Waterless World

A Global Water Crisis Forum


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Reuter’s Special Report on Coastal Flooding

While much of what we post on Waterless World revolves around the many water scarcity issues that are growing globally, the broad mandate is to address global water-related issues.  This recent report from Reuters Investigates focuses on the local challenges to communities as the incidences of coastal flooding continue to grow.  The report, Water’s Edge, is appearing in two parts.  Part 1 focuses on their analysis that finds that flooding is increasing along much of the nation’s coastline, forcing many communities into costly, controversial struggles with a relentless foe.

Since 2001, water has reached flood levels an average of 20 days or more a year in Annapolis, Maryland; Wilmington, North Carolina; Washington, D.C.; Atlantic City, New Jersey; Sandy Hook, New Jersey; and Charleston, South Carolina. Before 1971, none of these locations averaged more than five days a year. Annapolis had the highest average number of days a year above flood threshold since 2001, at 34. On the Delmarva Peninsula, the annual average tripled to 18 days at the Lewes, Delaware, tide gauge.

The flood threshold does not measure actual flooding. It indicates the level at which the first signs of flooding are likely to appear – ponding on pavements and such. The higher the reading, the higher the probability of closed roads, damaged property and overwhelmed drainage systems. Scientists consider the readings to be a reliable indicator of actual flooding.

The Reuters analysis shows that the “impacts of climate change-related sea level rise are increasing frequencies of minor coastal flooding,” said William Sweet, an oceanographer for NOAA who led a team of scientists that released similar findings in late July. The NOAA study examined 45 gauges and found that flooding is increasing in frequency along much of the U.S. coastline and that the rate of increase is accelerating at sites along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts.

The coastal flooding is often minor. Its cumulative consequences are not. As flooding increases in both height and frequency, it exacts a toll in closed businesses, repeated repairs, and investment in protection. In effect, higher seas make the same level of storm and even the same high tides more damaging than they used to be.

In Charleston, a six-lane highway floods when high tides prevent storm water from draining into the Atlantic, making it difficult for half the town’s 120,000 residents to get to three hospitals and police headquarters. The city has more than $200 million in flood-control projects under way.

In Annapolis, home to the U.S. Naval Academy, half a foot of water flooded the colonial district, a National Historic Landmark, at high tide on Chesapeake Bay during rainstorms on April 30, May 1, May 16 and Aug. 12. Shopkeepers blocked doorways with wood boards and trash cans; people slipped off shoes to wade to work in bare feet.

Tropical storm flooding has worsened, too, because the water starts rising from a higher platform, a recent study found.


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Megadrought Potential Grows in Western U.S.

More analysis continues to roll out on the possibility that the current drought in the western U.S. may be more than a run-of-the-mill drought.  From the website Common Dreams:

A new study warns that the chances of western states in the U.S. experiencing a multi-decade ‘megadrought’—not seen in historical climate records in over 2,000 years—has a much higher chance of occurring in the decades ahead than previously realized. In fact, scientists are warning, the drought now being experienced in California and elsewhere could be just the beginning of an unprecedented water crisis across the west and southwest regions of the country.

The research—a project between scientists at Cornell University, the University of Arizona, and the U.S. Geological Survey—shows that chances for a decade-long drought this century is now at fifty-fifty, and that a drought lasting as long as 35 years—defined as a “megadrought”—has a twenty- to fifty-percent chance of occurring.

“For the southwestern U.S., I’m not optimistic about avoiding real megadroughts,” Toby Ault, Cornell assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences and lead author of the paper, told the Cornell Chronicle. “As we add greenhouse gases into the atmosphere – and we haven’t put the brakes on stopping this – we are weighting the dice for megadrought.”

And if such a megadrought does occur, warned Ault, “This will be worse than anything seen during the last 2,000 years.”

And as USA Today notes, “The difference now, of course, is the Western USA is home to more than 70 million people who weren’t here for previous megadroughts. The implications are far more daunting.”

The study—entitled Assessing the Risk of Persistent Drought Using Climate Model Simulations and Paleoclimate Data—used both “climate model projections as well as observational (paleoclimate) information” as it looked back over the historic records of drought in the region while also looking forward by using advanced predictive techniques used to measure the possible impacts of current and future global warming.

According to the study’s abstract, its findings “are important to consider as adaptation and mitigation strategies are developed to cope with regional impacts of climate change, where population growth is high and multidecadal megadrought—worse than anything seen during the last 2000 years—would pose unprecedented challenges to water resources in the region.”

“The picture is not pretty,” said Julia Cole, a professor of geosciences and atmospheric sciences at the University of Arizona and co-author of the study. “We hope this opens up new discussions about how to best use and conserve the precious water that we have.”

Changing the way western states manage their water resources and policies that respond aggressively to the issue of climate change, Cole indicated, could mitigate the worst impacts.

“I think we’d really have to change the way we think about water and the way that we use water because right now we’re on a path that would be unsustainable if we had a drought of 35 years,” Cole said.


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California: Water Reservoir Conditions

There are many ways to qualitatively and quantitatively express what is occurring in the Golden State these days, but the rubber really hits the road when you look at potential impacts to drinking water access.  This map, courtesy of the California Department of Water Resources, illustrates what is happening to the major reservoirs across the state.  Most are at less than 50% of their historical average.

California Drought Map 090114


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California Heat Wave – The Trend is Not Your Friend

While the drought in California has been well reported, much less has been said about the associated heat that has plagued the state all year. Records may be made to be broken, but this is one they could probably do without.

From Bloomberg

The California heat this year is like nothing ever seen, with records that go back to 1895. The chart below shows average year-to-date temperatures in the state from January through July for each year. The orange line shows the trend rising 0.2 degrees Fahrenheit per decade.

The sharp spike on the far right of the chart is the unbearable heat of 2014. That’s not just a new record; it’s a chart-busting 1.4 degrees higher than the previous record. It’s an exclamation point at the end of a long declarative sentence.

California Heat

The high temperatures have contributed to one of the worst droughts in California’s history. The water reserves in the state’s topsoil and subsoil are nearly depleted, and 70 percent of the state’s pastures are rated “very poor to poor,” according to the USDA. By one measure, which takes into account both rainfall and heat, this is the worst drought ever.

While the temperatures are extreme, they’re not entirely unexpected. The orange trend line above is consistent with rising temperatures across the globe. Average surface temperatures on Earth have warmed roughly 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880, according to NASA. The eastern half of the U.S. has had an unusually cool 2014, but it’s a lone exception compared to the rest of the planet.

The International Panel on Climate Change, which includes more than 1,300 scientists, forecasts temperatures to rise 2.5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century. That puts California’s record heat well within the range of what’s to come, turning this “hot weather” into, simply, “weather.”