Climate researchers warn of food and forest tinderbox

In January, food prices reached their highest levels since the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation began monitoring them in 1990. Credit: UN Food and Agricultural Organisation.

In January, food prices reached their highest levels since the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation began monitoring them in 1990. Credit: UN Food and Agricultural Organisation.

More frequent droughts are set to pose challenges to food supplies, and could worsen global warming still further. That’s a message that’s emerged over the past week, which has seen world food prices reach record highs, while researchers unveiled stark messages about drought in Africa and the Amazon forest.

Eastern Africa is seeing decreased rainfall due to warming in the Indian Ocean warn University of California, Santa Barbara, scientists Chris Funk and Park Williams. Over the past 60 years the Indian Ocean has warmed two to three times faster than the central tropical Pacific, they note in a paper published in the journal Climate Dynamics online ahead of print. This has driven increased rain and cycling of air through the atmosphere in the tropical Indian Ocean region. This has extended part of the air flow system known as the Walker circulation westwards, sending dry air towards eastern Africa.

Young boys working in a newly cropped field in Africa. Eastern Africa has seen increasingly frequent droughts in the last 20 years, a trend that looks set to continue. Credit: Michael Budde , U.S. Geological Survey.

Young boys working in a newly cropped field in Africa. Eastern Africa has seen increasingly frequent droughts in the last 20 years, a trend that looks set to continue. Credit: Michael Budde , U.S. Geological Survey.

“This response has suppressed convection over tropical eastern Africa, decreasing precipitation during the ‘long-rains’ season of March–June,” Funk and Williams write. Consequently, over the last 20 years, an increased frequency of drought has been observed in this region, making an estimated 17.5 million people food insecure in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia. The scientists note that the US government has spent over $1.1 billion on food aid in these countries since 2009.

“Global temperatures are predicted to continue increasing, and we anticipate that average precipitation totals in Kenya and Ethiopia will continue decreasing or remain below the historical average,” said Funk, who is also affiliated with the US Geological Service. Since 2008, he and his colleagues have shown that the links between rain and the broader climate in the Indian Ocean are changing. As a result predictions previously used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), that rainfall in eastern Africa will increase as global temperatures rise, will have to be re-examined.

Funk now hopes that this research will identify areas of potential drought and famine in order to target food aid and help make decisions on agricultural development, environmental conservation, and water resources planning.“Although drought is one reason for food shortages, it is exacerbated by stagnating agricultural development and continued population growth.”

Leaf from a young sapling, dying after drought in the Columbian Amazonia in November 2005. University of Leeds' Simon Lewis and his colleagues report that the drought in 2010 was even worse than 2005's "once in a century" event. Credit: Peter Vitzthum

Leaf from a young sapling, dying after drought in the Columbian Amazonia in November 2005. University of Leeds' Simon Lewis and his colleagues report that the drought in 2010 was even worse than 2005's "once in a century" event. Credit: Peter Vitzthum

Meanwhile, 2010 saw a drought in the Amazon more severe than the one that occurred in 2005, which was described as a “once in a century event”. University of Leeds, UK, researcher Simon Lewis also warns in top journal Science that the drought might result in more than 5 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions. This is a reversal of the Amazon’s usual role removing CO2 from the atmosphere, and comes close to matching the 5.4 billion tonnes of CO2 people in the US produced in 2009 by burning fossil fuels.

“Two unusual and extreme droughts occurring within a decade may largely offset the carbon absorbed by intact Amazon forests during that time,” Lewis said. “If events like this happen more often, the Amazon rainforest would reach a point where it shifts from being a valuable carbon sink slowing climate change, to a major source of greenhouse gases that could speed it up.”

Lewis recently found himself fighting the UK’s Sunday Times, which quoted him to support an article criticising the IPCC. It used his comments to label the IPCC claim that “up to 40 percent of the Amazonian forests could react drastically to even a slight reduction in precipitation” “bogus”. In fact he believed the claim, although not perfect, was broadly correct.

Now, using satellite measurements of rainfall across 5.3 million square kilometres of Amazonia during the 2010 dry season, Lewis and his British and Brazilian colleagues have provided data supporting scientists’ previous predictions. “Having two events of this magnitude in such close succession is extremely unusual,” he said, “but is unfortunately consistent with those climate models that project a grim future for Amazonia.”

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3 Responses to “Climate researchers warn of food and forest tinderbox”

  1. Gail Says:

    Of course climate-change induced drought will be quite sufficient to cause widespread crop failure. However, the situation is considerably more complicated, and virtually no researchers are taking into account the rising levels of background tropospheric ozone.

    Volatile organic compound precursors from fuel emissions and cycling around the globe, making vegetation more vulnerable to drought, as well as insects, disease, fungus and extreme weather. Trees are dying at a rapidly accelerating rate, and crop yields are stunted.

    These scientists should take a look at plants being grown in pots receiving regular water, and aquatic plants that are always in ponds or lakes. They will find foliar damage identical to that shown in the photograph in this article, because leaves and needles cannot photosynthesize when their stomates are damaged by exposure to ozone.

    photographs and links to research at http://www.witsendnj.blogspot.com

    • Barry Carter Says:

      Dear Gail,

      I have been exploring the use of some newly rediscovered minerals which appear to double the growth of plants in a couple years while significantly decreasing their water use. These minerals can be concentrated from sea water, fresh water, rocks and even from the air using simple, open source methods.

      Here is my hypothesis about why we are seeing increased plant growth and decreased water use in plants that have been supplemented with these minerals:

      Nowadays, many people are hungry all of the time. They eat but are not satisfied, so they eat more. But they remain tired and hungry so they have to “sleep it off”. I presume that they are still hungry and tired because they are not getting all of the nutrients they need in the food that they eat.

      Plants must be the same. They “eat” nutrients which have been solubilized from the soil. They transpire water into the air as the nutrients are removed for food.

      If there is insufficient nutrition in the plant food that the roots bring in, more water must be transpired into the air to make room for more solubilized minerals from the soil. Unlike people, plants don’t get fat when they eat too much; they just waste water.

      You can read more about plant results from using these minerals from links at:

      http://www.subtleenergies.com/plant-lynx.htm

      The drought.htm link will give you more info on some of the increases of drought tolerance that have been reported.

      With kindest regards,
      Barry Carter
      bcarter@igc.org

  2. Driest monsoons in 1,000 years warn of catastrophe « Simple Climate Says:

    [...] in recent decades has reached its lowest level since then, which is consistent with records from the Amazon basin. The predicted effects of climate change are often summarised as the world becoming warmer and [...]


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