhaps even overcome these losses, but “perfect storms” of bad conditions will surprise and kill us. Runways will buckle or crumble into sinkholes, short-circuits will leave planes blind, turbulence will turn planes into roller coasters.

Liquid fossil fuels are particularly well suited for flying, so they are unlikely to be replaced by “sustainable” alternatives, but that detail is unlikely to matter to people worried about iced jets chopping through turbulence to land on a runway that may hide a fatal pothole. The future of flying is more likely to be affected by outside changes that make the skies not-as-friendly to fly.


dz_smDavid Zetland is an assistant professor at Leiden University College, where he teaches various classes on economics. He received his PhD in Agricultural and Resource Economics from UC Davis in 2008. He blogs on water, economics and politics at aguanomics.com, has two books (The End of Abundance: economic solutions to water scarcity and Living with Water Scarcity), gives many talks to public, professional and academic audiences, and writes for popular and academic outlets. David lives in Amsterdam.