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All the drought that's fit to drink

31 Jan 2024 | News Roundup

Apparently the Amazon rainforest is now the Amazon desert, and it’s all your fault. The Guardian panics that “The climate crisis turned the drought that struck the Amazon rainforest in 2023 into a devastating event, a study has found. The drought was the worst recorded in many places and hit the maximum ‘exceptional’ level on the scientific scale.” Ooh, the “scientific” scale. Did you know there was one? Or that it has an “exceptional” level on it? Further, did you know that at the tippy-tipping point top of the “exceptional” end it says “MAXIMUM”? After which presumably the dial snaps off. And you can guess why the Amazon is all dried up: “Without planet-warming emissions from the burning of oil, gas and coal, the drought would have been far less extreme, the analysis found.” Well they would, wouldn’t they? Except the IPCC doesn’t. It mentions some past precipitation deficits in the Amazon, but says that global drought studies show no significant trends, so it’s a bit hard to follow the science when it runs in opposite directions. Now comes Maclean’s with a sob story about how “After three devastating years of drought, there’s no future for our farm/ Our family farm has thrived in Alberta for more than a century – but the dire weather conditions of the past few years have spelled its end”. Wait until they find out what the Canadian prairies were like long before the farmers arrived.

If some clown in a newsroom were to entertain their colleagues by a wacky check of, say, the latest IPCC Assessment Report, they’d find this sort of soporific prose:

“there is high confidence in anthropogenic influence on increased meteorological drought in southwestern Australia and medium confidence that recent drying and severe droughts in southern Africa and southwestern South America can be attributed to human influence.”

Aha! Southwestern South America. Famously not where the Amazon is. But note also that in IPCC-speak, “medium confidence” doesn’t mean, as it might in casual conversation, that you’re reasonably sure. It means they think it’s 50-50. A coin toss. We are impressed with “high confidence” in one bit of Australia, at least for chutzpah. But then notice:

“Increased agricultural/ecological and (or) meteorological and (or) hydrological drought is also seen with either medium confidence or high confidence in the trend but with low confidence on attribution to anthropogenic climate change in western, northeastern and central Africa; central, eastern and southern Asia; eastern Australia; southern and northeastern South America and the South American monsoon region; and western and central Europe.”

Oh dear. There’s “low confidence” for northeastern South America. Meaning they think it’s actually unlikely, they just use language with the effect, if not the design, of concealing that inconvenient truth.

Now to be fair the IPCC also said that their Working Group I had:

“concluded with high confidence that the increased frequency and the severity of agricultural/ecological droughts over the last decades in the Mediterranean and western North America can be attributed to anthropogenic warming.”

So humans are supposedly to blame for making Alberta drier. Except not, because those are not “meteorological” droughts, which are ones caused by the weather. The definition of the agricultural/ecological kind is that “Increased atmospheric evaporative demand increases plant water stress, leading to agricultural and ecological drought.” So supposedly man-made warming causes plants to need more water so they inconsiderately suck it out of the ground. Especially if man starts a big old pump right there to help.

An alternative would be not to farm dry land, mind you. But what’s this? From climatedata.ca we learn that:

“Many other significant droughts have occurred in Canada, especially in the prairies.  At least ten severe droughts have struck including those in 1910-11, 1914-15, 1917-20, 1928-30, 1931-32, 1936-38, 1948-51, 1960-62, 1988-89, and 2001-03. These multi-year and large area droughts cause much more damage than shorter droughts and present greater challenges for adaptation.”

In short, the prairies are dry and prone to drought. Always have been. There’s nothing new here. Indeed, if you look at their chart of drought around Swift Current, Saskatchewan, which is near the south-eastern Alberta border, you find the worst drought decade was the 1930s, followed by the late 1910s and early 1920s, then from the mid-fifties to the mid sixties.

As Wikipedia says, “During the past two centuries, at least 40 droughts have occurred in western Canada with multi-year episodes being observed in the 1890s, 1910s, 1930s, 1960s, 1980s, and the early 2000s.” And something called “Alberta Water” explains that:

“Drought occurred in present-day Alberta throughout the 1700s. Drought became so extreme in the 1790s that the North Saskatchewan River ran so low – and even dry at one point – and fur traders were unable to move their goods down the river as a result. Drought in 1850 had the same impact.”

Or worse. The piece adds:

“Captain John Palliser – an explorer and geographer – was funded by the British government to embark on a scientific exploration in present-day western Canada. His purpose was to survey the land (and whether there was any potential for agriculture) and explore possible routes for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Palliser’s adventure became known as the ‘Palliser Expedition’, and lasted from 1857-1860. When Palliser arrived in western Canada the region was in the midst of a multi-decade drought.”

Which nobody blamed on human beings. With the foresight typical of politicians, instead:

“The federal government ignored Palliser’s warning that the Prairie Provinces were too dry for successful settlement, and began to encourage immigration to the region and advertising [sic] the area as ‘fertile ground to establish farm operations.’”

Which it is in a good year. But there are lots of the other kind.

A paper prepared by the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments Centre (GLISA) at the University of Michigan for the “U.S. Global Change Research Program National Climate Assessment Midwest Technical Input Report” added this startling observation about a vast region adjacent to Alberta in the south:

“Large scale regional droughts were relatively common in the Midwest during the period of 1895 to 1965, but since 1965, only the summer droughts of 1988 and 2012 have had severe impacts across the entire region.”

So getting less droughty.

Even the Maclean’s piece, part of “The Best of Maclean’s” so don’t show us the worst, actually does eventually include that “The drought in 2021 was reportedly just as devastating as the Dirty Thirties, when my grandpa nearly lost everything in the dust bowl.” Which of course means the drought today is not unprecedented. On the contrary, the Dirty Thirties saw an entire decade, not just a couple of years.

As for “This coming year already looks bad. The snowpack is more than 40 per cent below normal”, well, for North America as a whole things are quite different. And anyone who tells you local droughts are unprecedented on the Canadian prairies or the American Midwest is an ignoramus.

For instance Reuters “Sustainable Switch”. Their view on all these things is that:

“We’re back on ‘water watch’ in today's newsletter as scientists find that world groundwater levels are showing an ‘accelerated’ decline amid record droughts in South America.”

Now hold on. You’re talking about declining groundwater everywhere but cherry-picking droughts in one place?

Well, sure, because it’s not about climate. So it’s not relevant that the Amazon, where records are much hazier, is known to have had its “most severe and sustained drought in the history of instrumental precipitation and streamflow observations” in 1925/26, so bad that “river commerce was brought to a standstill and several steamships became grounded in the low water conditions between Iquitos and Manaus, Brazil, and on the lower Amazon River in the state of Pará” or that it had a drastic “Forgotten Drought” in 1865. Instead:

“‘One of the most likely major driving forces behind rapid and accelerating groundwater decline is the excessive withdrawal of groundwater for irrigated agriculture in dry climates,’ said Scott Jasechko from the University of California, Santa Barbara, one of the paper's co-authors.”

No duh. As committed environmentalists we’ve been aware of this issue since at least the 1990s. It’s a terrible problem, from the Colorado River to the Dead Sea, which in a typical display of misplaced ingenuity humans seem to be killing again by diverting the inflow. But it’s not driven by climate.

No wait. It is. It must be, because everything bad is caused by climate change and so on. Thus the piece continues at once:

“But drought, driven by climate change, was also having an impact, with farmers likely to pump out more groundwater to ensure their crops are irrigated, he said.”

So drought isn’t diminishing groundwater. It’s just making farmers “likely to pump out more groundwater”. And the fact that the human population has never been higher, or eaten better (despite the supposedly deadly impact of warming), is not the main driver?

The whole thing is a massive “person with a hammer” exercise. Indeed, the piece eventually blurts out that:

“Groundwater levels across the world have shown widespread and ‘accelerated’ decline over the past 40 years, driven by unsustainable irrigation practices as well as climate change, according to a study published in the Nature scientific journal.”

So again if we could just stop and think for a bit, the decline has accelerated over the past 40 years, meaning since (checks calculator) uh that’d be 1984, wouldn’t it? So when did the impact of man-made climate change become significant? In 1984? Even so it wouldn’t explain the decline, just the acceleration. But as we’re being told that now it’s finally here, as we have been since what, 2000 or so, it’s very clear that this phenomenon is to do with bad water management and is unrelated to climate.

Well, clear to some of us. Who also know that lots of places, including Alberta, have historically and prehistorically been extremely prone to groundwater-depleting droughts far worse than the current one.

4 comments on “All the drought that's fit to drink”

  1. Hence why the Canadian Press just reported "scientists say climate change is making droughts more frequent and severe",with regard to droughts in
    Western Canada.Without citing which "scientists say" such things,or their evidence.Not a peep about poor water management.

  2. It may just be Roger's prose skillfully highlighting the fact, but once the reader looks carefully at the 'reports' from media and climate scientists, one sees that not only are they almost indistinguishable (bar some numbers in the sciency stuff) , but that they make no sense. Contradictions, last paragraph 'qualifiers' - so that the authors can point and say "Balance!", or just plain historical nonsense. Worse yet, the increasingly shrill warnings are perfect examples of gaslighting. We can see what is being proffered is just not so, yet still the elitist blob, the one with the money and a handle on civic institutions, just won't stop.

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