Tuesday, August 27, 2013
Monday, August 26, 2013
That 130 litres of water goes into making your average coffee is a statistic that amazes most people. Even more surprising is that hardly anyone, even in the business community, has the foggiest idea how much water goes into manufacturing our favourite consumer products, from field to factory.
Seeking to address the dearth of information on the water required to produce a single product, from ready meals and soft drinks to t-shirts and electronic items, a variety of organisations have over the years floated the idea of water footprint labelling.
The general premise is that quantifying water inputs, like nutritional and calorie labels on food items, will help to influence purchasing habits, encouraging consumers to resist highly water intensive products. It would incentivise product manufacturers to scale back unnecessary waste and awaken consumer consciousness about water insecurity.
According to Dr Zafar Adeel, chair of UN-Water, the United Nations thinktank, not only does water footprint labelling make sense, but it is just around the corner. "People are often surprised and then ask, 'why didn't we know about this before?'
"I wouldn't call it a pipe dream," he says. "It will take five to 10 years for it to become fairly common."
Adeel suggests that a few pioneering companies may take the lead, rather than the government intervening. This in turn would spur industry-wide initiatives.
Growing consumer demand will be an important driver, he explains. "As we come up with new ways of measuring sustainability and the green economy, that will create back pressure on the private sector to come up with these schemes to provide more information."
Not everyone shares Adeel's optimism, however. Many critics regard any water footprint labelling scheme as a well-intentioned but ultimately meritless initiative, which risks further bamboozling already confused consumers.
Alistair Knox, chairman of the Association of Suppliers to the British Clothing Industry, is one influential voice in the clothing industry to pour cold water on the idea. The proposal is just not on the clothing industry's agenda, he says, and is far below issues such as the durability of garments or energy usage.
"It would be a bit pointless. There is already a huge amount of information on garment labels that people very rarely, if ever, look at," he says, adding that the industry would regard any serious proposal as a "little bit bizarre".
In Knox's view, any figure assigned to a clothing product for water usage is "dubious" as it is "from difficult to impossible" to calculate accurately beyond a generic average. He uses the example of a cotton yarn, the fibres of which may have come from several regions, each of which may have had different irrigation systems.
"How are you going to average that? Whatever number you come up with is just somebody's thumb in the air." The same could be said for many other consumer industries, such as electronic goods.
Knox also challenges the idea that water volume use is an important consideration for consumers. "The bottom line is that water recycles … Where is that water now? It's back in the system."
The sense that water volume labelling is too simplistic is shared by Felix Ockborn, environmental sustainability coordinator for water at high-street clothing retailer H&M. While Ockborn welcomes product scoring on sustainability performance, he says it is just as vital to consider the context of the water consumption in any labelling system.
"Only providing a volumetric product footprint would be misguiding if it does not incorporate where the water was taken from," he says. "What is most important is what we and other companies do to ensure that water is used responsibly."
Simon Davidoff, senior director of strategy for industrial services at Siemens, supports the idea of water footprint labels alongside energy use indicators. Technological advances mean it is relatively easy to quantify consumption and wastage in factory environments, he says.
Like Adeel, Davidoff believes water footprint labels are now inevitable. "Consumers will demand it," he says. The challenge will be in agreeing how far back companies should go to measure water inputs. More
Sunday, August 25, 2013
A former Bolivian Ambassador to United Nations said this in Lagos on Friday.
Climate change could reduce yields from rain-fed agriculture by up to 50 per cent in some countries by 2020.
Pablo Solon, former Bolivian Ambassador to United Nations, stated this, Friday, at the inaugural Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF)’s Sustainable Academy in Lagos.
“We have to recognize that we are part of nature, that our future is linked with the future of earth,” said Mr. Solon, Executive Director, Focus on the Global South.
Two-thirds of all proven fossil fuel reserves would have to be left “unburned” if global warming will be held for two degrees Celsius, according to the International Energy Agency.
Mr. Solon explained the magnitude of the temperature rise by stating that a one degree rise in the normal body temperature could lead to fever.
The event themed ‘Climate Change and the Looming Food Crisis’ had already concluded two sessions, earlier in the week, in Abuja and Benin City.
Nnimmo Bassey, HOMEF’s Director, said that global warming has become a major concern in Nigeria and the rest of the world, with large numbers of people still ignorant about it.
“No doubt people recognize that weather events such as rainfall and flooding are getting more intense. They can even tell you the rhythms of the weather have become unpredictable,” said Mr. Bassey.
“However, when it comes to saying what is responsible for climate change, the answers taper out. If we do not know the cause and those responsible, it is doubtful that we can solve the problem,” he added.
Mr. Bassey said that effective communication of climate change and the looming food crisis will help “unpack the problem.”
“We hope that concepts like Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in developing countries (REDD), Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), and other market-based false solutions would be exposed for what they are,” Mr. Bassey said.
“Projects like Eko Atlantic City must be interrogated as a climate challenge, not a solution, recognizing the fact of sea level rise and the low-lying nature of Nigeria’s vulnerable coastline,” he added.
Mr. Bassey further stated that temperature increases of the magnitude currently experienced was now a possibility because of refusal of polluting nations to commit to measurable and verifiable emissions cut.
“Africa is poised to heat up much more than other regions,” Mr. Bassey continued.
“Continuous temperature rise because of lack of commitment of nations to cut emissions at source will translate to the roasting of Africa, an already very vulnerable continent.
“Food production capacity will also be diminished, exposing the continent to great danger,” he added. More
Wednesday, August 21, 2013
More than a dozen years of drought have begun to extract a heavy toll from water supplies in the West, where a report released last week forecast dramatic cuts next year in releases between the two main reservoirs on the Colorado River, the primary source of water for tens of millions of people across seven western states.
After studying the problems facing the river for the past two years, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation – the agency charged with managing water in the West – announced Friday that it would cut the amount of water released next year by Lake Powell in Arizona by 750,000 acre-feet, enough to supply about 1.5 million homes.
It marks the first reduction in water flows since the mid 1960s, when the lake was created by the construction of Glen Canyon Dam. "This is the worst 14-year drought period in the last hundred years," said Larry Wolkoviak, director of the bureau's Upper Colorado Region.
The move could trigger an "unprecedented water crisis within the next few years," the business coalition group Protect the Flows told USA Today, as reductions could have major ramifications for farmers and businesses downstream that depend on those flows, as well as on hydroelectric power generation.
"The river is already severely endangered due to way too many dams and diversions," Gary Wockner of SavetheColorado.org told National Geographic, noting the impact the reduced flows also would have on fish and wildlife throughout the Grand Canyon. "The impact on the health of the Colorado River is unsustainable."
It's difficult to overstate how important the Colorado River is to the West. From Lake Powell along the Arizona-Utah border, the river flows more than 300 miles through the Grand Canyon to Lake Mead in Nevada, supplying drinking water to more than 36 million people in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Wyoming and Utah.
The river also supplies water to 22 native American tribes, 11 national parks, 7 national wildlife refuges, and 4 million acres of farmland, ThinkProgress reports.
At Lake Mead, water levels will lower by 8 feet as a result of the reduction, after the lake already has dropped by about 100 feet since the current drought began in 2000, the Wall Street Journal notes. That would bring water levels there – now about 1,105 feet – within striking range of 1,075 feet, considered the threshold for the U.S. Department of the Interior to declare a water shortage.
Today, Lake Powell is only about 45 percent of its full capacity while Lake Mead stands at 47 percent full, according to Chuck Collum of the Central Arizona Project (CAP), which delivers water from the Colorado River to central and southern Arizona.
He told USA Today that the forecast would mean CAP would see its water releases reduced by about 320,000 acre-feet, or a cut of about 20 percent. CAP says this will have no impact on the cities and Native American tribes it serves, however, because the reduction would impact largely underground storage and non-Indian agriculture.
For Las Vegas, which draws most of its water from Lake Mead and grew by more than 6,000 people a month in the 2000s, the extremely dry conditions of the past decade already have prompted a raft of water restrictions and conservation measures -- including banning grass front lawns in new home developments.
But the city isn't counting on conservation alone. If the conditions of the past several years continue indefinitely, by 2015 water levels at Lake Mead could drop below one of Las Vegas's two intakes there, imperiling the city's water supply. Today, its water authority is scrambling to build a third intake to allow it to draw water at levels below 1,000 feet -- an insurance policy if the lake's levels drop low enough to put its first intake out of service.
"It's essentially a race for us," Scott Huntley of the Southern Nevada Water Authority told National Geographic, because the lake likely "is going to drop more precipitously than seen in the past."
At their root, the potential water shortages both lakes face is the result of what has happened to theColorado River over the past decade. Long-running drought across the Southwest has starved the river to its current low flows, and climate change is expected to reduce them by 5 to 20 percent over the next 40 years, University of Colorado geoscientist Brad Udall told Smithsonian Magazine.
Its impacts will be felt at each stage of the river's development: less snowfall in the Rocky Mountains will mean less water enters the river at its start, while hotter air temperatures and drier weather will mean longer droughts and more water lost to evaporation. More
Rising Temperature, Rising Food Prices
Agriculture as it exists today developed over 11,000 years of rather remarkable climate stability. It has evolved to maximize production within that climate system. Now, suddenly, the climate is changing. With each passing year, the agricultural system is becoming more out of sync with the climate system. 1
In generations past, when there was an extreme weather event, such as a monsoon failure in India, a severe drought in Russia, or an intense heat wave in the U.S. Corn Belt, we knew that things would shortly return to normal. But today there is no “normal” to return to. The earth’s climate is now in a constant state of flux, making it both unreliable and unpredictable. 2
Since 1970, the earth’s average temperature has risen more than 1 degree Fahrenheit. (See Figure 8–1.) If we continue with business as usual, burning ever more oil, coal, and natural gas, it is projected to rise some 11 degrees Fahrenheit (6 degrees Celsius) by the end of this century. The rise will be uneven. It will be much greater in the higher latitudes than in the equatorial regions, greater over land than over oceans, and greater in continental interiors than in coastal regions. 3
As the earth’s temperature rises, it affects agriculture in many ways. High temperatures interfere with pollination and reduce photosynthesis of basic food crops. The most vulnerable part of a plant’s life cycle is the pollination period. Of the world’s three food staples—corn, wheat, and rice—corn is particularly vulnerable. In order for corn to reproduce, pollen must fall from the tassel to the strands of silk that emerge from the end of each ear. Each of these silk strands is attached to a kernel site on the cob. If the kernel is to develop, a grain of pollen must fall on the silk strand and then journey to the kernel site where fertilization takes place. When temperatures are uncommonly high, the silk strands quickly dry out and turn brown, unable to play their role in the fertilization process.
When it comes to rice, the effects of temperature on pollination have been studied in detail in the Philippines. Scientists there report that the pollination of rice falls from 100 percent at 93 degrees Fahrenheit (34 degrees Celsius) to near zero at 104 degrees, leading to crop failure. 4
High temperatures can also dehydrate plants. When a corn plant curls its leaves to reduce exposure to the sun, photosynthesis is reduced. And when the stomata on the underside of the leaves close to reduce moisture loss, carbon dioxide (CO2) intake is also reduced, further restricting photosynthesis. At elevated temperatures, the corn plant, which under ideal conditions is so extraordinarily productive, goes into thermal shock.
In a study of local ecosystem sustainability, Mohan Wali and his colleagues at Ohio State University noted that as temperature rises, photosynthetic activity in plants increases until the temperature reaches 68 degrees Fahrenheit. The rate of photosynthesis then plateaus until the temperature reaches 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Beyond this point it declines, until at 104 degrees Fahrenheit, photosynthesis ceases entirely. 5
All of these changes affect crop yields. Crop ecologists in several countries have been focusing on the precise relationship between temperature and crop yields. Their findings suggest a rule of thumb that a 1-degree-Celsius rise in temperature above the norm during the growing season lowers wheat, rice, and corn yields by 10 percent. Some of the most comprehensive research on this topic comes from the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. Crop yields from experimental field plots of irrigated rice dropped by 10 percent with a 1-degree-Celsius rise in temperature. The scientists concluded that “temperature increases due to global warming will make it increasingly difficult to feed Earth’s growing population.” 6
Stanford University scientists David Lobell and Gregory Asner conducted an empirical analysis of the effect of temperature on U.S. corn and soybean yields. They found that higher temperatures during the growing season had an even greater effect on yields of these crops than many scientists had reckoned. Using data for 1982–98 from 618 counties for corn and 444 counties for soybeans, they concluded that for each 1-degree-Celsius rise in temperature, yields of each crop declined by 17 percent. This study suggests that the earlier rule of thumb that a 1-degree-Celsius rise in temperature would reduce yields by 10 percent could be conservative. 7
The earth’s rising temperature also affects crop yields indirectly via the melting of mountain glaciers. As the larger glaciers shrink and the smaller ones disappear, the ice melt that sustains rivers, and the irrigation systems dependent on them, will diminish. In early 2012, a release from the University of Zurich’s World Glacier Monitoring Service indicated that 2010 was the twenty-first consecutive year of glacier retreat. They also noted that glaciers are now melting at least twice as fast as a decade ago. 8
Mountain glaciers are melting in the Andes, the Rocky Mountains, the Alps, and elsewhere, but nowhere does melting threaten world food security more than in the glaciers of the Himalayas and on the Tibetan Plateau that feed the major rivers of India and China. It is the ice melt that keeps these rivers flowing during the dry season. In the Indus, Ganges, Yellow, and Yangtze River basins, where irrigated agriculture depends heavily on rivers, the loss of glacial-fed, dry-season flow will shrink harvests and could create unmanageable food shortages. 9
In China, which is even more dependent than India on river water for irrigation, the situation is particularly challenging. Chinese government data show that the glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau that feed the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers are melting at a torrid pace. The Yellow River, whose basin is home to 153 million people, could experience a large dry-season flow reduction. The Yangtze River, by far the larger of the two, is threatened by the disappearance of glaciers as well. The basin’s 586 million people rely heavily on rice from fields irrigated with its water. 10
Yao Tandong, one of China’s leading glaciologists, predicts that two thirds of China’s glaciers could be gone by 2060. “The full-scale glacier shrinkage in the plateau region,” Yao says, “will eventually lead to an ecological catastrophe.” 11
The world has never faced such a predictably massive threat to food production as that posed by the melting mountain glaciers of Asia. China and India are the world’s top two wheat producers, and they also totally dominate the rice harvest. 12
Agriculture in the Central Asian countries of Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan depends heavily on snowmelt from the Hindu Kush, Pamir, and Tien Shan mountain ranges for irrigation water. Nearby Iran gets much of its water from the snowmelt in the 18,000-foot-high Alborz Mountains between Tehran and the Caspian Sea. The glaciers in these ranges also appear vulnerable to rising temperatures. 13
In the Andes, a number of small glaciers have already disappeared, such as the Chacaltaya in Bolivia and Cotacachi in Ecuador. Within a couple of decades, numerous other glaciers are expected to follow suit, disrupting local hydrological patterns and agriculture. For places that rely on glacial melt for household and irrigation use, this is not good news. 14
Peru, which stretches some 1,100 miles along the vast Andean mountain range and is the site of 70 percent of the earth’s tropical glaciers, is in trouble. Its glaciers, which feed the many Peruvian rivers that supply water to the cities in the semiarid coastal regions, have lost 22 percent of their area. Ohio State University glaciologist Lonnie Thompson reported in 2007 that the Quelccaya Glacier in southern Peru, which was retreating by 6 meters per year in the 1960s, was by then retreating by 60 meters annually. In an interview with Science News in early 2009, he said, “It’s now retreating up the mountainside by about 18 inches a day, which means you can almost sit there and watch it lose ground.” 15
Many of Peru’s farmers irrigate their wheat, rice, and potatoes with the river water from these disappearing glaciers. During the dry season, farmers are totally dependent on irrigation water. For Peru’s 30 million people, shrinking glaciers could mean shrinking harvests. 16
Throughout the Andean region, climate change is contributing to water scarcity. Barbara Fraser writes in The Daily Climate that “experts predict that climate change will exacerbate water scarcity, increasing conflicts between competing users, pitting city dwellers against rural residents, people in dry lands against those in areas with abundant rainfall and Andean mining companies against neighboring farm communities.” 17
In the southwestern United States, the Colorado River—the region’s primary source of irrigation water—depends on snowfields in the Rockies for much of its flow. California, in addition to depending heavily on the Colorado, relies on snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada range in the eastern part of the state. Both the Sierra Nevada and the coastal range supply irrigation water to California’s Central Valley, the country’s fruit and vegetable basket. 18
With the continued heavy burning of fossil fuels, global climate models project a 70-percent reduction in the amount of snow pack for the western United States by mid-century. The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy did a detailed study of the Yakima River Valley, a vast fruit-growing region in Washington State. It projected progressively heavier harvest losses as the snow pack shrinks, reducing irrigation water flows. 19
Even as the melting of glaciers threatens dry-season river flows, the melting of mountain glaciers and of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets is raising sea level and thus threatening the rice-growing river deltas of Asia. If the Greenland ice sheet were to melt entirely, it would raise sea level 23 feet. The latest projections show sea level rising by up to 6 feet during this century. Such a rise would sharply reduce the rice harvest in Asia, home to over half the world’s people. Even half that rise would inundate half the riceland in Bangladesh, a country of 152 million people, and would submerge a large part of the Mekong Delta, a region that produces half of Viet Nam’s rice, leaving the many countries that import rice from it looking elsewhere. 20
In addition to the Gangetic and Mekong Deltas, numerous other rice-growing river deltas in Asia would be submerged in varying degrees by a 6-foot rise in sea level. It is not intuitively obvious that ice melting on a large island in the far North Atlantic could shrink the rice harvest in Asia, but it is true. 21
Scientists also expect higher temperatures to bring more drought—witness the dramatic increase in the land area affected by drought in recent decades. A team of scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in the United States reported that the earth’s land area experiencing very dry conditions expanded from well below 20 percent from the 1950s to the 1970s to closer to 25 percent in recent years. The scientists attributed most of the change to a rise in temperature and the remainder to reduced precipitation. The drying was concentrated in the Mediterranean region, East and South Asia, mid-latitude Canada, Africa, and eastern Australia. 22
A 2009 report published by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences reinforced these findings. It concluded that if atmospheric CO2 climbs from the current level of 391 parts per million (ppm) to above 450 ppm, the world will face irreversible dry-season rainfall reductions in several regions. The study likened the conditions to those of the U.S. Dust Bowl era of the 1930s. Physicist Joe Romm, drawing on recent climate research, reports that “levels of aridity comparable to those in the Dust Bowl could stretch from Kansas to California by mid-century.” 23
Rising temperatures also fuel wildfires. Anthony Westerling of Scripps Institution and colleagues found that the average wildfire season in the western United States has lengthened by 78 days from the period 1970–86 to 1987–2003 as temperatures increased an average 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Looking forward, researchers with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service drew on 85 years of fire and temperature records to project that a 2.9-degree-Fahrenheit rise in summer temperature could double the area of wildfires in the 11 western states. 24
In addition to more widespread drought and more numerous wildfires, climate change brings more extreme heat waves. One of the most destructive of these came in the U.S. Midwest in 1988. Combined with drought, as most heat waves are, this one dropped the U.S. grain harvest from an annual average of 324 million tons in the preceding years to 204 million tons. Fortunately, the United States—the world’s dominant grain supplier—had substantial stocks at that time that it could draw upon, allowing it to meet its export commitments. If such a drop were to occur today, when grain stocks are seriously depleted, there would be panic in the world grain market. 25
Another extreme heat wave came in Western Europe in the late summer of 2003. It claimed some 52,000 lives. France and Italy were hit hardest. And London experienced its first 100-degree-Fahrenheit temperature reading in its history. Fortunately the wheat crop was largely harvested when this late-summer heat wave began, so the losses in that sector were modest. 26
In the summer of 2010, Russia experienced an extraordinary heat wave unlike anything it had seen before. The July temperature in Moscow averaged a staggering 14 degrees Fahrenheit above the norm. High temperatures sparked wildfires, which caused an estimated $300 billion worth of damage to the country’s forests. In addition to claiming nearly 56,000 lives, this heat wave reduced the Russian grain harvest from nearly 100 million tons to 60 million tons. Russia, which had been an exporting country, suddenly banned exports. 27
Close on the heels of these unprecedented high temperatures in Russia was the 2011 heat wave in Texas, a leading U.S. agricultural state. In Dallas, located in the Texas heartland, the average temperature reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit for 40 consecutive days, shattering all records. It also forced many farmers into bankruptcy. More than a million acres of crops were never harvested. Many ranchers in this leading cattle-producing state had to sell their herds. They had no forage, no water, and no choice. The heat and drought in Texas broke almost all records in the state’s history for both intensity and duration. Agricultural damage was estimated to exceed $7 billion. 28
As the earth’s temperature rises, scientists expect heat waves to be both more frequent and more intense. Stated otherwise, crop-shrinking heat waves will now become part of the agricultural landscape. Among other things, this means that the world should increase its carryover stocks of grain to provide adequate food security. 29
The continuing loss of mountain glaciers and the resulting reduced meltwater runoff could create unprecedented water shortages and political instability in some of the world’s more densely populated countries. China, already struggling to contain food price inflation, could well see spreading social unrest if food supplies tighten. 30
For Americans, the melting of the glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau would appear to be China’s problem. It is. But it is also a problem for the entire world. For low-income grain consumers, this melting poses a nightmare scenario. If China enters the world market for massive quantities of grain, as it has already done for soybeans over the last decade, it will necessarily come to the United States—far and away the leading grain exporter. The prospect of 1.35 billion Chinese with rapidly rising incomes competing for the U.S. grain harvest, and thus driving up food prices for all, is not an attractive one. 31 More
Tuesday, August 20, 2013
On the Antarctic island of South Georgia, in February, toward the middle of what passes for summer at the bottom of the world, I hurried through the ruined whaling station of Grytviken.
I had an appointment at the British Antarctic Survey station on the opposite side of King Edward Cove. I was to interview a marine ecologist working on krill. I did not want to be late.
The keystone of the South Georgia ecosystem, the secret to the miraculous abundance of wildlife on this stark, cold, windswept island—the foundation, indeed, for almost all vertebrate life in the Antarctic—is krill.
South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands are administered from the Falkland Islands as a British Overseas Territory, in which the little outpost of Grytviken is the only inhabited spot. The inhabitation is very marginal. In southern winter there are just eight staff members of the British Antarctic Survey, including a doctor, a government officer, and a postal clerk. A handful of visiting scientists augment this skeleton crew in southern summer.
Grytviken is gritty and grim. The name means "Pot Bay," a reference to the cauldrons in which the Norwegian whalers here rendered oil from blubber. It is apt. The rusting vats, boilers, ramps, chimneys, and ramshackle buildings of the long-abandoned whaling station; the wrecks of the catcher boats stranded on the waterfront; and the rows of giant whale-oil tanks upslope are all the apparatus of a genocide, in the literal, Latin sense of the word. The genus was Balaenoptera, the baleen whale.
From the whale's upper jaw, in place of teeth, hang long, fringed curtains of keratin—baleen—used to seine krill. The largest member of the genus and the biggest creature ever to live, the blue whale gets that way from its ability to process eight tons of krill a day.
The Antarctic, in its remoteness, girded by pack ice, abloom in summer with phytoplankton and coursing with torrents of krill, was the stronghold of the blue whale. The invention of the steam-powered catcher boat and the explosive harpoon ended all that. Today in the Southern Ocean, where a century ago 200,000 blue whales fed on the krill swarms of austral summer, only a few hundred are left. (Related: "Catching Copepods: Charasmatic Microfauna of the Arctic")
A Game of Chinese Boxes
If William Blake thought he had seen "dark satanic mills" in England, then he should have taken a stroll through Grytviken. After the darkness of the whaling station, and the black, snow-seamed rock of the encircling mountains, and the somber sky, the white interior of the British Antarctic Survey laboratory was dazzling.
For a moment I lost my bearings. Bright fluorescent light glinted from microscopes. Martin Collins turned away on a swivel stool from his laboratory workbench and stood to greet me. In his immaculate white lab coat he was incandescent, an angelic figure of medium height, pale-skinned, with semi-curly hair of indeterminate color. This might have been the start of the Rapture, with Collins as my heavenly guide—until I chanced to glance down. Beneath his white lab coat the ecologist was wearing muddy trousers and gumboots streaked with penguin guano.
He mimed an apology for not shaking hands, holding up both of his own to show blue rubber gloves. Just now he had been rooting around in fish stomachs. Pulling over a bucket of offal, he groped about inside and extracted a half-digested mackerel icefish. "That's come out of a skate's stomach," he said.
"A little worse for wear," I suggested.
Collins agreed and he dug again in the offal, searching for a more intact specimen. His bucket of guts was bloody, but not in the normal, crimson sense, for icefish have no hemoglobin. Their plasma is full of antifreeze but no red cells, so their blood runs clear.
"This one's probably slightly better," he said, holding up a less eroded fish. "There's a fishery for these mackerel icefish. We've done a trawl survey for icefish all around South Georgia to estimate the stocks. Icefish are krill feeders—80 percent of their diet is normally krill—so their stomachs can tell us what's happening with krill. I've done something like 650 icefish in the last couple of weeks. It's been a slightly strange year for the krill around South Georgia."
"Strange," I said. "In what way?"
"You get odd years, and 2004 was one of those, when there's a little bit less krill. This year seems to be fairly extreme. There's very little krill and scarcely any icefish at all. We're seeing the gentoo penguins struggling a little bit this season, as well. Not enough krill. The gentoos don't seem to be giving the food to their chicks that they normally do."
From his workbench Collins retrieved a glass dish of krill. He had extracted this handful—eight or nine little shrimplike crustaceans—from the stomach of an icefish, which he had previously extracted from the stomach of a skate, and had counted, weighed, and measured each one.
In death the krill were bright red. They were big Euphausia superba, the king of krill, probably the most successful species on Earth by measure of sheer biomass: roughly twice the weight of humanity, thronging in "swarms" as dense as 10,000 individuals per cubic meter.
In Norwegian, kril means "small fry." The noun is almost always a collective plural in that language, as it is in English. And as it is in the grammar of Nature herself, where krill are collective like no other organism. The name has an onomatopoeic rightness; "krill" seems to boil, seethe, swarm.
Collins's game of Chinese boxes—his opening of stomachs to investigate the stomachs within—had ended with this dish of krill. No further dissection was necessary, for krill are translucent, and the green contents of the gastric mill and the hepatopancreas were visible through the exoskeleton. In the middle of krill mating season, the last meal—interrupted by a hungry icefish—for these krill had been phytoplankton. More
Tuesday, August 6, 2013
Chapter 7. Grain Yields Starting to Plateau
From the beginning of agriculture until the mid-twentieth century, growth in the world grain harvest came almost entirely from expanding the cultivated area. Rises in land productivity were too slow to be visible within a single generation. It is only within the last 60 years or so that rising yields have replaced area expansion as the principal source of growth in world grain production. 1
The transition was dramatic. Between 1950 and 1973 the world’s farmers doubled the grain harvest, nearly all of it from raising yields. Stated otherwise, expansion during these 23 years equaled the growth in output from the beginning of agriculture until 1950. The keys to this phenomenal expansion were fertilization, irrigation, and higher-yielding varieties, coupled with strong economic incentives for production. 2
The first country to achieve a steady, sustained rise in grain yields was Japan, where the yield takeoff began in the 1880s. But for a half-century or so, it was virtually alone. Not until the mid-twentieth century did the United States and Western Europe launch a steady rise in grain yields. Shortly thereafter many other countries succeeded in boosting grain yields. 3
The average world grain yield in 1950 was 1.1 tons per hectare. In 2011, it was 3.3 tons per hectare—a tripling of the 1950 level. Some countries, including the United States and China, managed to quadruple grain yields, and all within a human life span. 4
Some of the factors influencing grain yields are natural, while others are of human origin. Natural conditions of inherent soil fertility, rainfall, day length, and solar intensity strongly influence crop yield potentials. Several areas of cropland with inherently high fertility are found widely scattered around the world: in the U.S. Midwest (often called the Corn Belt), Western Europe, the Gangetic Plain of India, and the North China Plain. It is the incredibly deep and rich soils of the U.S. Midwest that enables the United States to produce 40 percent of the world corn crop and 35 percent of the soybean crop. The state of Iowa, for instance, produces more grain than Canada and more soybeans than China. 5
The area west of the Alps, stretching across France to the English Channel and up to the North Sea, is also naturally very productive land, enabling densely populated Western Europe to produce an exportable surplus of wheat. 6
The region in northern India spanning the Punjab and the Gangetic Plain is India’s breadbasket. And the North China Plain produces half of China’s wheat and a third of its corn. 7
Aside from inherent soil fertility, the level and timing of rainfall, which vary widely among geographic regions, also strongly influence the productivity of land. Much of the world’s wheat, which is drought-tolerant, is grown without irrigation in regions with relatively low rainfall. Most wheat in the United States, Canada, and Russia, for example, is grown under these dryland conditions. Wheat is often grown in areas too dry or too cold to grow corn or rice. 8
Another natural factor that plays a major role in crop yields is day length. One reason that the United Kingdom and Germany have such high wheat yields is because they have a mild climate, compliments of the Gulf Stream, and can grow winter wheat. This wheat, planted in the fall, reaches several inches in height and then goes dormant as temperatures drop. With the arrival of spring, it grows rapidly, maturing during the longest days of the year in a high-latitude region that has very long days in May, June, and July. Wheat yields in these two northerly countries are close to 8 tons per hectare, somewhat higher than the 7 tons in France, simply because they are at a slightly higher latitude and thus have longer summer days. 9
The big differences between the United States and Western Europe are soil moisture and day length. In the United States, most wheat grows in the semiarid Great Plains, whereas in Europe it is produced on the well-watered, rainfed wheat fields of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. The average U.S. wheat yield is scarcely 3 tons per hectare. But in Western Europe, wheat yields can range from 6 to 8 tons per hectare. 10
Just as long days promote high yields, the short days closer to the equator lead to relatively low yields. The advantage of the subtropical regions, however, is that they allow more than one crop per year, assuming sufficient soil moisture in the dry season. In land-scarce southern China, India, and other tropical/subtropical countries in Asia, double- or triple-cropping of rice is not uncommon. So although the yield per harvest is lower, the yield per year is much higher. 11
In northern India, for example, winter wheat with a summer rice crop is the dominant high-yielding combination. In China, combining winter wheat with corn as the summer crop in an annual cycle, plus the double cropping of rice, enables the country to produce the world’s largest grain harvest on a relatively modest area of arable land. 12
Solar intensity also plays an important role in determining the upper limits of crop yields. Rice yields in Japan, among the highest in Asia, are well below those in California. This is not because California’s rice farmers are more skilled than their Japanese counterparts but because Japan’s rice harvest grows mostly during the monsoon season, when there is extensive cloud cover, while California’s rice fields bask in bright sunlight. 13
Within this framework of natural conditions that help determine yields, plant breeders have made impressive progress in exploiting the yield potential. Japan has been a long-time leader. The originally domesticated wheats and rices tended to be taller, enabling them to compete with weeds for sunlight. But with weed control either by hand or mechanical cultivation, Japanese plant breeders realized that the tall grain could be shortened. By shortening the straw, a greater share of the plant’s photosynthate could be diverted to forming seeds, the edible part. 14
After Japanese “dwarf” wheats were introduced into the northwestern United States, Norman Borlaug, an agronomist based in Mexico, obtained some of the seeds in the early 1950s. He then introduced these dwarf wheats into other countries, including India and Pakistan, for testing under local growing conditions. Almost everywhere they were introduced they would double or even triple the yields of those from traditional wheat varieties. In Mexico, the dwarf wheats led to a quantum jump in wheat yields, nearly fourfold from 1950 to 2011. 15
Given the dramatic advances for the early dwarf wheats, in 1960 a similar effort with rice was launched at the newly created International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) at Los Baños in the Philippines. Under the leadership of Robert Chandler, scientists there drew on the experience with wheat to come up with some high-yielding dwarf rice varieties that were, like the wheats, widely adopted. IR8, one of the early strains, easily doubled yields in many countries. It was the first of many new highly productive rice strains to come from IRRI. 16
The new dwarf wheats and rices had the genetic potential to respond well to both irrigation and fertilizer. When fertilizer was applied to the old tall-strawed varieties, the plant would often fall over in a storm or even a heavy rain as the head of grain became heavier, leading to harvest losses. The new short, stiff-strawed varieties could support a much larger head of grain without toppling over. 17
In the 1930s, plant breeders in the United States were raising yields of corn with high-yielding hybrid varieties. It was discovered that, with the right combination of parent stock, hybridization could dramatically increase yields. As the new hybrids spread in the United States, corn yields began to climb, quintupling between 1940 and 2010. 18
In contrast to wheat and rice, where dwarfing held the key to raising yields, corn breeders have worked in recent decades to develop hybrids that would tolerate crowding, enabling farmers to grow more corn plants per acre. And since each plant typically produces one ear of corn, more plants mean more corn. A half-century ago farmers typically grew perhaps 10,000 corn plants per acre. Today states with adequate soil moisture have plant populations of 28,000 or more per acre. 19
Although people often ask about the potential to raise grain yields using genetic modification, success has thus far been limited. This is largely because plant breeders using traditional approaches were successful in doing almost everything plant scientists could think of to raise yields, leaving little potential for doing so through genetic modification. 20
The tripling of world irrigated area since 1950 has also helped raise grain yields by helping high-yielding crops realize their full genetic potential. And because irrigation removes moisture constraints, it also facilitates the greater use of fertilizer. 21
When German chemist Justus von Liebig demonstrated in 1847 that the major nutrients that plants removed from the soil could be applied in mineral form, he set the stage for the development of a new industry and a huge jump in world food production a century later. Of the 16 elements plants require to be properly nourished, three—nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium—totally dominate the world fertilizer industry. World fertilizer use climbed from 14 million tons in 1950 to 177 million tons in 2010, helping to boost the world grain harvest nearly fourfold. 22
As the world economy evolved from being largely rural to being highly urbanized, the natural nutrient cycle was disrupted. In traditional rural societies, food is consumed locally, and human an animal waste is returned to the land, completing the nutrient cycle. But in highly urbanized societies, where food is consumed far from where it is produced, using fertilizer to replace the lost nutrients is the only practical way to maintain land productivity. It thus comes as no surprise that the growth in fertilizer use closely tracks the growth in urbanization, with much of it concentrated in the last 60 years. 23
The big three grain producers—China, India, and the United States—account for 58 percent of world fertilizer use. In the United States, the growth in fertilizer use came to an end in 1980, but—in an encouraging sign—grain yields have continued to climb. China’s fertilizer use climbed rapidly in recent decades but has leveled off since 2007. While China uses nearly 50 million tons of fertilizer a year and India uses nearly 25 million tons, the United States uses only 20 million tons. 24
Given that China and the United States each produce roughly 400 million tons of grain, the grain produced per ton of fertilizer in the United States is more than double that of China. This is partly because American farmers are much more precise in matching application with need, but also partly because the United States is far and away the world’s largest soybean producer. The soybean, being a legume, fixes nitrogen in the soil that can be used by subsequent crops. U.S. farmers regularly plant corn and soybeans in a two-year rotation, thus reducing the amount of nitrogen fertilizer that has to be applied for the corn. 25
In most countries outside of sub-Saharan Africa, grain yields have doubled, tripled, or even quadrupled. Aside from having some of the world’s inherently least fertile soils and a largely semiarid climate, sub-Saharan Africa lacks the infrastructure and modern inputs needed to support modern agriculture. 26
Recent experience in Malawi, however, illustrates the potential for improvement. After a drought in 2005, many of the country’s 13 million people were left hungry or starving. In response, the government issued coupons to small farmers, entitling them to 200 pounds of fertilizer at a greatly reduced price and free packets of improved seed corn, the national food staple. Funded partly by outside donors, this fertilizer and seed subsidy program helped nearly double Malawi’s corn harvest within two years, enabling it to export grain and boost farmers’ incomes. With economic incentives and access to modern inputs, principally higher-yielding seed and fertilizer, farmers in sub-Saharan Africa can easily double yields. 27
At 10 tons per hectare, U.S. corn yields are the highest of any major grain anywhere. In Iowa, with its deep soils and near-ideal climate for corn, some counties harvest up to 13 tons per hectare. In China, yields of each of its “big three” grains—wheat, rice, and corn—now range between 4 and 6 tons. Wheat yields in India have more than quadrupled since 1950, climbing to 3 tons per hectare. Remember, all grain yields in India are lower than in the United States, Europe, or China because India is close to the equator, where yields are restricted by short day length. 28
Rising yields are the key to expanding the grain harvest. Since 1950, over 93 percent of world grain harvest growth has come from raising yields. Expanding area accounts for the other 7 percent. 29
Impressive though the growth is over the last 60 years, the pace has slowed during the last two decades. Between 1950 and 1990, the world grain yield increased by an average of 2.2 percent a year. From 1990 to 2011, the annual rise slowed to 1.3 percent. In some agriculturally advanced countries, the dramatic climb in yields has come to an end as yields have plateaued. 30
For example, the rice yield per hectare in Japan, after climbing for more than a century, has not increased at all over the last 17 years. It is not that Japanese farmers do not want to continue raising their rice yields. They do. With a domestic support price far above the world market price, raising yields in Japan is highly profitable. The problem is that Japan’s farmers are already using all the technologies available to raise land productivity. 31
Like Japan, South Korea’s rice yield also has plateaued. Interestingly, it plateaued at almost exactly the same level as the rice yield in Japan did, and while Japan’s plateauing began in 1994, South Korea’s began in 1996. The constraints on rice yields appear to be essentially the same in both countries. Yields there have hit a glass ceiling, a limit that is apparently imposed by day length, solar intensity, and, ultimately, the constraints of photosynthetic efficiency. Japan and South Korea together produce 12 million tons of rice annually, 3 percent of the world rice harvest. 32 More
Thursday, August 1, 2013
Martha and the Vandellas would have loved it. Metaphorically speaking, the New York Times practically swooned over it. (“An unforgiving heat wave held much of the West in a sweltering embrace over the weekend, tying or breaking temperature records in several cities, grounding flights, sparking forest fires, and contributing to deaths.”)
It was a “deadly” heat wave, a “record” one that, in headlines everywhere, left the West and later the rest of the country “sweltering,” and that was, again in multiple headlines, “scary.” The fire season that accompanied the “blasting,” “blazing” heat had its own set of “record” headlines -- and all of this was increasingly seen, in another set of headlines, as the “new normal” in the West. Given that 2012 had already set a heat record for the continental U.S., that the 10 hottest years on record in this country have all occurred since 1997, and that the East had its own sweltering version of heat that wouldn’t leave town, this should have been beyond arresting.
In response, the nightly primetime news came up with its own convenient set of new terms to describe all this: “extreme” or “severe” heat. Like “extreme" or "severe" weather, these captured the eyeball-gluing sensationalism of our weather moment without having to mention climate change or global warming. Weather, after all, shouldn’t be “politicized.” But if you’re out in the middle of the parching West like TomDispatch regular William deBuys, who recently headed down the Colorado River, certain grim realities about the planet we’re planning to hand over to our children and grandchildren can’t help but come to mind -- along with a feeling, increasingly shared by those in the sweltering cities, that our particular way of life is in the long run unsustainable. Tom
Never Again EnoughField Notes from a Drying West
Several miles from Phantom Ranch, Grand Canyon, Arizona, April 2013 -- Down here, at the bottom of the continent’s most spectacular canyon, the Colorado River growls past our sandy beach in a wet monotone. Our group of 24 is one week into a 225-mile, 18-day voyage on inflatable rafts from Lees Ferry to Diamond Creek. We settle in for the night. Above us, the canyon walls part like a pair of maloccluded jaws, and moonlight streams between them, bright enough to read by.
One remarkable feature of the modern Colorado, the great whitewater rollercoaster that carved the Grand Canyon, is that it is a tidal river. Before heading for our sleeping bags, we need to retie our six boats to allow for the ebb.
These days, the tides of the Colorado are not lunar but Phoenician. Yes, I’m talking about Phoenix, Arizona. On this April night, when the air conditioners in America’s least sustainable city merely hum, Glen Canyon Dam, immediately upstream from the canyon, will run about 6,500 cubic feet of water through its turbines every second.
Tomorrow, as the sun begins its daily broiling of Phoenix, Scottsdale, Mesa, Tempe, and the rest of central Arizona, the engineers at Glen Canyon will crank the dam’s maw wider until it sucks down 11,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). That boost in flow will enable its hydroelectric generators to deliver “peaking power” to several million air conditioners and cooling plants in Phoenix’s Valley of the Sun. And the flow of the river will therefore nearly double.
It takes time for these dam-controlled tidal pulses to travel downstream. Where we are now, just above Zoroaster Rapid, the river is roughly in phase with the dam: low at night, high in the daytime. Head a few days down the river and it will be the reverse.
By mid-summer, temperatures in Phoenix will routinely soar above 110°F, and power demands will rise to monstrous heights, day and night. The dam will respond: 10,000 cfs will gush through the generators by the light of the moon, 18,000 while an implacable sun rules the sky.
Such are the cycles -- driven by heat, comfort, and human necessity -- of the river at the bottom of the continent’s grandest canyon.
The crucial question for Phoenix, for the Colorado, and for the greater part of the American West is this: How long will the water hold out?
Major Powell’s Main Point
Every trip down the river -- and there are more than 1,000 like ours yearly -- partly reenacts the legendary descent of the Colorado by the one-armed explorer and Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell. The Major, as he preferred to be known, plunged into the Great Unknown with 10 companions in 1869. They started out in four boats from Green River, Wyoming, but one of the men walked out early after nearly drowning in the stretch of whitewater that Powell named Disaster Falls, and three died in the desert after the expedition fractured in its final miles. That left Powell and six others to reach the Mormon settlements on the Virgin River in the vicinity of present-day Las Vegas, Nevada.
Powell’s exploits on the Colorado brought him fame and celebrity, which he parlayed into a career that turned out to be controversial and illustrious in equal measure. As geologist, geographer, and ethnologist, Powell became one of the nation’s most influential scientists. He also excelled as an institution-builder, bureaucrat, political in-fighter, and national scold.
Most famously, and in bold opposition to the boomers and boosters then cheerleading America’s westward migration, he warned that the defining characteristic of western lands was their aridity. Settlement of the West, he wrote, would have to respect the limits aridity imposed.
He was half right.
The subsequent story of the West can indeed be read as an unending duel between society’s thirst and the dryness of the land, but in downtown Phoenix, Las Vegas, or Los Angeles you’d hardly know it.
By the middle years of the twentieth century, western Americans had created a kind of miracle in the desert, successfully conjuring abundance from Powell’s aridity. Thanks to reservoirs large and small, and scores of dams including colossi like Hoover and Glen Canyon, as well as more than 1,000 miles of aqueducts and countless pumps, siphons, tunnels, and diversions, the West has by now been thoroughly re-rivered and re-engineered. It has been given the plumbing system of a giant water-delivery machine, and in the process, its liquid resources have been stretched far beyond anything the Major might have imagined.
Today the Colorado River, the most fully harnessed of the West’s great waterways, provides water to some 40 million people and irrigates nearly 5.5 million acres of farmland. It also touches 22 Indian reservations, seven National Wildlife Reservations, and at least 15 units of the National Park System, including the Grand Canyon.
These achievements come at a cost. The Colorado River no longer flows to the sea, and down here in the bowels of the canyon, its diminishment is everywhere in evidence. In many places, the riverbanks wear a tutu of tamarisk trees along their edge. They have been able to dress up, now that the river, constrained from major flooding, no longer rips their clothes off.
The daily hydroelectric tides gradually wash away the sandbars and beaches that natural floods used to build with the river’s silt and bed load (the sands and gravels that roll along its bottom). Nowadays, nearly all that cargo is trapped in Lake Powell, the enormous reservoir behind Glen Canyon Dam. The water the dam releases is clear and cold (drawn from the depths of the lake), which is just the thing for nonnative trout, but bad news for homegrown chubs and suckers, which evolved, quite literally, in the murk of ages past. Some of the canyon’s native fish species have been extirpated from the canyon; others cling to life by a thread, helped by the protection of the Endangered Species Act. In the last few days, we’ve seen more fisheries biologists along the river and its side-streams than we have tourists.
The Shrinking Cornucopia
In the arid lands of the American West, abundance has a troublesome way of leading back again to scarcity. If you have a lot of something, you find a way to use it up -- at least, that’s the history of the “development” of the Colorado Basin.
Until now, the ever-more-complex water delivery systems of that basin have managed to meet the escalating needs of their users. This is true in part because the states of the Upper Basin (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico) were slower to develop than their downstream cousins. Under the Colorado River Compact of 1922, the Upper and Lower Basins divided the river with the Upper Basin assuring the Lower of an average of 7.5 million acre-feet (maf) of water per year delivered to Lees Ferry Arizona, the dividing point between the two. The Upper Basin would use the rest. Until recently, however, it left a large share of its water in the river, which California, and secondarily Arizona and Nevada, happily put to use. More