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Does Running Out Of Water Explain Why a Few Degrees Matter?

Pete Altman

Posted July 22, 2010

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One of the frequent questions we get about the effects of global warming is “what does a few degrees matter?” If the heatwaves of this summer haven’t driven home the answer, maybe a look at the prospets of water shortages will.

Those of you who have followed my blog know that I first raised water-related climate issues more than a year ago in the context of the massive H2O demands created by new coal-fired and nuclear power plants.   That’s an issue that doesn’t get enough attention, but it’s also true that water issues in general (particularly when it comes to impact in the U.S.) tend to get glossed over.

Well, until yesterday. That’s when the NRDC and Tetra Tech released a major new report showing that more than 1,100 U.S. counties – over one out of three in the lower 48 states – will face water shortages by 2050. As we found, if warmer-temperatures due to climate change continue to rise, well, the effects are enough to make your mouth go dry:

There’s an excellent 4-page overview of the report available and those of you who like to “Google Earth” things will find this view of the problem to be very powerful. 

How bad is this situation? Dan Lashof, director of the Climate Center at NRDC, put it this way:

“This analysis shows climate change will take a serious toll on water supplies throughout the country in the coming decades, with over one out of three U.S. counties facing greater risks of water shortages. Water shortages can strangle economic development and agricultural production and affected communities.  As a result, cities and states will bear real and significant costs if Congress fails to take the steps necessary to slow down and reverse the warming trend. Water management and climate change adaptation plans will be essential to lessen the impacts, but they cannot be expected to counter the effects of a warming climate.  The only way to truly manage the risks exposed by this report is for Congress to pass meaningful legislation that cuts global warming pollution and allows the U.S. to exercise global leadership on the issue.”

You can see some great coverage of the report at USA Today Greenhouse, Science Magazine and the National Geographic (and a few hundred other outlets.)

So, the next time you hear someone say 'what does a few degrees matter?' send them the link to the new Tetra Tech/NRDC study

And ask them: “Does the risk of water shortages in over a thousand U.S. counties seem like something we'd rather not experience?”






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DaveJul 23 2010 01:49 PM

This past decade has set a record for largest global snowfall amounts!

DaveJul 23 2010 01:58 PM

Amount of coverage I meant to say.

Pete AltmanJul 23 2010 01:58 PM

Dave - certainly in the DC metro area, we had record-setting snowfall. But water shortages and big snowfall are driven by some common factors.

As temperatures warm, moisture evaporates more quickly from water bodies and soil. That adds stress to water systems by reducing supplies (since more water evaporates out of reservoirs, for example) and increases demand (since crops, people and power plants need more water.)

In winter, greater amount of moisture in the air means there's more that can be turned to snow when the temperature falls low enough (no one has ever said it won't snow again.)

DaveJul 24 2010 01:39 AM

What actually happened is that in the winters of 2008 and 2009, more snow fell on places in the US, China, and Russia than ever recorded before. Record low temperatures were recorded in most countries in the far north. According to NOAA, several glaciers in the north, which had been melting, became larger.

It has continued into 2010. Oregon had the wettest April on record. Australia is having one of the coldest winters they've ever had.

So in other words nobody knows. It could actually be the beginning of a new Ice Age! Which would be much more devasting in comparison. It make no sense for Congress to pass legislation on something that could be very wrong.

Peter AltmanJul 24 2010 09:22 AM

Dave-snowfall is not evidence that global warming isn't happening. As I said, we know that warmer temperatures in general cause more moisture to be held in the air. When it gets cold enough to snow - there's more moisture in the air to be frozen and to fall.

Regarding overall trends, you have to look at the issue on a longer time scale than two years back, and in only a few places. Scientific American has a good digest of global temperature trends here:

Since 1985, every single month has seen global average temperatures HIGHER than the average for all of the 20th century. If temps weren't changing, one would expect half the months to be above the average, and half to be below.

The fact that the last 304 months have been hotter than than a century long average is consistent with reams of evidence that we are on a temperature trend headed bit by bit, inexorably, up.

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