Trends and Innovations
Supply Takes Some Heat
portion of the worlds population relies on water that comes down from mountains
in seasonally predictable patterns. But rising temperatures are changing those
patterns, making it more difficult to predict how much water will be available.
Some researchers are now saying that under future climate conditions, demand for
water may not be met in many parts of the world.
Researchers from the National Resources Conservation Service survey the snowpack
near Mount Hood in Oregon. New research is suggesting that global warming may
significantly decrease snowpack, especially in coastal mountain ranges, which
would decrease summer water availability. Image courtesty of Ron Nichols, USDA
By 2100, Earth will warm by between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees Celsius, according to
the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changes (IPCC)
Third Assessment Report. And over the past century, global surface temperatures
have increased about 0.6 degrees Celsius (1 degree Fahrenheit). Temperatures are
inexorably linked to precipitation in a complex relationship that changes depending
on the location. Generally, scientists think that warming temperatures will cause
the global water cycle to intensify, meaning a possible exacerbation of extremes
such as droughts and floods. Warming temperatures will also affect high-altitude
water resources, according to Tim Barnett of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography
in La Jolla, Calif., and colleagues with the Climate Impacts
Group at the University of Washington in Seattle, who published a report on
such impacts in the Nov. 17 Nature.
Traditionally in high altitudes, much of the precipitation falls in the winter
as snow, where cold temperatures trap it in a snowpack. Then, when temperatures
warm in the spring, the snowpack melts, and water slowly drains from the mountains
and can be captured in reservoirs for later use.
In mountainous regions that hover around the freezing point, however, a small
rise in temperature can cause the precipitation to fall as rain rather than snow,
significantly reducing the snowpack, says Philip Mote, state climatologist of
Washington and a member of the Climate Impacts Group and IPCC. A smaller snowpack
means that less water is available later in the year, as the rain that falls drains
straight out to sea, he says.
As a result of these processes, the largest declines in snowpack are already occurring
in mountainous regions with milder climates, Barnett and colleagues report, such
as western North America and Europe. Other colder areas, however, are also at
risk due to glacial processes, such as northern China, northwestern India, areas
south of the Hindu Kush in Asia, and basins downstream of the southern Andes in
South America. In these high-risk areas, researchers are examining the water resources
including snow and ice accumulation and runoff in rivers.
Looking at the resources under a number of different emissions scenarios from
IPCC, Ruby Leung of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash.,
and colleagues ran regional climate simulations to see what changes might be expected
over the next 50 to 100 years the timeframe most useful for policy-makers.
Combining climate models with observed trends, regional patterns begin to emerge.
The western United States, for example, where temperatures are expected to warm
at least 0.8 to 1.7 degrees Celsius by 2050 on average, will likely see a substantial
reduction in mountain snowpack, Leung says. Mountain snowpack currently supplies
about 90 percent of the spring, summer and fall water for Western states, she
Even stronger effects will occur locally, such as over the Cascades or Sierra
Nevada, which may see 2- to 3-degrees Celsius warming by 2050, leading to reductions
in snowpack of 50 to 70 percent. Such warming would also lead to the spring streamflow
peaking at least one month earlier than it does currently.
Most reservoirs, Leung says, are not built to withstand such changes. Reservoirs
can only accommodate certain amounts of runoff at certain times of the year for
flood control, hydropower generation and other water uses, so such shifts in runoff
patterns could create substantial water-management challenges, including possible
Warming portends even greater problems, however, for areas that depend heavily
on glacial meltwater, Barnett says. As the glaciers melt, the fossil
water that is usually frozen and incrementally melts out in the summer will become
depleted too quickly. Glaciers are retreating throughout the world, but the situation
is most critical for the Hindu Kush/Himalaya region of Asia and the South American
Andes, where most of the dry-season water comes from glaciers (see story,
In the Hindu Kush, glaciers provide 50 to 70 percent of the summer water flow,
supplying water to half of the worlds population. Virtually all of the glaciers
there show substantial melting, Barnett and colleagues wrote, with
a particularly marked retreat by the glacier that provides most of
the water to the Yangtze, the largest river in China. And in Peru, 25 percent
of the countrys glaciers have disappeared in the past 30 years, potentially
spelling disaster for a country where glacial meltwater provides electricity and
drinking water to almost all of the residents, Barnett says.
In the near term, however, these glacial-melt-dominated river systems will actually
see increased streamflows, Barnett says, compounding an already complex planning
situation. When people in those locations see more water than they are used to,
it will no be easy to convince them that they will be facing shortages in coming
decades. But we dont have 50 years to wait and see what happens,
In the long run, people need to be prepared to live in the environment in
which we choose to live, says Brian Hurd, an economist at New Mexico State
University in Las Cruces. People everywhere will have to adapt to having less
water and lower their consumption of water, especially as populations grow and
The bad news, says Alan Hamlet, a research scientist with the Climate
Impacts Group, is that many people will probably have to learn to live with less
water. The good news, though, is that this is not very difficult to accomplish.
Increasing the storage capacities of reservoirs is a possibility in some, albeit
few, places, and desalination of seawater is another option in coastal areas,
he says. Using reclaimed water for irrigation is another attractive option.
Still, Hurd says, the best strategy for coping with an uncertain and changing
climate is to plan to grow responsibly.
As policy-makers and planners make long-term resource management decisions, they
need to take into account climate change, Mote says. California, for example,
has been working on the water-climate issue for more than a decade, he says, and
the Pacific Northwest is quickly jumping on board.
Whatever solutions are chosen, Mote says, they are best addressed
in the proactive, rather than the reactive. He points to experts warnings
in advance of Hurricane Katrina that New Orleans levees were not strong
enough, and how they were proved right too late after the levees broke.
We dont want be in an I told you so mode about climate
change and water. The real crisis isnt here yet, Mote says.
Theres still time to come up with thoughtful solutions.
"Ice Hunter: Q&A With Lonnie Thompson,"
Geotimes, March 2006
Panel on Climate Change
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