Saturday, July 10, 2010

We are living yesterday's tomorrow...

Stay with me on this one. 

The consequences of actions taken in my father's time are reaching maturity - and not in a good way. And they presage the the results of my own decisions.

Example:  The Hoover Dam

Nobody loves to watch those History Channel pieces about building the Hoover Dam more than I. But demand for water has made it less an answer than a relic.
The promise of abundant water and power took the brakes off the growth of Los Angeles, San Diego and many other western cities; it encouraged farmers to complacently plant the most water-thirsty crops; and it gave us city dwellers the impression that we can water our lawns every day without worrying about waste and runoff.
Yet the world Hoover Dam made is now facing the era of limits. For decades California was able to use Colorado River water formally apportioned to Arizona and Nevada, because those states weren't developed enough to use their full allocations. That condition ended in the mid-1990s, at which point California had to give up nearly 20% of its Colorado River supply.
Thus far we've managed a "soft landing" from that shock by crafting intricate reallocations of water among the state's agricultural, urban and ecological interests. But the balancing act is only getting harder, as a long drought shrinks our water-supply cushion and population growth continues almost unabated. Up to now, solutions to our water needs have been worked out in a crisis atmosphere. In the future, they'll take place against a political background too.
In the Central Valley, farmers are already marching to demand the construction of more dams to provide more water for irrigation, as if one can just create abundance out of thin air. Environmentalists' efforts to discharge water from reservoirs to preserve riparian and marine habitats draw the ridicule of conservative television pundits. Private companies have moved into the water business, figuring that where there's scarcity there are profits. [More]
Now consider how temporary that drought could be.  My guess: not very. 

In fact, let's go the the "worsest" case of all.  This is the 5% probability of climate change and global warming. (Not for the squeamish)
There is a horrible paper in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (hat-tip Desdemona Despair), which looks at how the limits of human physiology interact with upper-range global warming scenarios.  The bottom line conclusion is that there is a small - of order 5% - risk of global warming creating a situation in which a large fraction of the planet was uninhabitable (in the sense that if you were outside for an extended period during the hottest days of the year, even in the shade with wet clothing, you would die).  To give you a feeling for the likely uninhabitable regions, it's the portions of the map above that are in the white or pink/purple color (above 35oC wet bulb temperature on the scale).  As you can see, it includes most of the eastern US, much of inland Brazil and Latin America, tropical Africa, pretty much all of India, portions of northern China, and most of Australia.  Plenty to qualify as a "Risk to Global Civilization", I think.

 Some explanation is in order so I will borrow freely, with apologies.
More precisely, the wet bulb temperature being plotted here is the average annual high that extended for at least six hours, and the data is for 1999-2008.  So the filthy-hottest parts of the planet become clear - the tropics of course, with the inland Amazon and northern India worst, but the eastern US is not far behind, as also northern China and much of Australia.

So how high a wet bulb temperature can people tolerate?  The paper doesn't cite much experimental data (apparently the Nazi scientists missed this in their program) but what is known is that skin temperatures above 35oC (which is 95oF) are fatal for an extended period (your skin needs to be at least a few degrees cooler than your core temperature of 37oC/98oF so that heat can be conducted from the blood to the skin in order to shed metabolic heat).  So it's reasonable that if the wet bulb temperature is above this for an extended period (they take six hours) you won't be able to survive.  In fact, given that a human who needs to be outside probably won't be sitting in the shade with wet clothes and a big fan, the maximum survivable wet bulb temperature may actually be a degree or two lower.

At the moment, as the map above shows, nowhere on the planet gets up that high.  The highest is in the low thirties - pretty damn unpleasant, no doubt, and no-one is going to do a whole lot outside under those conditions, but not actually fatal for all but a small minority of folks (probably with other health conditions). [Same source]
OK, it's fair to howl derisively at the long shot this represents, but keep that 5% chance number in mind when you hear predictions about deficits, hunger, health care costs, etc.  If you use any 1-in-20 example to buttress your case, then this exercise is for you.

For my part, the fact this horrific outcome has a 5% chance, while a double-dip recession now is accorded a 12% chance and many of us have already taken that to heart means it is not a future we should discount out of hand, if only for relative probability consistency.

Back to the Hoover Dam.  The scenario outlined above certainly casts in doubt the future of water-intensive commodities like cotton in California.  If there is water for crops, it will be very high value produce, I would suggest.

Compare and contrast the above charts. I have, just like the maps of IL moving (climate-wise) to AR.

So let's say you are skeptical of these outcomes.  How about if the USGCRP is just half-right?

OK, make your own bet.  But I think the money is going to be made adapting to very high temps and rainfall here and desertification farther west.

Everybody gets to take a position on this one.


Anonymous said...

i thought you were tiling as fast as possible for above normal rainfall and adding grain storage for bigger crops?

John Phipps said...


Was I unclear? When I referred to higher temps and rainfall "here" I meant IL - which is why we added one more field this fall.

Well, also because about 10 A completely drowned out and we can put the outlets, etc. in there this summer...

As to the "worsest" case, I have no idea yet how to mitigate that. I was just struck by the eastern US being one of the hottest places.

Anonymous said...

John, now this year seems pretty hot so far in sw ontario but it pales too the heat of 1988 . Reading about different times of drought -heat some mid-west old timers tell of corn turning white in a couple of days from heat. Our "smart" ancestors left ontario and went too farm in mid-west in the late '30 s and told of hanging wet sheets in bedrooms to be able too sleep.Having water on 3 sides of us (great lakes)we have always had extreme weather changes,,1 day away from a flood or drought , so I have too question some science on this as in early '70 s we where told ones east of us would go back to growing silage corn as would be too cold for grain. Now the prairies this year is another story again-floods...maybe we are just info overloaded-regards-kevin

Anonymous said...

Geez, John...I've always liked reading your blog, but now it's getting downright depressing. What's up with all the doom and gloom?

The Hoover Dam is pretty freaking impressive and a helluva testatment to what people can do when they put there minds to it!

John Phipps said...


Fair point. I am posting less and I think the stuff I find most important to me is not very upbeat: the economy, climate, livestock industry, consolidation, etc.

But you are right - this could be a value judgment bias on my part.

The other thing I suspect is happening is grain farming remains one of a very few sectors NOT facing really hard times, so when I try to link to pertinent developments and events outside our industry, most of those are actually pretty foreboding.

Anonymous said...


Dealing with risk management is difficult enough on the short-term basis, let alone on event possibilities that span several generations. (Curse you, compound interest!!) The question gets to be is how much you pay towards mitigating risks that you have, and how to do so in the most cost-effective manner. It seems that most climate change proposals are not very cost-effective in their results, unless we have the doomsday scenario, and how much do we pay towards that? IMHO, we would be better off in spending on research for alternative energy pathways and gradually increase a carbon tax, with monies going to said research and deficit reduction. Sovereign debt crises don't sound like much fun either.

Andy Miller

John Phipps said...


I have always like a carbon tax. It could help with government revenues and the deficit and move us away from an oil economy.

Perversely, it would very good for ethanol by most estimates. Plus I like the idea of gradually increasing measures to encourage investment.

As for the problem with long-range predictions, as one commenter pointed out that strengthens the case for taking action sooner, because the models could be wrong in a conservative way as much as over-hysterical.