Guest post: How does a rain soaked island have a drought if there isn’t climate change?

Originally a comment by left0ver1under in The withdrawing room.

I make it a point to avoid rants, profanities, insults and “aggressive words”, but there are times when some people deserve to be called blankety-blanks and smacked across the face with frying pans.

Today in the news here in Taiwan, it was reported that the main reservoir in Tainan is down to 38% of capacity, and was only that full because of recent rainfall. And the main reservoir in Taipei is low enough that the government has issued severe water restrictions. (Unfortunately, the restrictions are being delayed because of a holiday.) It’s gotten so bad that people – including me – are actively wishing for Supertyphoon Maysak to hit the island. It’s already 30C on most days and dryer than I’ve seen in nine years of living here.

The fact that there’s a typhoon in late March/early April should be a clue, but not to the clueless. It’s the fourth typhoon in this area of the Pacific Ocean since January 1. I spoke recently to the parents of my employer (they’re both over 60) and they tell me they’ve never seen a typhoon past December, never mind four after the new year. Typhoon Tembin in 2012 did a figure four, crossing Taiwan east to west, going south, then crossing a second time south to north. No one had ever heard of that happening anywhere on Earth, not just here.

How exactly does a rain soaked island like this have a drought if there isn’t climate change? It doesn’t help that last typhoon season (August to November) Taiwan did not have a single day of government ordered closure of schools and businesses due to rain. Typhoons are annoying because of the damage they cause, but they are a big part of filling the water table on this island.

Climate change deniers suck.


  1. Anne Fenwick says

    I read in an article about California in the Guardian that drought can be defined as the difference between water demand and water supply. That means you also have to take into account population size and the amount of water used per head – some of which may be due to increased temperatures, and some to… people using more water. In other words, global warming, yes, but it’s still complicated.

  2. Crimson Clupeidae says

    To be fair, when I first arrived on Okinawa (an even smaller tropical island in the same general region), we were on water rationing for the first 6 months. Droughts on tropical islands are, I suspect, rare, but not unheard of. I’m sure the climate change affects this, like it does pretty much everything on the planet, but just saying a normally tropical island is having a drought doesn’t automatically imply climate change.

    I would bet, though,that if you looked at whatever historical records there are, Taiwan might be seeing one of its worst because of how climate change is affecting currents and weather patterns.

  3. moarscienceplz says

    I think it is just giving more ammo to the science-deniers for us layfolk to say x is due to climate change. Here in California we are in a drought of historic proportions. Is it due to CC? I doubt it is primarily due to CC, because droughts in Calif. are not that unusual. Is it being worsened by CC? Maybe, but I am NOT a climate scientist, so I am really not entitled to an opinion on this. Maybe the net result of CC will make Calif. wetter in the long run, but I doubt we’ll be that lucky. Basically, I think we should let the pros make the statements about what is or is not being changed in the climate.

  4. RJW says

    “Climate change deniers suck.”
    I agree, and many have an agenda.
    @ 3 moarscienceplz,

    “I think it is just giving more ammo to the science-deniers for us layfolk to say x is due to climate change.

    Yes, statistically the drought, as an isolated event, is not significant, we’ll have to wait for the clarity of hindsight, in 50 years time perhaps –current analysis is best left to the experts.
    The average climate change denier will gleefully cite unusually wet or cold winters as evidence against climate change.

  5. monad says

    @3 moarscienceplz:
    The general consensus seems to be that the current California drought is exceptional, and the sort of event that is very unlikely without climate change. It takes very cursory searching to find things like this report. For Taiwan it’s harder for me to tell if this is truly the sort of thing you would scarcely expect otherwise, but it’s easy to find analysis saying floods and droughts are predicted to become more likely. I’m not convinced that noting when such consequences are actually coming to pass is giving any real benefit to deniers, who seem quite capable of making up their own ammo anyway.

  6. moarscienceplz says

    @#5 monad

    The general consensus seems to be that the current California drought is exceptional,

    Yes it is, but exceptional weather always have occurred and always will occur, with or without homo sapiens help.

    and the sort of event that is very unlikely without climate change.

    Really? The consensus among qualified climate experts is that this particular situation can be laid at the feet of antropogenic climate change? The very report you provided has this summary:

    California’s driest 12-month period on record occurred during 2013/14, and although global warming has very likely increased the probability of certain large-scale atmospheric conditions, implications for extremely low precipitation in California remain uncertain.

    I read that as saying that these people are being very cautious about declaring that this particular weather event is a smoking gun for climate change.

  7. medivh says

    moarscienceplz: Slight topic change, but relevant: Australian bushfires. In 2013, the state of New South Wales, positioned fairly south on the continent, had bushfires in September for the first time in recorded history. The leader for the Green party in the lower house declared, with the support of some scientists, that this was proof of global warming. Australia’s famously climate denying PM bit back, as you’re suggesting the door is opened to.

    However; quoting from an editorial from a website calling its selfThe Conversation:

    [Prime Minister] Tony Abbott himself had sought to normalise the NSW fires.

    Australia is a country which is prone to natural disaster but every time it strikes, it hurts and we grieve for all of those who are now hurting because of what’s happened in NSW.

    Abbott is here tapping into an entrenched narrative that has been used for covering extreme weather events long before “global warming” and “climate change” entered our vocabulary, which might be called the “fury of nature” narrative. The other dominant narrative at play during these events is about how “Australians” can overcome adversity in times of crisis. These narratives are extremely powerful, and research at Monash University suggests they are the two most important ones relevant to the Black Saturday fires of 2009 and the Brisbane floods of 2011.

    However, the study at Monash also reveals that it is precisely during extreme weather events that journalists have the best opportunity to communicate the reality of climate change. From a climate science standpoint, looking at the link is the wrong question, but from a media culture perspective it is exactly the right question at the right time.

    So, while climate deniers have a door left slightly ajar to them, the undecided public aren’t paying attention at many other times. Go to your audience, because they wont come to you, huh?

  8. hotshoe, now with more boltcutters says

    I read in an article about California in the Guardian that drought can be defined as the difference between water demand and water supply. That means you also have to take into account population size and the amount of water used per head – some of which may be due to increased temperatures, and some to… people using more water.

    I don’t know exactly what the Guardian article said, but if I understand what it sounds like, they’re stupid. Drought is NOT merely a mismatch between demand and supply; drought is objectively defined as a prolonged period of abnormally low precipitation (comparing current to historical average in a specific geographic region). IF they need to be pedantic, they can call that Meteorologic Drought, to differentiate from Sociological Drought, which is when too much human activity — such as installing flush toilets instead of privies, or irrigating farms instead of relying on rainfall — lowers volume of river flow or water table level.

    The problem in California, as well as many other parts of the world, is plainly Meteorological Drought, not Sociological Drought, so it’s stupid to imply that if we all just conserve better (or if all the people would just move somewhere else that has more water) then CA drought would no longer be a “demand/supply” problem. No, it absolutely would still be a problem to the non-human ecology, even if only a few hundred thousand hunter-gatherers lived in the foothills. I guess the Guardian has no reason to care about salmon streams nor redwood groves, but I do care, and I know they’re going to be harmed by the total lack of rainfall, and not harmed by silly lawn-watering, car-washing, or even massive industrial demand for water in the state. “Excessive” demand downstream is not the real problem when there is literally zero rain falling upstream where it should be the source of a creek – which had in the prior decade been deep enough for salmon spawning.

    Clearly there is room for human improvement in use efficiency (and in choices of water-conserving gardens, etc). One calculation is that with water-efficient appliances the minimum usage for modern lifestyle would be about 32 gpcd, gallons per capita per day, (or about 120 liters per day) for personal hygiene, laundry, and dish washing. That quantity doesn’t include outdoor usage, eg landscaping, pools, and car-washing. I’m all in favor of conservation and I have no problem with saying that waste such as car-washing, for example, should legally be prohibited. However, individual demand is only about 20 percent of total CA state usage. Even cutting personal use in half (which is not possible, since the average use in many places is already down to 45-48 gpcd, including their home outdoor use) would still mean that CA needs 90% of its historical-average water supply just to maintain its existing economy. Good luck with that: 2015 supply is less than 20% of normal. Again, this is an actual meteorological supply problem, not a supply/demand mismatch, unless you suppose that 20 million Californians and the world’s eighth largest economy can just get up and move elsewhere. Perhaps the state of Oklahoma would like its population to quintuple in a year with a reverse dust-bowl migration from CA? Perhaps Ireland would like its population to double with 4 million Silicon-Valley refugees?

    London is an example of a city which could suffer from a sociological drought even though English weather may never have a yearlong absence of rain, because London has minimal ability to capture rainfall over its own footprint, and has extremely limited rights to draw on water outside of the upper Thames watershed. Adding too many more people to the city, or additional business demand for water, could tip the supply/demand balance into a perceived drought ala the Guardian’s definition. Well, maybe a few million Londoners should move to the foothills of California, and then they’d know what a real drought looks like.

  9. says

    Well, it’s been wet the past few days with mild rain, but is it enough? And have people changed their attitudes about usage? So far, the answer seems to be no on both counts. Last weekend was a long weekend (*) and I visited Taipei for a few days, staying at my old landlord’s place. He’s an ER doctor, so one would expect a more informed view, but no. He said, “Well, Taipei’s isn’t too bad so I’m not worried. We don’t need to cut back….” About the only people I’ve met who seem to have changed their habits are my employers and their family.

    The China Post newspaper has a chart of the reservoirs updated daily. Seven out of nine reservoirs in major cities are below 40%. This drizzling isn’t enough, we need a downpour. For once I’m glad that rain is predicted for the whole weekend.

    Another bad sign about the drought and rationing is the political and economic disparity. The county I live in is a new and fairly wealthy one. It and other wealthier areas have no water restrictions. It’s the older and poorer areas being forced to go without.

    (* Tomb Sweeping Day was 4/4 and Children’s Day was 4/5. Both fell on the weekend, so the government declared Friday and Monday would be off as well. Nearly every major holiday this year was or is on a weekend all all will have the prior or subsequent weekday off (2/28, Dragon Boat Festival, Independence Day, etc.). The question is, will extra days off for stat holidays be the norm now or only this year? In the past, if a holiday fell on the weekend, you lost that extra day off.)

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