If no other statistic about climate change gives you pause, this one should: 1/4 of the world’s population – an estimated 1.4 billion people – rely on water from rivers that source in the Himalayas. As glaciers retreat, snow packs shrink and spring thaws occur earlier and earlier, the precious gift of a well-timed water supply is disappearing before our eyes. Instead, flooding torrents race down mountain streams too early in the spring for crops to use, followed by months of drought when the flows of once reliably mighty rivers slow to a trickle. If that weren’t misery enough, alpine lakes swollen from glacial melt threaten to break their banks, unleashing “Nepali tsunamis” officially called “GLOFs” (Glacial Lake Outburst Floods) that threaten to drown villages and fields and scour away topsoil.
Women, who do most of the water-fetching and firewood-gathering, are forced to walk further and further for essentials each day. Crop failures mean hunger and malnutrition.
Temperatures, like a seasoned sherpa hiking up Mount Everest, climb fast at higher elevations – as much as 8 times faster in the Himalayas than elsewhere on the planet over the last three decades. With warmer weather comes a raft of vector-borne diseases for which these cold-adapted communities have no defense.
Weak, sick, hungry, thirsty. So much for Shangri-La.
WHERE THE RIVERS NO LONGER RUN THROUGH IT
Downstream, as Newsweek’s Sharon Begley notes, “A special place in climate hell is being reserved for India and China.” Already, 20% of China has turned to desert. And the water table beneath India’s irrigation-dependent “breadbasket” has been so depleted, NASA satellites have been able to detect a change in earth’s gravitational field over the region.
It isn’t just the breadth of the water disaster that is so confounding, but the fact that it is accelerating. As worthy as the efforts by organizations and projects such as charity: water and Ripple Effect may be, it is hard to believe they can possibly make a dent when need is growing both exponentially and quickly. There is a great big climate change hole-in-the-bucket.
So fast is the change, “glacial pace” has had to be redefined. The Extreme Ice Survey, headed by photojournalist James Balog, set up dozens of time-lapse cameras to document glacial retreat in the northern hemisphere (95% of the glaciers outside of Antarctic are shrinking, with flow speeds doubling over the last 20 years). But even they were gobsmacked when a 1.8 cubic mile chunk – the size of 3,000 U.S. Capital buildings – calved off a glacier in Greenland in 75 minutes.
PROSPERITY SHIPS OUT
Indeed, only the Russians seem to see a silver lining in the global meltdown: For the first time in at least 5,000 years, a Northeast passage has opened up, making it possible for ships traveling from Asia to Europe to bypass the Suez Canal – at least during the summer months. The Beluga Group, which sent two ships as a test this summer, boasts that not only does the route knock 10 days off the journey at a cost savings of nearly $300,000, but that using less fuel means lower CO2 emissions. The lucrative “Arctic Rush” is on and, golly, it’s green, too!
Trade and development are routinely cited by politicians as reasons not to take a more aggressive stance on curbing emissions. Fear of being perceived as standing in the way of progress and its twin, prosperity, has blinded them to stark and utterly inconvenient truth: If the world continues to heat up, there won’t be as much to trade (failing crops, chronically depressed economies) or as many people who can afford to buy. That may begin to change as big institutional investors, feeling increasingly insecure about climate-driven threats to their investments, start to make their financial clout felt. The medical establishment has also come on board, framing the climate change as the biggest public health threat ever.
Climate change is a braid of the subtle and the profound. Warming air feeds winds that shift sea temperature cycles that change weather patterns. A monsoon misses its cue, or fails altogether. Landscapes parch, becoming fire fodder.
These tragic consequences are often “tipped” and amplified by land use changes that directly affect local climates. Expanding cities are expanding “heat islands,” while deforestation is a multi-category disaster. Lose the trees and you pretty much lose the game. It’s not just their talent for sequestering carbon. Their roots help funnel water to aquifers, while the transpiration – the evaporation of water from leaves – cools the air and provides moisture for rain clouds. Sea breezes blowing over a coastal forest can inland can push moisture inland, so clear-cut the forest and you could trigger a drought hundreds of miles away.
In both Mexico and Kenya, logging, legal and otherwise, have increased vulnerability to droughts, which are becoming more frequent and devastating. Hippos now bask in roadside puddles in Kenya, while water trucks are routinely hijacked in Mexico City. Dead livestock spells the end of a way of life for African nomads, while stunted crops bring debt to Mexican farmers and higher food prices to everyone else.
We know better. Or, more accurately, we have the collective knowledge to do better. The question is whether we have the collective will.
“Copenhagen Climate Summit Heat: from business to condoms” by Peter Casier – The Road to the Horizon round-up of issues & article links
“Study of 16 developing countries shows climate change could deepen poverty”: (press release overview / abstract & author links)
“Managing the health effects of climate change”: Lancet / University College London report on public health implications of climate change (free registration required)
Filed under: agriculture, air pollution, climate change, drought, forests, reforestation, soil health, water Tagged: | aquifers, biotic pumps, climate change, COP-10, Copenhagen, deforestation, Extreme Ice Survey, Glacial Lake Outburst Floods, GLOF, hippos, IPCC, James Balog, Kenya, melting glaciers, Mexico, Nepal, nomads, Sharon Begley, TED, The Age of Stupid, urban heat islands