Dwindling water supplies highlight the need for systemic change.

Our modern society was born in a period of relative climatic stability. Regional climate change did destroy various civilizations, but most of the planet remained stable enough for the various human populations to thrive.

A crucial product of that stability has been access to fresh water. That’s why our biggest cities grew by lakes and rivers, and in more recent years, why we’ve been able to expand in dry regions by tapping into vast deposits of underground water. We’ve known for some time that our consumption has far outstripped the ability of aquifers to replenish themselves, but it seems that we’ve reached a point at which some will never recover:

Under a best-case scenario where drought years are followed by consecutive wet years with above-average precipitation, the researchers found there is a high probability it would take six to eight years to fully recover overdrafted water, which occurs when more groundwater is pumped out than is supplied through all sources like precipitation, irrigation and runoff.

However, this best-case scenario where California has six to eight consecutive wet years is not likely because of the state’s increasingly hot and dry climate. Under a more likely, drier climate, there is less than a 20% chance of full overdraft recovery over a 20-year period following a drought.

The Central Valley produces about a quarter of the nation’s food and is home to around 6.5 million people. Using too much groundwater during and after droughts could soon push this natural resource beyond the point of recovery unless pumping restrictions are implemented. The study finds recovery times can be halved with modest caps on groundwater pumping in drought and post-drought years.

“This is really threatening,” said Sarfaraz Alam, a hydrologist at Stanford and lead study author. “There are many wells that people draw water from for drinking water. Since [groundwater is] always going down, at some point these wells will go dry and the people won’t have water.”

In ages past, the human populations in California would respond to this by collapsing. Many would die, many would migrate away from whatever had caused the wells to dry up, and some would stay. Those who stayed survived because they were able to adapt their community practices to the new conditions.

There are places that currently have plenty of water, but as the temperature rises, so does water consumption, and there’s no place on the planet that’s “safe” from the warming climate. Migrating will absolutely be part of how we cope with climate change (which is why it’s so important to end our nationalistic obsession with borders) but at the same time we will all be forced to confront the other two options: adapt or die.

The need for us to radically change how we use and dispose of water is almost as important as the need to stop our greenhouse gas emissions. That’s one reason I like the idea of moving food production indoors, where water can be more easily recycled, and temperatures can be controlled. It’s also why I think that the kinds of power generation we use should vary depending on regional and local conditions.

We’ve spent centuries behaving as though we were separate from nature, and many of us are consequently unused to adapting ourselves to the material conditions of our local ecosystem. It’s a thing we need to re-learn, and because I also think we absolutely need to retain the use of technology and science, it’s a thing we need to re-invent. I believe it’s possible to have a high-tech human society that can exist as a conscious part of the global ecosystem, and as stewards of it. I also believe that doing so will require us to let go of expectations about our lives that are rooted in a world that no longer exists because of the societies that gave us those expectations.

Thank you for reading. If you find my work interesting, useful, or entertaining, please share it with others, and please consider joining the group of lovely people who support me at patreon.com/oceanoxia. Life costs money, alas, and owing to my immigration status in Ireland, this is likely to be my only form of income for the foreseeable future, so if you are able to help out, I’d greatly appreciate it. The beauty of crowdfunding is that even as little as $1 per month ends up helping a great deal if enough people do it. You’d be supporting both my nonfiction and my science fiction writing, and you’d get early access to the fiction.

Solar panels and shade: using “negative space” to increase climate resilience

I’m generally a fan of solar power, both photovoltaic and thermal. As I’ve said for a while now, I think our best bet for a resilient society is to have a diverse set of tools available, so that the strengths of one kind of power generation can help reinforce the weaknesses of another. I like distributed power generation for its potential to make it harder to control people’s access to electricity, which in turn gives more political power to everyday folks, similar to how a solid mutual aid network or strike fund can allow communities to survive unexpected hardship or to win the “siege” of a strike. I also very much like the portability of solar panels. As circumstances like rising sea levels or persistent heat force us to abandon some of the places in which we currently live, the whole process will be much easier if we can bring our power sources with us.

One problem with solar power is that whether you’re using mirrors to concentrate heat, or photovoltaic cells to generate electricity, both depend on a large surface area covered in the relevant material to “catch” enough sunlight to use. While I don’t buy the idea that we can run our entire society with just wind or just solar, scaling up renewable power in general can potentially conflict with the equally important goals of re-wilding parts of the landscape, and growing “carbon crops” for sequestration.

The solution that’s most commonly offered – at least for photovoltaic power – is to mount the panels on places like rooftops or parking lots, where there’s already guaranteed direct sunlight. I like this for a lot of reasons. Part of it is that it provides a failsafe for individuals and communities – if your building generates at least some of the power you use, that’s a huge benefit for surviving the various dangers of the growing climate crisis. At the same time, there are things that require a lot of power in one place, and power is always lost in transmission. That’s one reason why the whole “we could power the whole planet if we just cover a section of the Sahara with solar panels” idea has never actually been seriously considered – even with magically indestructible transmission lines, too much power would be lost getting to to where people live.

Rooftops are nice because they generally have at least some correlation to the amount of power being used; more people consume more power, and more people means more rooftops. On the other hand, I think as the temperature continues to rise, cities are going to need to introduce a lot more plant life if they want to keep outdoor temperatures at survivable levels. It’d be nice if I didn’t feel the need to keep saying it, but we’re at the point where we need to be deliberately engineering our surroundings to account for lethal heat. If we can, it would be wise for us to also take some action to help our ecosystems cope with the chaos we’ve caused. Fortunately, with solar panels, there’s a way to do that while also getting the benefits of centralized solar farms.

While we should be reducing our use of highways for rapid transit lining those that we do have with solar panels, either on the roadside or even covering parts of the highway is one option. Another is covering canals.

California’s water system is one of the largest in the world and brings critical water resources to over 27 million people. Brandi McKuin, a postdoctoral researcher at UC Santa Cruz and lead author of the study, found that that shading the canals would lead to a reduction in evaporation of water, kind of like keeping your glass of water under the shade instead of out in the open on a hot summer day prevents evaporation from stealing sips. Putting up a solar panel using trusses or suspension cables to act as a canal’s umbrella is what makes the double-whammy of a solar canal.

“We could save upwards of 63 billion gallons of water annually,” she says. “That would be comparable to the amount needed to irrigate 50,000 acres of farmland, or meet the residential water needs of over 2 million people.” Water is of especially critical importance to California, a state regularly stricken with drought.

The actual water savings aren’t huge, but there are also benefits to shading the water that go beyond losing less to evaporation:

Aquatic weeds also plague canals and can bring water flow to a standstill, but the researchers found that by adding shade, and decreasing the plant’s sunshine slashes the amount of weed growth. McKuin says preventing weed growth would also lighten the load for sometimes costly mechanical and chemical waterway maintenance.

As usual, the United States is lagging a bit behind on this one. India has been covering canals with solar panels for some time now, and have found that not only does it keep the canals cooler and more functional for human use, but the lower temperatures and limited sunlight reduce algal blooms that can make people sick, and that suck oxygen out of water, making it difficult for organisms like fish to survive.

Not only do we get those benefits, but the evaporation that does occur also helps keep the solar panels cool, improving their efficiency:

And while the water can benefit from the solar panels above, so do the panels from the water below. The running water helps the panels to remain cool, which increases their efficiency by at least 2.5-5%.

As most articles I’ve read on this point out, the up-front cost of solar farms over water tend to be higher than building on dry land, but I hope I don’t need to point out that cost should not be the primary concern when responding to global climate chaos. I’d like to see more research into the effects of things like shading ponds, lakes and rivers, but with those feeling the burn of climate change too, I think it’s worth trying out.

Going forward, I think there’s going to be a lot of austerity propaganda surrounding climate change. Whenever society has a ruling class, those rulers will always talk about the need to show “the resilience and ingenuity of our people”, by making everyone else suffer more, so that those at the top don’t have give up their power.

There are a lot of ways to combat that, but one is to relentlessly insist on framing the conversation about what collective investments will yield the biggest improvements to life for people in general. Reducing algal blooms and creating shaded swimming and boating areas, for example, could make a hotter climate far more bearable, and we’re going to need as much “more bearable” as we can get.

Thank you for reading. If you find my work interesting, useful, or entertaining, please share it with others, and please consider joining the group of lovely people who support me at patreon.com/oceanoxia. Life costs money, alas, and owing to my immigration status in Ireland, this is likely to be my only form of income for the foreseeable future, so if you are able to help out, I’d greatly appreciate it. The beauty of crowdfunding is that even as little as $1 per month ends up helping a great deal if enough people do it. You’d be supporting both my nonfiction and my science fiction writing, and you’d get early access to the fiction.

Morbid Monday: High temperatures are devastating wheat crops in the United States

I’m working on a fairly long and involved piece on organizing and how to move beyond the local efforts I will continue to promote (remember – direct action both makes a better future more likely, and tends to improve your own outlook and personal mental health). Because I want to add the new piece to my “guidebook”, I want to do it justice if I’m able. In the meantime, the need for action continues to grow, and paying attention to what’s happening now can help us to think about how to act, and to imagine life on the chaotic, hostile planet on which we find ourselves.

For decades now fossil fuel propagandists have used, among many other talking points, the claim that rising CO2 levels is actually a good thing, because “CO2 is plant food”. The problem is that it’s not the only factor affecting the growth of any plant. As with humans, high temperatures dehydrates plants, and as with humans, there are limits to the heat a plant can take. I suppose it’s understandable that people might not know that, since we’ve only been dealing with heat-related crop failures from time to time for a few thousand years. Regardless, the predictable is occurring, and this summers brutal North American heatwaves have been wreaking havoc on our wheat farms:

Sun-baked U.S. spring wheat fields have been so badly hurt by drought this year that some farmers are expecting to harvest what they’re dubbing a “half a crop.”
Plants are visibly stunted. So much so that when crop scouts toured the fields of top-producing state North Dakota this week they kept having to get close to the ground to inspect crops that were about 10 inches (25 centimeters) or shorter — about a third of the normal size for this time of year. Large patches of dry soil could be seen in between rows. In better seasons, the ground isn’t even visible.

All told, the harsh conditions will send yields for spring wheat in the state plunging to 29.1 bushels an acre this year, according to final assessment of estimates following the Wheat Quality Council’s crop tour. While that’s slightly higher than the most-recent estimate from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it would still mean a drop of 41% from last year’s harvest.

Spring wheat is highly prized worldwide for giving foods like pizza crust and bagels their chewiness. This season’s expected shortfall hits as neighboring Canada contends with extreme heat and dryness as well, putting those crops at risk. North American baking and milling companies may end up having to look overseas for imports. Some farmers, after battling shriveled crops and damaging grasshoppers, have already opted to bale up plants for hay or consider the entire field a loss.

The fact that so much of the food we grow goes to waste means that those of us accustomed to reliable access to food are unlikely to starve because of this, but it wouldn’t surprise me if wheat products became more expensive, absent some form of price control or subsidies. This kind of problem is only going to get worse. Various places will still have good years, but those will become fewer in number as the temperature rises, and with the temperatures we’ve seen in Canada this year, I hope it’s clear to everyone that no part of the planet is going to be safe from these problems. As I’ve said before, I think our response to climate change needs to include a massive increase in indoor farming, even if it’s mostly stuff like algae or edible bacterial cultures.

I hope you grew up wanting to live in some kind of science fiction setting where we use advanced technology to survive on a hostile planet, because while we can take steps to mitigate that hostility, I don’t expect the warming to end in my lifetime.

Life costs money and I’m currently in a situation where I’m unable to get conventional wage labor. If you find my work useful or interesting, please consider supporting me at patreon.com/oceanoxia. You can sign up for as little as $1 per month (that’s just 25 cents a week!), and every little bit really does add up. If you can’t afford that – and I know that many can’t right now – please consider sharing my work with anyone you think might appreciate it. Beyond that, take care of yourselves and each other.