Thursday, December 17, 2009

Foresight Leads to Planning: Last Minute Rush Not Likely To Succeed

We just reported a solid basis to expect increasing global political and population instability that will almost certainly result in Massive Population Migration Coming.

We provided a link to a think-tank report that shows that some of the top US military leadership is well aware of, and deeply concerned by, National Security and the Threat of Climate Change.

We then reported even more information about the likely state of affairs in those parts of the Western Hemisphere which rely on rivers fed by glaciers and snowpack, once those glaciers retreat to the point where they no longer serve as the headwaters of the world's greatest rivers.

We then pointed out that if water scarcity is likely to displace at least 60 percent of the populations of the South American Andean nations from Uruguay to Colombia, and potentially reduce the Amazon basin to grassland savannahs or even to emergent desert, and that this will certainly occur is known to the scientists and militaries of these nations, then any reasonable person must ask themselves the reasonable question:

What Would You Do If You Were In Their Place?

That the melting of the world's glaciers has started a countdown to climate chaos should hardly come as news to anyone. Indeed, observations of the increase in glacial melting rates was one of the first indicators of Global Warming and such observations are the basis of the science behind the increasing global awareness that our world is changing, and that most likely it is we who are changing it.

Yet now we have new reporting that the melt-rate is increasing, and that it will be worse than expected. By the year 2100, global melting of ice -- and the glaciers are going fastest -- may produce a much larger-than-expected rise in sea-levels, as much as a 20 to 30 foot rise (Kopp, R. E., Simons, F. J., Mitrovica, J. X., Maloof, A. C. & Oppenheimer, M. Nature 462, 863-867 (2009)).

Of course, this will almost totally submerge Bangladesh and her millions will need to move inland. Of course, by the time this happens, there may be no water inland.
[...] 360 million on the Ganges in India and 388 million on the Yangtze in China alone - will not be able to feed themselves, with devastating effect on already rising global food prices. ("Melting glaciers start countdown to climate chaos", Jowit, Juliet, the Observer UK, Sunday 16 March 2008).

Add to that the roughly 160-millions of Bangladeshi caught between rising seas, and a Ganges River that will first flood extensively with the rapid melting of the Ganges source glaciers and then which will effectively dry up, and you are talking about nearly a billion people.
The problem is perhaps most acute in Asia, where glaciers are an important source for nine major rivers which run through land occupied by 2.4 billion people. In Pakistan, for example, 80 per cent of agricultural land is irrigated by the Indus, which the WWF last year highlighted as one of the world's 10 big at-risk rivers because retreating glaciers provide 70-80 per cent of its flow.

Further, the US isn't the only place with problems of depleted subsurface aquifers:
Longer term, though, the problem is less water, as even fast-melting glaciers are too small to keep rivers flowing during dry seasons. To make matters worse, freshwater supplies are also threatened by evaporation in warmer temperatures, pollution and growing demand from a rising and more affluent population. And - like glaciers - snow and thus snowmelt is also declining in the same areas.

This would have an immediate effect on people who depend on rivers for washing and drinking, irrigating crops, powering hydroelectric stations, transport and - often - religious and cultural traditions. Further afield, drying rivers would no longer be able to recharge groundwater tables used by cities.

In Pakistan, if the Indus river is reduced to only 20 percent of its flow, then the 80 percent of Pakistan's irrigation dependent on that will likely also be reduced by as much; we might thus see 80 percent of Pakistan's population reduced to starvation and flight to refuge... if there's any to be found.

[ ... ]
In India, 2001 C.E., they already had problems of their own, with Sikh revolutionaries, Tamil separatists, and the eternal class antipathies of the various Hindu sects and castes. As if there were not enough calamities in the world at this time, the monsoons came quite late in 2004, and then came with a vengeance, with three successive typhoons close upon their heels, and the yields of the algal blooms which fed the newly-established foodfactories were reduced by an order of magnitude. Bangladesh was nearly submerged by the rain and tidal surge, and half of the Bangladeshi were drowned. Those who survived marched north in a totally ragtag civilian mass- exodus, where they were met and mostly destroyed by the Indian army. The remnants fled east into Burma, itself seething with excess population and a repressive government. The fighting was largely hand-to-hand, and unconditionally vicious. Bangladesh's military unwisely tried to launch a SCUD-type nuclear-tipped missile from Dacca at Calcutta (which might have been a good idea) but unfortunately, the missile was defective, arcing at over 100 degrees from its intended course. The bomb was not defective. It was very dirty, and detonated near Rangpur, at the foot of the Himalayas. Had it been possible to open a path through India into the Himalayas, there might have been less loss of life, but the Bangladeshi were largely bottled up within the seaboards and riverenes, and there they carried with them not only the classic plagues of the refugee, but also the mutated pneumonic Plague that had resulted when fallout from the defective missile swept across the slums and flooded-out swamps where the pestiferous plague was endemic. The plague killed nineteen of twenty in the fleeing mob, and close to half of the populations in the invaded areas. India was forced to use neutron-device sterilization to contain the plague, and every disaffected splinter group took this opportunity to revolt. Teeming Calcutta fled west en masse, taking with them a thousand ills on twenty million feet, to meet the encroaching human wave of refugees from Mesopotamia.

Out of the chaos, out of the starvation, out of the howling masses of the small brown descendants of a hundred such conflagrations, in 2006, from Sukkur in Pakistan came a man like any other, but a man whose voice, whose message, whose power, was such that people listened when he spoke. He started with organizing the people who who had banded together in small groups for common defense, plague survivors all, and forged them into larger groups.
[...](In the Fall, Hardman, Thomas J Jr, 1996, Xlibris Press)

Well, obviously the timeline's a bit off, but that's not entirely unreasonable a thing to predict. Add 15 years, or 25, to the dates. Now throw in mass starvation due to water scarcity and failed irrigation.

Now throw in the Taliban. That's one serious fucking Jihad you got headed your way.

Now throw the people of the nation of India into the mix as well. Aside from the fact that right now they are getting some of the highest levels of glacial-melt fresh-water flows in their river systems, a lot of their rivers are open sewers clogged with filth. As water flows decrease, that filth will be less diluted. As population increases, so will the number of people overloading entirely inadequate sewage treatment systems. As sewage treatment systems come online, per-capita water consumption in areas with sewage treatment systems increases by an order of magnitude. Treatment of sewage takes a lot of water.

It isn't just me who's seeing the problems here. For instance, even the World Wildlife Federation is deeply concerned (PDF). Not surprisingly, the UN Environment Programme has lots of facts, figures, and analysis available.

Governments from around the world are moving far too slowly to alter humanity's contribution to Global Warming, which acts as a force-multiplier on natural cycles. Although the natural cycles of glaciation and interglacial "thermal maximum" periods were here long before the emergence of the human species as a significant player in the hydrological (and thus in the climatological) cycles, still, in our immense numbers and industrial deployments of technology, we have a profound impact on the environment, the ecologies, and the very life of the planet.

If we all mysteriously vanished from the earth, leaving behind no operating machinery and nothing but our structures, we would still see increasing glacial melt rates until at least the year 2100.

Of course, long before that time, the majority of river-feeding glaciers will be gone... and with them, all life that depended on them.

Needless to say, that of course includes human beings.

People, as a rule, aren't stupid. And we all come from traditions of mass migrations; our early history is known in all cases to have consisted of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle that picked a place, settled for a while, exhausted the landscape, and then moved on. With the invention of agriculture and animal husbandry, we could stay longer in our settlements, permanently in many cases. Yet it's built into us to be able to pick up and move on, and this will be the first course of action for possibly the majority of humanity.

Of course, when there are already people in the land to which you hope to migrate, depending on conditions there -- and the friendliness of the people there -- there may be welcome and there may alternatively be conflict. There may be something of a mix of these extremes.

As a rule, migrations sent scouts afield, to spy out the land, and to assess the strengths and sentiments of the people in the new lands. That was tradition, and it's reasonable to assume that in the modern day, the tradition still holds.

In the modern day, our scientists may be thought of as the prophets were once regarded. The scientists don't read the future in the entrails of sacrificed livestock, as a rule, yet still we look to them for augury.

It's one thing for the scientists to predict that the glaciers will melt away. From that any reasonable person would predict that the river flows will decline. A reasonable person predicts from that, that there will be less irrigation, and that less irrigation leads to less crop production, and that will lead to rises in both food-prices and hunger among the poor.

It's quite another thing for scientists to apply their analytical tools and informational resources to determine where the glacial melt-off won't have much effect at all on the river flows.

In the USA, there are not that many rivers that absolutely depend on glacial melt, or snowpack sources, for the majority of their flow.

One of the exceptions, of course, is the Colorado River and tributaries. In four out of 5 recent years, snowpack accumulations feeding the Colorado and tributaries has been less than the amount of water drawn from the river. Most of the man-made very large lakes on the Colorado have been being rapidly drawn down to the point of being nearly drained, over the last decade. This is the water supply for at least 10 million people in the western States, and the irrigation water source for about half of the country's produce crops such as lettuce. Other comparable river systems, such as the Snake and Columbia Rivers, also rely on snowpack and glacial melt for much of their flow, although their more northern courses mean that more snow accumulates and the glaciers are in a slower retreat than in the southern Rockies.

East of the Rockies, there's the Missouri River which provides about 50-percent of the flow below the confluence with the Mississippi River. Though the Missouri has many headwaters in the snowpack of the Rocky mountains, the course and origins are so northerly that any global warming effects reducing flow are far in the future.

So, let's all go settle in the eastern half of the United States! We must... there is no reliable water anywhere else that allows massive immigration.

But, you know, to house about a billion refugees from the Indian subcontinent and neighboring states, and about half that many from South America, and perhaps very large and unpredictable numbers from various European states -- it's going to suck to live in the Netherlands once the Rhine's headwater glaciers all melt -- we're going to have to build a lot of housing.

More to come?