Tag Archives: drought

California bans wasting water as severe drought continues

In a clear sign that the drought is far from over, the state of California has adopted new mandatory regulations to stop residents from wasting the state’s water — the second time in a decade the state decides to restrict the use of water. While the new restrictions are fairly mild, not respecting them could still cost $500 in daily fines.

Drought Desert California Nature Sky Landscape

The state’s Water Resources Control Board, which manages water resources, implemented the new rules after a previous call by Governor Gavin Newsom for a voluntary 15% reduction in water use compared to last year – a target that wasn’t met. The restrictions could take effect as soon as January 15th and have a one-year expiration date, unless extended by the state. 

“Climate change is challenging us to build drought resilience in our water infrastructure and management practices and at an individual level in our daily habits,” Joaquin Esquivel, chair of the State Water Board, said in a statement. “Prohibiting wasteful water practices increases awareness of water as a precious resource.”

For instance, Californians won’t be allowed to use potable water to irrigate grass on public street medians or landscaped areas between the sidewalk and the street. Using potable water for street cleaning, construction, decorative fountains, and artificial lakes will also be banned. There are a few exceptions, such as watering trees in street medians. 

No other state in the West has implemented statewide restrictions on the use of water on a residential level, although much of the region is currently experiencing a drought. Instead, local governments and water agencies have been the ones setting policies. For example, Las Vegas implemented restrictions on planting grass in order to save water. 

A very wet December

The new restrictions on water use come after a very wet December, but authorities believe the wet trend won’t continue during the winter months, which are normally the wettest in California. In mid-December, about 80% of the state was in extreme or exceptional drought. By the end of the month, only a third had those conditions, according to the United States Drought Monitor.

From abnormally dry in yellow to extreme drought in red. Image credit: US Drought Monitor.

Thanks to the recent rainy spell, the state’s Water Resources Department announced this week that it will resume operations at the Oroville Dam, which went to a full stop in August due to low water levels on the lake. Still, major parts of the state’s water system remain under stress after the extremely dry conditions registered earlier in 2021 – dropping reservoirs to record lows.

About 90% of California’s rainfall and snowfall usually happens between October and April. This makes the winter season a crucial period for determining the conditions that the state will face during the summer. The snowpack is very important, as it’s a way to save water that will then trickle into rivers, streams, and reservoirs during the warmer seasons. 

The state had implemented similar restrictions on water use during a five-year drought that ended in 2017 and some cities have even made them permanent. The restrictions were only one piece of the puzzle, as the state also offered incentives for citizens to set up drought-resistant lawns. Now, water conservation could be trickier, as those measured had already been applied before and California still has to squeeze the belt.

The Great Plains could be drying down into a new Dust Bowl

A new study says we should get ready for a blast from the past — in all the wrong ways. According to its findings, America’s Great Plains risk turning back into the dustbowl of the 1930s.

Image via Pixabay.

The Great Plains area has become increasingly dry in the past 20 decades, the authors explain, with dust storms here becoming more common and more powerful over the same time. Such events are considerable health hazards, and threaten to decrease the area’s agricultural potential as they strip nutrients from soils.

Bad Lands

“Our results suggest a tipping point is approaching, where the conditions of the 1930s could return,” says lead author Gannet Haller, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Utah.

The main drivers of these changes are the expansion of agriculture and irrigation in the area alongside more common and intense droughts.

Andrew Lambert, a co-author on the study and a meteorologist at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Monterey, California stumbled upon these findings while reviewing atmospheric haze data gathered by NASA satellites (such haze is caused by dust and smoke particles in the atmosphere). The team then confirmed these with records from local dust sensors over the last 20 years.

All in all, the team explains that there is two times as much dust being blown over the Great Plains as 20 years ago. Dust levels peak during spring and fall — planting and harvesting seasons — which point to the agricultural activity being a leading cause. Such dust depletes soils and contains ultrafine particles that can enter our bodies and cause lung and heart diseases.

The Dust Bowl of the 1930s was likely caused by a combination of climate and agricultural drivers, the team explains. These draw their roots in the massive expansion of farmland in the area in the 1920s as mechanization allowed farmers to work more land than ever before. An extended drought in the following decade (with record-breaking heatwaves in 1934 and 1936), dried the plains out completely.

Climate change is also drying out the area and is likely to make heat waves much more common and intense occurrences, potentially leading to a megadrought worse than anything in the last 1000 years. New farmland in the area — most of it aimed at producing corn for biofuel refineries — is amplifying the problem. The study found a strong correlation between new cropland and downwind areas where dust levels are growing the fastest.

“Much of the [recent agricultural] expansion has been on less suitable land,” Lambert says. “It’s particularly ironic that the biofuel commitments were meant to help the environment.”

Lambert is particularly worried that the same feedback loops that created the dust bowl may be forming again. Wind-borne dust can lead to crop losses by removing nutrients from the soil. This then prompts farmers to plow more terrain, which restarts the cycle.

The worry is the potential for a repeat of the 1930s feedback loops, where the wind-borne dust carried away vital nutrients from the soil, leading to crop losses and the need to plow up more terrain—thereby removing stabilizing ground cover and adding to the supply of dust. The fact that local weather and precipitation patterns are likely to shift due to climate change could also contribute to the issue. It also makes it harder for us to estimate exactly how the situation will evolve.

The paper “Dust Impacts of Rapid Agricultural Expansion on the Great Plains” has been published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Tropical songbirds reproduce less during drought

Some songbirds react to droughts by making fewer babies, a new paper reports.

Blue-Capped Cordon Bleu (Uraeginthus cyanocephalus).
Image credits Flickr / Jim Frazee.

The findings showcase how climate change, which is making droughts more frequent and intense, could impact songbird reproduction. Most species of plants and animals are going to feel the effects of a warmer climate on their ecosystems, as food webs and precipitation levels are bound to adapt to new conditions. But songbirds in particular seem to change their reproductive patterns in response to droughts.

Bird babies, just add water

“Here we show that tropical songbirds in the New and Old Worlds reduced reproduction during drought, with greater reductions in species with higher average long-term survival,” the authors write.

“Behavioural strategies of longer-lived, but not shorter-lived, species mitigated the effect of increasing drought frequency on long-term population growth.

Drought can be a tricky thing to handle in the wild, as it makes both food and water scarcer, thus requiring more energy to secure. Reproduction is already a very costly process. Drought can make it unattainable, or at least risky, for both plants and animals.

Tropical songbirds seem to take a drastic approach when faced with long periods where water is scarce: they dramatically reduce their rate of reproduction. The study surveyed 18 species in Venezuela and 20 in Malaysia for over 17 years, which included a period of drought in each country. All in all, the birds reduced their rate of reproduction by 52% and 36%, respectively. But this does seem to help the birds better cope with drought.

“In general, species that greatly decreased breeding during the drought (that is, longer-lived species) experienced increased adult survival,” co-author James Mouton, of the University of Montana, told AFP.

“This was surprising as we were expecting droughts to reduce survival to some degree in all species.”

Longer-lived birds curtailed their reproductive behavior the most during dry periods, while those with short lifespans made small to no changes. Long-term modelling of these trends suggests that birds with longer lifespans will be more resilient to drought.

It makes sense for some species to have instinctual mechanisms that protect them from drought. Past research has shown how arthropods in Australia react “during a longer‐term shift toward drought” as well as a rainy event. The issue here is that climate change is poised to make droughts more frequent and longer, making such compensatory behavior more common. It will also put greater pressure on species and their habitats while they’re already reproducing less.

The paper “Longer-lived tropical songbirds reduce breeding activity as they buffer impacts of drought” has been published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

GMO plants with algae grow more and need less water

As climate change kicks in, droughts could lead to lower crop yields in the future. But genetic manipulation could help prevent this, researchers argued, having modified a tobacco plant with an algae-based protein so as to increase growth and reduce its need for water.

Credit Flickr

The study focused on photosynthesis, the process through which plants use sunlight and carbon dioxide to produce nutrients for their growth. Improving this process would be highly beneficial for agriculture but it is so complex that attempts to do so have failed in the past.

The researchers used genetic manipulation to increase the levels of a naturally-occurring enzyme that is already present in the tobacco plant, and to introduce a new enzyme from cyanobacteria and a protein from algae. Doing so improved the photosynthesis process and also meant less water was needed to grow higher crop yields.

“The global population is increasing, and that means we need to grow more food. We are also seeing the effects of climate change, creating more extreme weather, so we will have more droughts. That means we are going to need to make better use of water. We need more crops from the same amount of land, and with less water,” Patricia Lopez-Calcagno, a co-author, told The Guardian.

Dealing with such challenges using conventional plant breeding techniques could be possible, but it would take many decades and time is running short, the researchers argued. Instead, they decided to take a shortcut that wasn’t available in nature by introducing a gene from algae.

While many people frequently question GMO crops, the researchers said the genetic modification performed on the plants to create the enhanced photosynthesis is quite different. Lopez-Calcagno said that “there’s nothing to worry about this” and said GMOs have had a bad press, associated with the overuse of pesticides and big corporations.

The study started in 2013 and it will take around five to ten years of development to be able to grow crops with the technique. The algae showed potential for other uses of photosynthesis such as capturing and storing carbon dioxide. There are labs already working on using algae as a biofuel, for example.

The use of GMO crops has been banned in the European Union after a directive in 2001. There’s only one type of GMO maize grown in EU states, mainly in Spain and Portugal. One of the triggers behind the directive was the attempt to introduce a fish gene into tomatoes, research that didn’t pan out.

The positive results encouraged the team from the University of Essex in the UK to refine the technique even further so as to use it on other crops, including soybeans and rice. This could be beneficial to deal with the challenges faced by agriculture, including a warmer world and the need to increase efficiency.

The study was published in the journal Nature Plants.

California will see both more flooding and more drought by the end of the century

The entire state of California could see a 54% increase in rainfall variability by the end of the century, according to a new study, which predicts fluctuations in extremely dry and wet weather in the entire West Coast of the United States.

Floods in California in 2017. Credit Flickr

Wenyu Zhou, a postdoctoral researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and his team focused their research on the Madden-Julian oscillation (MJO) — an atmospheric phenomenon that influences rainfall in the tropics and can trigger everything from cyclones over the Indian Ocean to heatwaves, droughts, and flooding in the United States.

Researchers were surprised by the magnitude of the effect: 54% more rainfall variability by the end of the century

Although recent studies have investigated the response of the MJO to anthropogenic climate change, not much is known yet about its potential impact on teleconnections. As the Earth’s climate warms, the dynamics controlling MJO are set to expand eastward, causing a huge uptick in extreme weather in California, the study showed.

“I was surprised by the magnitude of the effect,” said Da Yang, an assistant professor with the UC Davis Department of Land, Air and Water Resources, in a press release. “A 54% increase in rainfall variability will have very significant impacts on agriculture, flood control and water management.”

The study showed that the MJO teleconnection pattern during the boreal winter will likely extend further eastward over the North Pacific. This is mainly due to an eastward shift in the exit region of the subtropical jet, to which the teleconnection pattern is anchored, and assisted by an eastward extension of the MJO itself.

The eastward-extended teleconnection enables the MJO to have a greater impact downstream on the Northeast Pacific and North American west coast, the researchers argued. Over California specifically, the study projects a 54% increase in MJO-induced precipitation variability by 2100 under a high-emissions scenario.

Yang and his team used satellite observations and computer models to study the physics of rainstorms and atmospheric circulation in a changing climate. They are now working to understand what environmental factors control the size and duration of rainstorms and how the collective effects of rainstorms, in turn, shape Earth’s climate.

About 85% of California’s population live and work in coastal counties. The sea level along California’s coasts has risen nearly 8 inches (20cm) in the past century and is projected to rise by as much as 20 to 55 inches (50 to 139cm) by the end of the century, according to government estimations.

This could put nearly half a million people at risk of flooding by 2100, and threaten $100 billion in property and infrastructure, including roadways, buildings, hazardous waste sites, power plants, and parks and tourist destinations. Coastal erosion could have a significant impact on California’s ocean-dependent economy, which is estimated to be $46 billion per year.

The study was published in the journal Nature.

Climate change will make droughts more intense, more frequent

New research from ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes, Australia, says we’ll see longer and more frequent droughts due to climate change.

Estimated changes in drought duration (top), compared to those of a previous climate model (bottom).
Image credits Anna M. Ukkola et al., (2020), AGU.

Southwestern Australia, parts of southern Australia, as well as regions in the Amazon, Mediterranean and southern Africa can expect to see more frequent and intense droughts in the future as climate patterns shift across the globe.

At the same time, central Europe and the boreal forest zone are projected to get wetter and experience fewer droughts — but the ones they do get are likely to be much more intense than today.


“We found that the increase in drought duration and intensity was directly linked to the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere,” said lead author Dr. Anna Ukkola.”There were only slight changes to the areas of drought under a mid-range emissions scenario versus a high-emissions pathway.”

“However, the change in the magnitude of drought with a higher emissions scenario was more marked, telling us that early mitigation of greenhouse gases matters.”

The team worked with the latest generation of climate models (CMIP6), the same ones being used as a starting point for the next IPCC assessment report on climate change, to examine rainfall-based drought throughout the world in the future.

They explain that most of the previous research into droughts only looked at changes in average rainfall as a metric, giving them a degree of uncertainty.

Estimated changes in drought intensity.
Image credits Anna M. Ukkola et al., (2020), AGU.

To get a better picture, the team factored in metrics on rainfall variability and mean precipitation levels estimated for the future, and then worked out how that will affect drought patterns in regions across the world.

Drought duration was very closely tied to changes in average rainfall levels, they found, but drought intensity was more closely tied to the interplay between average rainfall and its variability. In other words, the regions that will fare the worse are those which will see less precipitation and shifts in the timing of precipitation throughout the year.

Regions such as the Mediterranean, Central America, and the Amazon, which are estimated to see declines in average rainfall levels, will probably see more frequent and longer droughts. Boreal forests will likely see shorter droughts caused by increased average rainfall, the team explains. The team didn’t find any region that shows an expected reduction in the intensity of future droughts, not even in areas that are likely to see increases in rainfall such as central Europe.

“Predicting future changes in drought is one of the greatest challenges in climate science but with this latest generation of models and the opportunity to combine different drought metrics in a more meaningful way we can gain a clearer insight into the future impacts of climate change,” said Dr Ukkola.

“However, while these insights grow clearer with each advance, the message they deliver remains the same — the earlier we act on reducing our emissions, the less economic and social pain we will face in the future.”

The paper “Robust future changes in meteorological drought in CMIP6 projections despite uncertainty in precipitation” has been published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

The 2000-2010 drought of the Missouri River was the worst one in 1,200 years

Water demand is approaching or has already exceeded supply in much of the western United States. This is making water managers increasingly concerned about the threat of future droughts, especially in the context of climate change.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

A new study analyzing the Missouri River, the nation’s longest river, reports that it has been at its driest in more than 1,200 years between 2000-2010 due to the effects of climate change.

Prior research has shown that multiple river basins in the U.S. have experienced droughts over the past several decades that are unlike anything seen in the previous century. As these river basins provide drinking water for millions of people, scientists are working to better understand the nature of such droughts.

Northern Hemisphere summer temperatures are now higher than they have been in the last millennium due to man-made emissions. The unique combination of high average temperatures and severe droughts across much of the West has led numerous researchers to revisit the impact of temperature in the timing and efficiency of runoff.

In this new effort, the researchers looked at the Missouri River Basin. The river is fed primarily by snow that falls on the Rocky Mountains in the winter and melts during spring and summer. Parts of the early 21st century have been remarkably dry across the Upper Missouri River Basin, they note.

The researchers pulled data from the PAGES 2k project, a network of databases and other resources that have been assembled to describe conditions on Earth over the past 2000 years. Some of the information in its databases includes tree ring data, which the researchers used to build a timeline for both temperature and rainfall in the basin.

This showed that the drought between the years 2000 to 2010 was the driest period to occur over the past 1,200 years — worse even than that which occurred during the dust bowl years.

The main driver of the drought, they add, were higher than normal temperatures since at least the latter part of the 20th century that caused a reduction in runoff efficiency. Higher-than-average temperatures also drive evapotranspiration in the river basin, they add, which further saps water resources in the area.

The study had a set of limitations, which have challenged the team’s ability to tease apart the influence of precipitation and temperature on streamflow and surface water resources. For example, they’re still uncertain as to how much temperature (as opposed to changes in precipitation) contributed to the 20th-century streamflow declines in the Upper Colorado River Basin.

The authors, however, end their paper by issuing a warning for the future: they expect increasingly severe droughts and water deficits in the region in the coming years. The combination of hydrologic changes, such as an increased likelihood of hot–dry extreme years, represent significant challenges for water management,” the study reads.

The study was published in the PNAS journal.

Contrary to popular belief, drought actually leads to fewer snakebites

There are many myths and popular beliefs regarding snakes — but this one certainly isn’t true.

Image credits: Noah Loverbear.

A few years ago, Grant Lipman, an emergency medicine physician at Stanford Medicine, was jogging on the hills around campus. It was a terrible drought, but that wasn’t the highlight of his day — the highlight would be a 3-foot-long rattlesnake lying on the trail. He discussed this with his colleagues, and one of them reported a similar sighting. This got Lipman thinking. Could the drought be in any way connected to the rattlesnakes they were seeing or was it simple coincidence?

“I wondered if there are more snakebites during droughts,” said Lipman, clinical associate professor of emergency medicine at the Stanford School of Medicine, who routinely treats patients with venomous snakebites.

So he started work and worked with a team of researchers to answer the question.

Everyone sure seemed to believe that droughts exacerbate snakebites. “Deadly Snakebites Set to Skyrocket During Record-breaking Drought,” read one article in 2018 in the Daily Mail. Another, “Snakes Cross Paths with Humans in Bay Area Due to Drought,” was reported on ABCNews.com in 2015.

It seemed to make some sense. The idea was that snakes are more active during warm weather, and they also need to wander more during droughts. But the scientific information was pretty scant on the subject.

The results, funnily enough, showed that the opposite is true: during dry spells, snakebites actually go down.

Lipman and colleagues analyzed 20 years of snakebite data from every phone call made to the California Poison Control System from 1997 to 2017. In total, 5,365 snakebites were reported, from rattlesnakes. Five of them were fatal. The number of bites varied significantly from county to county, ranging from 4 to 96 per one million people.

It was actually rain that seemed to get the snakes out.

Snakebites went down by 10% following a drought but increased by 10 percent following high levels of precipitation. Researchers believe that this happens because, during the rainy season, shrubs grow more, which also favors rat populations — snakes’ favorite prey.

The study isn’t frivolous — this isn’t only about satisfying a curiosity. It can be quite important, and potentially even save lives. By knowing when snakebites are more and less likely to happen, authorities and hospitals can stockpile and transfer antivenom — which is often a scarce commodity, accordingly.

But Lipman, who has vast experience on treating this type of bite, says that the best way to reduce the frequency of bites is to simply be more careful. Snakes never go out of their way to attack anyone, quite the opposite — they go out of their way to avoid people as much as they can.

“The most common comment I usually hear from snakebite victims in the emergency room is: ‘I was just minding my own business,'” Lipman said. “Usually, though, it’s the snakes that were minding their own business, having a nice nap. It’s people who tend to disturb them.”

European drought reveals cautionary “Hunger Stones” in Czech river

“If you see me, weep.” This is the ancient message revealed by falling water levels in Europe.

If you’d walk along the Elbe river in Europe, you might chance upon something very unusual: low water levels have revealed so-called Hunger Stones — carved inscriptions marking drought-heavy years in the past centuries. The message is simple: to commemorate historic droughts, and warn of their consequences; one such rock reads “Wenn du mich siehst, dann weine”, which is German for “If you see me, weep.”

Over a dozen of these hunger stones can now be seen near the northern Czech town of Decin, close to the German border.

It’s not the first time the rocks have been observed. They were actually described by a study in 2013, and although the names of the carvers have been lost through the shroud of time, the message is clear.

“It expressed that drought had brought a bad harvest, lack of food, high prices and hunger for poor people. Before 1900, the following droughts are commemorated on the stone: 1417, 1616, 1707, 1746, 1790, 1800, 1811, 1830, 1842, 1868, 1892, and 1893.”

But aside from the obvious message (which largely says “if you can read this you’re having a nasty drought”), the hunger stones also lamented the results of the drought. For instance, the 2013 study describes one such rock which “expressed that drought had brought a bad harvest, lack of food, high prices and hunger for poor people,” immortalizing the hardship the local people had to go through.

The rocks have become a tourist attraction, aside from raising some scientific interest. But perhaps the most important aspect of the stones is their original purpose — to tell us that if we can read the message, there’s a big drought.

Europe’s nigh-unprecedented heatwaves have led to record high temperatures in several areas of the continent, and the drought has also been taking a dramatic toll. Although it’s very tricky to establish a clear cause-effect relationship between rising temperatures and this year’s drought and heatwaves, it seems likely that climate change is, at the very least, amplifying the problem.

Our forefathers left behind an ominous warning for us — and we’d best heed it. Otherwise, we can start carving our own years into the rocks.

Drought played a key role in the demise of the Mayan civilization

The Maya built one of the greatest civilizations in the Americas, and the story of their demise has fascinated people for centuries. Now, a new study reports that environmental aspects — particularly, drought — were a key aspect of their decline.

Overview of the central plaza of the Mayan city of Palenque (Chiapas, Mexico), an example of Classic Maya architecture. Image credits: Jan Harenburg.

The first mention of a true Maya civilization hails from millennia ago, in 2000 BC. They reached the peak of their power much later, during the Classic period, which lasted up until the year 900 CE. Most Mayan cities were sprawling architectural displays, featuring dazzling palaces, pyramid-temples, ceremonial ballcourts, and structures aligned for astronomical observation. The Mayans tended to develop haphazardly, showing little concern for what the future could bring — and who could blame them? During their zenith, they controlled the entire Yucatán Peninsula and all of the territory now incorporated into the modern countries of Guatemala and Belize, as well as the western reaches of Honduras and El Salvador.

But their lack of concern was not without consequence after all. During the 9th century, their power started to decline. Their beautiful limestone cities were abandoned and step by step, the Maya civilization withdrew and quickly entered decline. There are mentions of Mayans after the year 1000 CE, but their civilization was almost completely wiped off.

The reasons for their decline are not simple — invasion, war, environmental degradation, and collapsing trade routes all had a role to play. But in the 1990s, an interesting theory emerged: after correlating the Maya decline with environmental data, researchers found a period of extended drought — long and severe enough to affect the stability of the empire built by the Maya.

“The role of climate change in the collapse of Classic Maya civilisation is somewhat controversial, partly because previous records are limited to qualitative reconstructions, for example whether conditions were wetter or drier,” said Nick Evans, a PhD student in Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences and the paper’s first author.

“Our study represents a substantial advance as it provides statistically robust estimates of rainfall and humidity levels during the Maya downfall.”

Evans and colleagues analyzed the different isotopes of water trapped in gypsum — a mineral that can form on the bottom of lakes during periods of severe drought. They found that annual precipitation levels decreased between 41% and 54% during the period of the Maya civilization’s collapse, with periods of peak drought corresponding to a 70% reduction in rainfall.

[panel style=”panel-info” title=”Gypsum water” footer=””]In periods of drought, more water tends to evaporate from lakes such as Chichancanab, where this study was carried out. Because the lighter isotopes of water evaporate faster, the remaining water molecules (which also contain other chemicals) become heavier. A higher proportion of heavier isotopes such as oxygen-18 and hydrogen-2 (deuterium), would, therefore, indicate drought conditions. Researchers have mapped the proportion of different isotopes contained within each layer of gypsum, essentially charting the levels of rainfall over the period of the Mayan collapse.

Professor David Hodell, Director of Cambridge’s Godwin Laboratory for Palaeoclimate Research and the senior author of the current paper, was the first to draw a correlation between the drought and the period of Mayan decline. He praised the gypsum-measuring methodology, saying that it leaves very little room for interpretation.

“This method is highly accurate and is almost like measuring the water itself,” said Evans.

While the circumstances that lead to the decline of the Maya are complex and drought cannot be singled out as the one big culprit yet, it does seem that at the very least, drought was an important aspect of it.

Now, researchers will try to use more localized measurements and build more precise models, to see how the drought would have affected agriculture — most importantly, the Maya’s staple crops, such as maize.

Journal Reference: Nicholas P. Evans, Thomas K. Bauska, Fernando Gázquez-Sánchez, Mark Brenner, Jason H. Curtis, David A. Hodell. Quantification of drought during the collapse of the classic Maya civilization. Science, 2018 DOI: 10.1126/science.aas9871

Rainforest canopy.

NASA creates first 3D model of Amazon rainforest canopy to estimate the effects of droughts, climate change

In an effort to estimate the effect of drought on the Brazilian Amazon, NASA has created the first ever 3D model of its canopy.

Rainforest canopy.

Image credits Robert Kerton / CSIRO.

Rainforests are some of the most complex and rich ecosystems on the planet (see here and here). One striking feature of such forests is that their canopies — which can rise up to 15 or even 20 stories high — form ecosystems unto themselves. However, they are in danger.

Climate projections suggest that the Amazon basin will experience warmer and drier conditions in the future. We’ve learned from periods of drought that rainforests don’t handle dryness well. When faced with long periods without rain, rainforest trees risk drying out because there’s not enough water in the soil for them to pump up to the canopies — so they starve.

However, we’re not quite at the point where we can estimate — based on our climate and precipitation projections — exactly how rainforests will react in the future. Simply put, estimating the number of dying or damaged trees (for example, where only branches are falling) is almost impossible. Rainforests are vibrant but chaotic, abundant but densely-packed places, and getting any kind of accurate data on tree health has long been an elusive goal for researchers.

When in doubt, LiDAR the sample

Traditionally, researchers attempted to record this data by hiking through rainforests and surveying a few acres of trees in spots along the way. They would count how many trees were alive, how many were dead, looked at the quantity and types of debris on the ground, and used these readings to estimate forest-wide averages.

Since that has traditionally not-worked-very-well, Doug Morton from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, decided to use an eye in the sky. He and his team used an airplane-mounted light detection and ranging (LiDAR) device to create a 3D model of the Brazilian Amazonian canopy, drawing data from three separate flights in 2013, 2014 and 2016.

LiDAR works largely the same as radar, only it substitutes light in lieu of radio waves. Firing some 300,000 laser pulses a second, LiDAR can provide an incredibly detailed model of an object — much more accurate than what hiking researchers could achieve.

The team flew over two 30-mile (50 km) stretches near the city Santarém in the state of Pará, Brazil: one over the Tapajós National Forest (also in Brazil), and one over privately-owned stretches of the rainforest — most of which are strongly fragmented by human land-use. This region of the Amazon basin typically has a three-month dry season from October through December, the team writes, the same period when surface temperatures peak in the Pacific Ocean (during the El Niño event). El Niño delays the start of the rainy season in the central Amazon, leading to an extended dry season that stresses the trees.

The team used the LiDAR readings to detect gaps in the canopy — areas where a tree or branch had fallen in the months between each survey. They write that between 2013-2014 (a non-El Niño period), falling branches and trees altered around 1.8% of the forest canopy in the examined area. Scaled up over the whole Amazon basin, that would be equivalent to losing canopy trees or branches over 38,000 square miles (98,000 square km).

During the El Niño drought period from 2014 to 2016, branch morality rose by 65%, equivalent to 65,000 square miles (168,000 square km) over the whole basin.

Even subtle changes add up in the Amazon, Morton says, because it’s such a huge forest. So a subtle shift in precipitation patterns during an El Niño year ends up having a huge impact on the forest’s ability to sequester carbon. Dry periods, in other words, alters the balance between how much carbon the trees store as they grow versus how much they give off when they die and decompose.

However, the drought didn’t selectively affect more tall trees than smaller ones, as previous experiments suggest. This, Morton says, is good news.

“Large trees hold most of the carbon in any forest. If droughts were to preferentially kill large trees, it would boost the total amount of carbon that’s lost from drought as opposed to other disturbance types.”

The team says that understanding the effects of prolonged drought will give us a better sense of what might happen to atmospheric carbon levels if drought events become more common due to climate change.

The paper “El Niño drought increased canopy turnover in Amazon forests” has been published in the journal New Phytologist.


Europe will see a doubling of drought areas if climate change isn’t addressed

Europe will have to contend with more and more frequent droughts over larger areas than ever before if we don’t take steps to limit climate change.


Image credits Grégory Roose.

According to the work of an international team of researchers, drought areas in Europe will double in size under a three-degree Celsius global warming scenario — from 13% of total area (calculated for the reference period 1971-2000) to 26%. If warming can be limited to 1.5°C, the target of the Paris Climate Protection Agreement, this expansion can be restricted to 19% of the total area, the researchers add.

With the exception of the Scandinavian region, droughts will also last longer — three to four times longer than in the past. Overall, some 400 million people could be affected by droughts throughout Europe.

Europe, dry

One of the areas that the team says will see the worst consequences is also one of the prettiest today — the Mediterranean region. Droughts here could expand from 28% of the area (calculated over the reference period) to 49% in some of the more extreme scenarios. Droughts would also last for significantly longer in Southern Europe than they do today.

“In the event of a three-degree warming, we assume there will be 5.6 drought months per year,” says Dr. Luis Samaniego, one of the two main authors of the study and a hydrologist at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ).

“Up to now, the number has been 2.1 months. For some parts of the Iberian Peninsula, we project that the drought could even last more than seven months.”

A three-degree Celsius temperature increase would also reduce water content in the soil by about 35 millimeters up to a depth of two meters. This roughly translates to a loss of 35,000 cubic meters of water per square kilometer (some 300,000 cubic feet of water per square mile) of land. It’s a huge quantity of water, a deficit that’s comparable to that experienced by large areas throughout Europe during the drought of 2003. It was one of the hottest summers ever recorded on the continent and led to crop failures or shortfalls in many areas. Alongside the economic impact, the heat wave associated with the drought claimed some 70,000 lives.

The researchers warn that if we don’t take steps to address climate change, scenarios like the 2003 drought won’t be just commonplace — they will be a fond memory. Under a three-degrees-warming (Celsius) scenario, droughts of comparable intensity and extent would occur twice as often in the coming years, essentially becoming the ‘default weather’ in many parts of Europe. In the future, droughts will far exceed even this new normal state in severity and duration, with major impacts on society and economy.

Under a 1.5-degree-warming (Celsius) scenario, the team estimates that the Mediterranean could be looking at roughly 3.2 months of drought annually and a decline in water content by about eight millimeters.

Spatial distribution of changes.

Spatial distribution of changes in drought area, duration and frequency.
Image credits L. Samaniego et al., 2018, Nature.

If, on the other hand, global warming increases by only 1.5 degrees Celsius, only 3.2 months of drought could be expected annually in the Mediterranean region and there would be a decline in the water content in the soil of about eight millimeters.

Other regions in Europe will fare better than the Mediterranean across all scenarios. In the Atlantic, Continental and Alpine regions, drought areas will enlarge by under 10% of the total area, the team writes.

In the Baltic states and Scandinavia, the team estimates that changes induced by global warming to precipitation patterns will actually cause drought-affected areas to shrink by three percent. In central Europe (i.e. around Germany), warming would have relatively mild consequences, although Thober warns that “here too, summers would be drier in the future than has been the case so far.”

The paper “Anthropogenic warming exacerbates European soil moisture droughts” has been published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Sierra Nevada rose an inch due to water loss from California drought

The period between late 2011 and 2014 was the driest in California history since record-keeping began. Nearly 102 million trees in total died due to the drought which lasted until late 2016. California lost 45 times the amount of water that Los Angeles uses in a year during this time, some of it drained from inside mountains — it was that bad. According to a new NASA study, California’s Sierra Nevada rose by an inch (2.5 centimeters) as a result of all the water loss.

The Sierra Nevada mountains rose by an inch by the time California's historic drought ended. Credit: Pixabay.

The Sierra Nevada mountains rose by an inch by the time California’s historic drought ended. Credit: Pixabay.

The mountains of California, Oregon, and Washington are littered with more than 1,300 GPS micro-stations that are primarily meant to measure the subtle tectonic motion of active faults and volcanoes. These sensors can detect changes in elevation less than a tenth of an inch (0.3 centimeters). The data collected by the sensors is updated as often as four times per second.

When NASA scientists studied the data, they found that depleted water from inside the cracks of fractured rocks elevated the Sierra Nevada mountains by nearly an inch between October 2011 and October 2015. The subsequent two years of generous snow and rain, which fell upon the range, helped it regain about half the water lost during the drought. Today, the range is about half an inch (1.3 centimeters) taller than it was at the end of the scorching drought.

NASA researchers were careful to account for tectonic uplift and the pumping of groundwater in the Central Valley to isolate water loss in the context of rises and falls in Earth’s surface. Following this study, NASA now believes the solid Earth has a greater capacity to store water than previously thought.

If current drying trends continue, California’s mountains are set to become slightly taller in the decades to come. Another recent study performed by researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, estimated climate change will lead to up to 15 percent less rainfall in California in the next 20 to 30 years.

“One of the major unknowns in mountain hydrology is what happens below the soil,” says Jay Famiglietti, JPL water scientist and co-author of the new study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth. “How much snowmelt percolates through fractured rock straight downward into the core of the mountain?”

Famiglietti and colleagues hope their study will inspire other work that investigates in closer detail how water trapped inside mountains affects the surface of the Earth.

“What does the water table look like within mountain ranges? Is there a significant amount of groundwater stored within mountains? We just don’t have answers yet, and this study identities a set of new tools to help us get them.”

New finding could help plants survive drastic droughts

A new finding could prove instrumental for future food security — Australian researchers have found a way to help plants survive for 50% longer during severe droughts.

Dr Su Yin Phua, Dr Kai Xun Chan, Diep Ganguly, and Estee Tee, in the lab. Image credits: Stuary Hay, ANU.

As the climate continues to get hotter and hotter, drought becomes a more likely possibility. Just look at California, for example. The US state underwent its most severe drought in the past 1,200 years, and might be locked in a drought cycle that will last centuries. California is also not an isolated case. Aridity is on the rise and it will threaten crops in many parts of the world. Ensuring that plants can survive these tiring parts will be crucial in this case, and this new finding might just make a difference for millions of people.

The research team, led by Dr Wannarat Pornsiriwong, Dr Gonzalo Estavillo, Dr Kai Chan and Dr Barry Pogson from the Australian National University (ANU) Research School of Biology, found that chloroplasts, more known for their role in photosynthesis, play a role in regulating plant hormone during heat stress.

“This basic scientific research has the potential to be able to improve farming productivity not just in Australia, but potentially in other countries that suffer from drought stress,” Dr Pogson said. “If we can even alleviate drought stress a little it would have a significant impact on our farmers and the economy.”

A chloroplast is a type of organelle strongly influenced by light intensity. They are the agents that conduct photosynthesis, where the pigment chlorophyll captures the energy from sunlight and converts it and stores it in energy-storing molecules. But as researchers found, chloroplasts can sense drought stress, and activate a chemical that closes the plant’s pores (stomata) to conserve water.

Colorized electron microscope image of a stoma on the leaf of a tomato plant. Image credits: Dartmouth University.

“Chloroplasts are actually capable of sensing drought stress and telling the leaves to shut-up and prevent water from being lost during drought stress,” he said. “So the chloroplasts are actually helping the plants to prevent losing too much water.”We know how the drought alarm actually calls for help and we know how help comes in the form of closing pores on the leaves.”

“Boosting the levels of this chloroplast signal also restores tolerance in drought-sensitive plants and extended their drought survival by about 50 per cent,” Dr Chan added.

Boosting the activity of the chloroplasts or stimulating this chemical signal in another way, then plants could store water for a longer period and survive for longer. This could be accomplished through genetic or agronomic ways, and the team is now working on developing the best approach.

Journal Reference: Wannarat Pornsiriwong et al — A chloroplast retrograde signal, 3′-phosphoadenosine 5′-phosphate, acts as a secondary messenger in abscisic acid signaling in stomatal closure and germinationElife. doi: 10.7554/eLife.23361.

wet lawn

L.A. lawns lose 70 billion gallons of water every year. “It was the maximum water loss possible,” said scientist

Shortly before California entered its worst drought in record history, scientists measured how much water L.A. residents were losing to their front yards. The study found that in 2010, your typical L.A. household gobbled up 100 gallons of water per person per day. About 70 percent of all that water was uptaken by lawns while trees account for 30 percent. These results are simply staggering showing just how wasteful L.A. households can be.

wet lawn

Credit: Pixabay.

The illusion of abundance

The measurements were taken in 2010, four years before the state enacted mandatory watering restrictions in the wake of a disaster dry spell. The University of Utah researchers looked at the so-called “evapotranspiration” (ET), which is a measure that sums together the evaporation of water from the soil and the release of water vapor, called transpiration, from plants.

To measure ET from the lawns, the team led by Elizaveta Litvak devised a shoebox-size chamber that could measure rapid changes of the temperature and humidity above the grass. The team traveled across the whole city, taking measurements from as many households as they could in the summer of 2010 and the winter of 2011. These runs provided the data that was fed into a mathematical model of ET rates from lawns under different conditions.

evaporation rate

Credit: University of Utah.

The ET rate depends on a variety of factors, among them temperature, humidity or how much water there’s in the soil. For each of these conditions, the researchers calculated the maximum amount of ET possible provided abundant water is available. In the case of L.A., water was feeding the soil in huge quantities.

To get a picture of how much waste we’re talking about, imagine putting a soaking wet towel out to dry in the baking sun on a hot summer day. Because it’s a thoroughly wet surface, the water should evaporate at the highest possible rate. Well, a wet lawn has an even higher ET rate because plants add to evaporation.

“The soil was so moist that plants were not limited in water use,” said Litvak, postdoctoral scholar and first author of the new study. “It was the maximum water loss possible.”

During the course of data gathering, the team formed this hypothesis that says more well off neighborhoods had more plants than poorer areas. Indeed, they eventually found the ET rates around the wealthiest neighborhoods were twice as high than those recorded in the poorer ones.

One of the most interesting finds of the study was that trees utilize far less water than trees. This likely happens because trees have a much smaller leaf surface area. Tree leaves aren’t directly irrigated either so they are less prone to evaporation.

“I have been surprised that we can maintain the tree canopy of LA with relatively little water,” said Diane Pataki, professor of biology, in a statement. “There’s this assumption that we need abundant irrigation to support trees. We can drastically reduce water use and still maintain the tree canopy.”

Since the measurements were taken, California went through a very strict water restriction period from 2014 to 2017, when the state finally received abundant wet weather. During this time, a lot of people were also financially incentivized to remove their lawns, and many did. It’s not clear, however, what the long-term effects of this practice will be. One possible negative outcome might have to do with trees. You don’t need to irrigate trees too much but if you stop altogether during a very dry period, it’s possible these can die.

“California’s recent drought highlights the need for urban as well as agricultural conservation,” says Tom Torgersen, program director in the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s Division of Earth Sciences. “For Los Angeles, the greatest evapotranspiration was due to turf grass and seed-producing trees; palm trees made very small contributions. Both provide an alleviation of the heat island effect and reduce the need for air conditioning. However, the benefit is not evenly shared. The higher the median income, the greater the local evapotranspiration, indicating cooler temperatures there and higher temperatures in poorer sections of the city.”

Findings were published in the journal Water Resources Research. 

This solar-powered device can squeeze water out of thin air — 3 liters a day

You can’t squeeze blood from a stone, but you can squeeze water from thin air — even in the driest areas of the world.

The new water harvester is made of metal organic framework crystals pressed into a thin sheet of copper metal and placed between a solar absorber (above) and a condenser plate (below). Image credits: Wang Laboratory / MIT.

The device you see above can produce nearly 3 liters of water per day, and researchers say they can make it work even better. The key to their success is a family of crystalline powders called metal organic frameworks, or MOFs. MOFs are compounds consisting of metal ions or clusters which form 2D or 3D structures. They are a special type of polymers, often porous. To the naked eye, they would look pretty much like sand, each granule riddled with holes into which gases and molecules of interest can be selectively allowed to pass or blocked. Then, they’re brought in and compacted, making it possible to store a lot of gas in small containers.

Omar Yaghi, a chemist at the University of California, Berkeley, first demonstrated MOFs 20 years ago. Since then, he and others have developed several types of applications for them, including membranes that absorb and later release methane, acting as a carbon tank for cars. In total, over 20,000 types of MOFs have been developed, but one, in particular, is extremely interesting.

In 2014, Yaghi and his colleagues synthesized an MOF that is extremely efficient at absorbing water from thin air, even under extremely low humidities (like those in the driest places on Earth) — now, they’ve taken it a step further. Working with Evelyn Wang, a mechanical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, he turned this idea into a functional device which basically harvests water from thin air.

In a study published in the journal Science, they describe the mechanism, showing that it can pull 2.8 liters of water from the air over 12 hours — even in conditions with 20 or 30 percent humidity.

“It has been a longstanding dream” to harvest water from desert air, says Mercouri Kanatzidis, a chemist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, who wasn’t involved with the work. “This demonstration … is a significant proof of concept.”

However, this is just a proof of concept, and they’re still a ways away from making it viable. For starters, the entire system relies on a zirconium-based MOF, and zirconium costs $150 a kilogram, making such water harvesting devices simply too expensive to work. The next step is to replace the expensive zirconium with the much cheaper aluminum.

This all-purpose solution could make a big difference for the millions of people living in water-deprived areas. According to UNICEF, 400 million children constantly deal with water scarcity. Other solutions have also been approached, but they typically require significant humidity in the air to work — this one works with almost no humidity. At this point, it’s not clear if a potential widespread deployment of such systems will have a collateral effect on the environment.

Image credits: Hyunho Kim et al — Water harvesting from air with metal-organic frameworks powered by natural sunlight. DOI: 10.1126/science.aam8743


Mono Lake California August 2014. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

California’s dry spell may be officially over but some parts of the state will need decades for precipitation to recover

This week, California Gov. Jerry Brown ended the state of emergency drought order signaling the horrendous four-year drought is now officially over. This was the driest four-year period in instrumental records which date back from 1895 and possibly the most severe in 1,200 years. Knowing this, it’s understandable why so many rejoiced at the news. However, while it’s true California isn’t as dry as four years ago, it’s not as wet as it used to be before the flood either. NOAA scientists say some of California’s hardest hit areas could need decades to recover from their current precipitation deficit.

Mono Lake California August 2014. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Mono Lake California August 2014. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The study reported in the Journal of Climate reconstructed precipitation levels in the area of California state since 1571. The analysis based on paleoclimate records suggests that the 2012-2015 period stands out as particularly extreme in the southern Central Valley and South Coast regions. “Some areas lost more than two years’ average moisture delivery during these four years,” the NOAA researchers wrote.

NOAA was able to estimate periods of dryness centuries ago despite the lack of official records using paleoclimatic proxies. For example, tree-ring and lake-sediment record the lack of water. This is how we know about “megadroughts”, periods of persistent drought which lasted for far longer than any drought we’ve recorded in the instrumental records.

According to Dr. Eugene R. Wahl, a NOAA paleoclimatologist and lead author the new paper, California will have to wait a long time before it can recover from the disastrous dry spell. The odds of the state completely recovering in the next two years is only 1 percent, Wahl says based on historical records. Part of why California managed to recover, at least in the northern half of the state, was due to extreme El Niño conditions between 2015 and 2016 but past dry events suggest that when a very strong El Niño followed a similar dryness, California took twice as long to recover.

At the same time, the state is currently receiving high amounts of precipitation for the wet season.

“When you look at the other five wettest years other than this one, the earliest of those is 1982,” David Rizzardo, chief of the snow survey section at the California Department of Water Resources told the LA Times. “When you look at the snowpack, the three driest years on record are 2015, 1991, and 1977.

Due to these conditions, California could recover 80 percent faster than similar events. If this year continues to be extremely wet, like 1982 through summer of 1983 was, then California could recover even faster than that.

That’s a whole, on a state level, because dryness is experienced differently on a regional basis. The NOAA researchers studied California’s paleoclimate for seven standard climate divisions. The San Joaquin Drainage and the South Coast Drainage, which include the Los Angeles and San Diego metropolitan areas but also the agriculturally rich Central Valley, have never seen worse four-year drought since 1571. On the flipside, the Southeast Desert Basin had the highest chance of recovering within two years at around 4 percent.


During his announcement, Gov. Brown blamed global warming for the drought, a claim that’s been echoed by scientists and environmental activists. One 2015 study found human emissions most likely intensified the drought in California by 15 to 20 percent. However, looking at precipitation patterns alone, NOAA researchers found these were capable of producing unprecedented dry conditions like those experienced between 2012-2015. What this means is that per business, as usual, the U.S. Southwest risks facing ‘megadroughts’.


Southern Europe might become a desert by 2100, which is really bad news

Southern Europe may become a desert by the end of the century if we don’t move to reduce emissions, warns a newly published paper.

Image credits Ed Gregory / Pexels.

The Mediterranean coast is a touristic powerhouse, drawing tourists from around the world with its mild climate, good food, and clear waters. But this may well change by the end of the century, warn Joel Guiot, a palaeoclimatologist at the European Centre for Geoscience Research and Education in Aix-en-Provence, France and Wolfgang Cramer, of the Mediterranean Institute for Biodiversity and Ecology. The whole of Southern Europe could become a desert, according to their study, if the climate continues to warm up.

“With 2 degrees of warming, for the Mediterranean we will have a change in the vegetation which has never been known in the past 10,000 years,” said lead author of the study Joel Guiot.

The duo studied pollen cores retrieved from lake mud sediments deposited over the last 100 centuries (roughly equivalent to the Holocene, the geological epoch we’re living in). Because vegetation is closely tied to environmental conditions, they could use pollen to get an idea of how climate shifted over the investigated period. More oak pollen, for example, suggest periods of humid and mild climate, while finding more fir or spruce would point to chillier conditions.

With this data, they built a model of past vegetation (and climate) in the Mediterranean, which they then ran through four predictions taken from the UN’s climate change panel, the IPCC. They found that under a business-as-usual model, the Med’s ecosystems would change beyond anything they’ve been like in the Holocene. Barring a dramatic reduction in emissions, which the team believes is “extremely ambitious and politically unlikely”, Southern Europe will see a dramatic increase in desert areas. Even if the Paris pledge of keeping climate change under 1,5 degrees Celsius is met, the region will experience a “substantial” expansion of deserts.

“Everything is moving in parallel,” Guiot told Nature. “Shrubby vegetation will move into the deciduous forests, while the forests move to higher elevation in the mountains.”

Needless to say, propelling your flora and fauna some 10 millennia back into the past is a pretty bad move. It would take ecosystems back to the state they were before the start of Western Civilization in less than a hundred years. This change will have far-reaching impacts, starting with an unprecedented economic downturn.

Much of Southern Europe relies on the Mediterranean for tourism. Cities like Lisbon, Portugal, or Seville, Spain see millions of tourists per year — who come for the food, the scenery, the history but most of all, the climate. Both these cities have distinct wet and dry seasons (like the coast of California), and the dry summer is the height of the tourist season. But as temperatures push into uncomfortable figures, fewer and fewer tourists are going to come visit.

That’s bad for the economy but not devastating. However, with warmer climates crops will dry out, water systems will be put under huge strain, and as we’ve seen in California, the lack of precipitation during the wet season will cause drought and promote wildfires. Guiot said that these fires, along with the drought and heat will lead to food shortages and, like in Syria in 1998 and 2010, political upheaval and civil war.

“It’s not just climate — political organization is important as well,” Guiot told Inside Climate News.

“But if you amplify a problem of war with the problem of climate, the consequence can be more important.”

The full paper “Climate change: The 2015 Paris Agreement thresholds and Mediterranean basin ecosystems” has been published in the journal Science.

Credit: Land Art Generator Initiative

Meet the Pipe: a beautiful desalinization plant that might one day serve 1.5 billion gallons of water to California

Credit: Land Art Generator

Credit: Land Art Generator Initiative

Khalili Engineers from Canada came up with an innovative solution — and a strikingly beautiful one to boot — to California’s growing water shortage problem. Their solution is “The Pipe” — a solar-powered offshore desalination plant that could serve pure drinkable water into the city’s primary water piping.

The company that designed the Pipe say the huge structure would employ electromagnetic desalination, which is a cheaper, simpler method than those currently used in mainstream engineering. The technology, which is only three years old, involves running a voltage through a chip filled with seawater, which then neutralizes chloride ions in the seawater creating “ion depletion zones”. This change in the electric field is sufficient to redirect salts into one branch, allowing desalinated water to pass through the other branch.

The Pipe

Credit: Land Art Generator Initiative

To power this process, Khalili engineers claim all the required energy would be supplied by solar panels that can generate 10,000 MWh each year. In turn, the Pipe uses this energy to produce 4.5 billion liters (1.5 billion gallons) of drinking water from the sea, as well as clear water with twelve percent salinity.

“The drinking water is piped to shore, while the salt water supplies the thermal baths before it is redirected back to the ocean through a smart release system, mitigating most of the usual problems associated with returning brine water to the sea,” Khalili Engineers said.

The project is a finalist for this year’s Land Art Generator Initiative, an annual design competition that challenges  artists, architects, scientists, landscape architects, engineers, and others to design sustainable solutions to leading environmental problems. The artistic component has to be there too because the organizers believe problem solving can be enhanced with aesthetics.

Credit: Land Art Generator Initiative

Credit: Land Art Generator Initiative

“The sustainable infrastructure that is required to meet California’s development goals and growing population will have a profound influence on the landscape, ” say Rob Ferry and Elizabeth Monoian, co-founders of the Land Art Generator Initiative, in a press release. “The Paris Climate Accord from COP 21 has united the world around a goal … which will require a massive investment in clean energy infrastructure.”

For now, this project is just a pipe dream, but if there’s interest — and by interest I mean cash — this innovative solution to a very complex problem might one day dock off the shore of some important Californian city.

The San Ardo Oil Field From the Coast Starlight. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Scientists find three times more groundwater beneath California’s Central Valley — but a third may already be contaminated

The San Ardo Oil Field From the Coast Starlight. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The San Ardo Oil Field From the Coast Starlight. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Stanford researchers found California’s drought-struck Central Valley harbors three times more groundwater than previously thought. That’s bound to come as great news, especially for the farmers who have never seen a water shortage of this kind for 1,200 years.

The researchers, however, stress that the quality of the water is largely unknown. Thousands of oil well stretching from L.A. to Sacramento may have irreversibly contaminated an important fraction of the newly discovered aquifers.

Going deeper than ever before

“It’s not often that you find a ‘water windfall,’ but we just did,” said study co-author Robert Jackson, the Michelle and Kevin Douglas Provostial Professor at Stanford. “There’s far more fresh water and usable water than we expected.”

Previous estimates of California’s water were based on decades-old data and only extended to a maximum depth of about 1,000 feet. But nowadays technology enables us to tap into much deeper aquifers, something that farms and even some residents have been doing for years already. The most severe drought in California’s recorded history is also a strong motivator to invest in deep drilling for water despite only five years ago it wouldn’t have made economic sense.

Using data from 35,000 oil and gas wells, the Stanford researchers were able to characterize shallow and deep groundwater sources in eight California counties. They estimate usable groundwater in the Central Valley amounts to 2,700 cubic kilometers or triple the previous estimate of the state’s water supply.

The findings, though important, are far from being a solution to California’s growing water problem. All of this plentiful water is located between 1,000 and 3,000 feet underground, which makes extraction very expensive. Drilling this deep for water also increases the risk of ground subsidence or the gradual sinking of the land, something that is already happening more often in the Central Valley where some regions have dropped by tens of feet.

Then there’s the issue of quality, which seems to be a gray area at this point since we lack extensive on-site studies. Judging from what data they have at their disposal, the Stanford team says deep aquifer water has a high concentration of salt, so a desalinization process is required to make use of it — yet again, very expensive.

Some water might also be contaminated beyond repair by the numerous oil wells that litter the Central Valley. Right now, many oil and gas wells are drilling directly into usable freshwater or 30 percent of the newly found aquifers.

“We don’t know what effect oil and gas activity has had on groundwater resources, and one reason to highlight this intersection is to consider if we need additional safeguards on this water,” said Jackson, though he later stresses that water near a fracking site doesn’t necessarily mean it’s contaminated.

“What we are saying is that no one is monitoring deep aquifers. No one’s following them through time to see how and if the water quality is changing,” said study co-author Mary Kang, a postdoctoral associate at Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences. “We might need to use this water in a decade, so it’s definitely worth protecting.”

Yes, we need to protect this water — now, more than ever. However, current EPA guidelines say drillers can operate wells under aquifers if these are not currently being used for drinking water and “cannot now or will not in the future serve as a source of drinking water.” An example of an aquifer that can’t be used as a source of drinking water is a contaminated one. Times have changed, though, and an aquifer 2,000 feet deep can now be called useful. Think Progress reports the Center for Biological Diversity wants to encourage the EPA to reject the applications for aquifer exemptions filled by oil & gas companies looking to drill in new wells.

“I hope that it becomes clear that we need to just not issue any more aquifer exemptions and we need to stop this process of sacrificing our groundwater and start the process of thinking about how we’re going to move beyond that,” Maya Golden Krasner, a staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, told ThinkProgress.