An unusual and devastating storm struck Ireland in the early hours of October 16, 2017. Record-breaking gusts of up to 119mph left 360,000 homes without electricity and, sadly, three people lost their lives. The storm continued north-eastwards, causing power outages and damage across the UK and Scandinavia over a two-day period.
That storm, named Ophelia, was exceptional. Hurricanes and tropical storms typically originate in the warm waters of the deep tropics, but Hurricane Ophelia formed close to the Azores — an island chain 1,400km west of Portugal and more than 800km north of the Tropic of Cancer. A Category-3 hurricane at its peak, no major tropical storm on record has ever ventured so close to Europe.
Ophelia weakened, becoming an ex-hurricane, before it hit Europe. But with its spiral of clouds and an eye at its centre, it still resembled a tropical storm and had the intense winds and rainfall of one too. As a tropical-like storm, Ophelia is extraordinary among the weather systems which have reached the British Isles.
A year later, Storm Helene developed off the coast of West Africa and took a highly unusual shortcut to the UK, and Storm Leslie reached the Iberian Peninsula. In 2019, several tropical storms started out in an area of the tropical Atlantic known to scientists as the main development region, and eventually reached Europe as weak remnant storms, swept along by the jet stream.
Clearly, tropical storms and their impacts are not confined to the tropics. So, is the landfall of tropical-like storms across Europe a growing threat, and might climate change, as studies have suggested, be responsible? To answer this, we must start with a simpler question: how often do tropical-like storms actually reach western Europe?
Finding good data
Official records of hurricanes and tropical storms largely concern those threatening the US and are less reliable for Europe. Records only expanded to properly include Europe as recently as the early 1990s, and they become increasingly patchy the further back in time scientists look.
Before weather satellites, which track storm systems, meteorologists relied on measurements made from reconnaissance aircraft, involving dangerous and often impossible work, and from ships, which travel in lanes and can only observe a limited area. As a result, storms are missing from official records, and studies have shown many of the missing events likely formed in the eastern Atlantic — exactly where Ophelia, Helene and the tropical-like storms that threaten Europe originated.
In a new study, we turned to global data sets provided by NASA, the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, and other government agencies. These data sets combine all the available weather observations with state-of-the-art computer models, which use the laws of physics to help fill in the gaps. We searched these data sets using an algorithm that scours the data to find every tropical storm that reached Europe, including storms absent from official records.
Over the period 1979–2018, we found that, on average, one to two storms that reached Europe each year were initially tropical storms. Typically, they occurred in September and October, around the peak of the North Atlantic hurricane season. However, the characteristics and strengths of these storms has varied a lot.
Scientists have known for several decades that, when hurricanes and weaker tropical storms travel north, they transform into what we call extratropical storms — the kind Europe is used to seeing during winter. In fact, around half of all tropical storms do this, but, fortunately, most aren’t damaging.
Among the other half, however, we found that some, like Ophelia, keep their tropical shape and characteristics for longer before petering out. This is crucial. The tropical-like storms that make landfall are typically much stronger. Of all the storms reaching Europe from the tropics, one in ten kept its tropical characteristics and strength to landfall. That’s one every five years over the past four decades, according to our analysis.
So, over the last 40 years, storms which were initially tropical were not that unusual across Europe. Searching new data sets and using advanced algorithms has revealed they’re more common than many scientists previously thought. Fortunately, many weaken substantially before they reach European coastlines, but, as Ophelia demonstrated, that isn’t always so — and climate change may make weakening less likely in the future.
North Atlantic sea surface temperatures have increased by 1.5°C since 1870, and continued warming is expected to make future tropical storms more intense. Stronger tropical storms are not only more likely to reach Europe, but more likely to maintain their tropical intensity rather than weakening.
Comparing recent years with earlier decades, we found some evidence that this trend is already emerging. Storms with tropical origins have reached Europe more frequently since 2000 than during the 1980s and 1990s. This is intriguing, to say the least, but more analysis is needed to verify — and explain — these trends, as well as the varied storm threats Europe faces.
That is because climatic regions that right now and for most of human history have been home to reliable crops of grains, pulses, fruits and vegetables, and safe grazing for cattle, sheep, goats and so on, could become too hot, too dry, or too wet.
And these things could happen too quickly for farmers either to adapt, or crops to evolve. Land that had for generations been considered “safe climatic space” for food production could be shifted into new regimes by runaway global heating, according to a new study in the journal One Earth.
“Our research shows that rapid, out-of-control growth of greenhouse emissions may, by the end of the century, lead to more than a third of current global food production falling into conditions in which no food is produced today − that is, out of safe climatic space,” said Matti Kummu, of Aalto University in Finland.
“The good news is that only a fraction of food production would face as-of-yet unseen conditions if we collectively reduce emissions, so that warming would be limited to 1.5° to 2°Celsius.”
Professor Kummu and his colleagues report that they examined ways of considering the complex problem of climate and food. Geographers have identified 38 zones marked by varying conditions of rainfall, temperature, frost, groundwater and other factors important in growing food or rearing livestock.
The researchers devised a standard of what they called “safe climatic space” and then considered the likely change in conditions for 27 plant crops and seven kinds of livestock by the years 2081to 2100, under two scenarios. In one of these, the world kept its promise and controlled warming to the Paris targets. In the other, it did not.
“The increase in desert areas is especially troubling because in these conditions barely anything can grow without irrigation”
Under the more ominous scenario, the areas of northern or boreal forests of Russia and North America would shrink, while the tropical dry forest zone would grow, along with the tropical and temperate desert zones. The Arctic tundra could all but disappear.
The areas hardest hit would be the Sahel in North Africa, and the Middle East, along with some of south and south-east Asia. Already-poor states such as Benin, Ghana and Guinea-Bissau in West Africa, Cambodia in Asia and Guyana and Suriname in South America would be worst hit if warming is not contained: up to 95% of food production would lose its “safe climatic space.”
In 52 of the 177 countries under study − and that includes Finland and most of Europe − food production would continue. Altogether 31% of crops and 34% of livestock could be affected worldwide. And one fifth of the world’s crop production and 18% of its livestock would be most under threat in those nations with the lowest resilience and fewest resources to absorb such shock.
“If we let emissions grow, the increase in desert areas is especially troubling because in these conditions barely anything can grow without irrigation,” said Professor Kummu. “By the end of this century, we could see more than 4 million square kilometres [1.5m sq miles] of new desert around the globe.” − Climate News Network
May 14, 2021 — Editor’s note: This story is part of a collaboration, Tapped Out: Power, justice and water in the West, in which eight Institute for Nonprofit News newsrooms — California Health Report and High Country News; SJV Water and the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism; Circle of Blue; Columbia Insight; Ensia; and New Mexico In Depth — spent more than three months reporting on water issues in the Western U.S. The result documents serious concerns including contamination, excessive groundwater pumping and environmental inequity — as well as solutions to the problems. It was made possible by a grant from The Water Desk, with support from Ensia and INN’s Amplify News Project.
A riverbed that has been parched since the end of the 19th century — a portion of the historic lifeblood of the Gila River Indian Community — is now coursing again with water, luring things like cattails and birds back to its shores.
“You add water and stuff just immediately starts coming back naturally. Birds have returned and it’s just such a different experience,” says Jason Hauter, an attorney and a Community member. “It’s amazing how much has returned.”
The revival of this small segment of the 649-mile (1045-kilometer) Gila River, which has served the tribes that make up the Gila River Indian Community — the Akimel O’odham (Pima) and the Pee-Posh (Maricopa) — for roughly 2,000 years, was an added benefit of a grassroots infrastructure overhaul, known as “managed aquifer recharge,” or MAR, which aimed to restore the local groundwater basin. The MAR project has not only secured a water supply for local agriculture, but it has also generated a stable source of income and strengthened the Community’s ties to tradition.
“The land started to heal itself, reinvigorate itself,” says Governor Stephen Roe Lewis, who recently began his third term as leader of the Gila River Indian Community.
Hauter credits Lewis and his colleagues for ensuring that Community members have long-term access to their own resources while helping solve broader water supply problems in the region through innovative partnerships and exchanges with neighbors.
“They are very thoughtful about future generations, but they also recognize they live in this larger community and that you have to collaborate,” Hauter says. “Encouraging your neighbors to have good water practices, but also helping your neighbors, is good water policy.”
A Particularly Longstanding Claim to Water Rights
The ins and outs of water management and usage in the U.S. West are complex. In a region where every drop is important, questions about water — such as who gets what, how it’s moved from one place to another, and who pays for it — are vital to communities’ capacity to survive and thrive. These decisions are often based on century-plus-old legal doctrines that don’t always fit neatly into a modern, warming world — or address longstanding disregard for Native American tribal nations’ rights.
Western U.S. states adhere to legal doctrines called “prior appropriation” — sometimes referred to as “first in time, first in right” — linked to the mid-19th century Gold Rush and the Homestead Act, through which miners and farmers were able to claim and divert water sources for “beneficial use” — defined by activities such as irrigation, industry, power production and domestic use. A 1908 Supreme Court case ruled that the federal decision to establish Native American reservations inherently meant there would be sufficient water for those reservations. The priority date for water rights on these reservations therefore had to match the date of establishment, meaning that many tribal nations’ water rights took precedence over those of most existing users. During the past few decades, these nations have largely opted for settlements with the relevant federal, state and private bodies, rather than entering extensive and costly litigation to recover their water rights.
These settlements allow tribal nations to take part in the competitive markets that have long ruled water in the West. These markets involve things like selling water rights, getting money for helping mitigate drought and accruing “credit” from the Arizona Water Banking Authority by storing water in underground basins administered by the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
One such pivotal settlement came in 2004: To resolve tribal water rights claims, Congress passed the Arizona Water Settlement Act, which allocates a set amount of water each year to the Gila River Indian Community, drawing that water budget from a variety of sources in Arizona. The Community had a particularly longstanding claim to water rights due to its two-millennia history of farming, curtailed when miners and white settlers began diverting water following the Civil War. The governor’s late father, Rodney Lewis, devoted his career as Gila River Tribal Attorney to fighting for a just water settlement.
“It was the theft of our water, so this was a generational historic struggle to regain our water,” Lewis says. “We were and we still are historically agriculturalists, farmers. Our lineage, our ancestors were the Huhugam. And the Huhugam civilization had pretty much cultivated the modern-day Phoenix area in central Arizona.”
“They were master builders,” he adds, referring to complex water systems and canals that he says rivaled those of the Nile Valley.
As more and more nations regain control of their water resources, they are securing a critical provision for the long-term financial prosperity of their people and protection of their lands.
Mutually Beneficial Partnerships
As often occurs in tribal water rights settlements, the 2004 agreement served to restore the Gila River Indian Community’s claims to the river and its tributaries without displacing the descendants “of those who committed the original sin,” says Hauter, a partner at the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, which currently serves as outside counsel for the Community.
Toward that end, Hauter says, “really, what’s provided is an alternative supply.”
That alternative supply comes from the Central Arizona Project (CAP), an infrastructural behemoth that conveys about 1.5 million acre-feet (1.85 billion cubic meters; one acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons) of water from the Colorado River to central and southern Arizona each year. Serving as the single largest renewable water supply for the state of Arizona, the 336-mile (540-kilometer) system was authorized by then-President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968, soon after which construction by the Bureau of Reclamation began. Three years later, the Central Arizona Water Conservation District — a multi-county water district — formed to repay the federal government for the project’s costs and oversee regional water supply.
Through the 2004 settlement, the Gila River Indian Community has the single largest CAP entitlement — bigger than that of the city of Phoenix — at 311,800 acre-feet (385 million cubic meters), Hauter explains. Finding mutual benefit in helping quench the thirst of the surrounding region, the Community entered into various water exchanges and leases that delivered about 60,000 acre-feet (74 million cubic meters) to Phoenix and other municipalities annually and left about 250,000-acre-feet (308 million cubic meters) for its own purposes, according to Hauter.
But this sudden surplus from the CAP actually posed a problem.
Pumping water from the project, Community members understood, would eventually become prohibitive due to water transport and associated electricity costs. The Lower Colorado River Basin Development Fund, managed by the U.S. Department of Interior, covers the Fixed OM&R (operation, maintenance and replacement) for certain Arizona tribes with settlements, but funding is only projected to last until 2045, Hauter explains.
The Community was using only about 50,000 acre-feet (62 million cubic meters) for irrigation purposes, leaving about 200,000-acre-feet (247 million cubic meters) unused, Hauter says. Because any unused CAP water can be remarketed by the state, Arizonans began counting on the Community to not use its full share.
With the legal guidance of Hauter and his team, the Community launched a strategic venture to store, share and sell much more of its CAP water in 2010.
The first such partnership occurred with former water supply rival the Salt River Project, the name of the utilities responsible for providing most of Phoenix’s water and power. Had the Community decided to enter litigation to recover its water rights, rather than settling, the Salt River Project could have faced enormous supply losses.
But the former rivals instead became partners, after identifying that the Salt River Project’s underground storage facility (USF), the Granite Reef Underground Storage Project, was an ideal place to store a portion of the CAP allocation the Gila River Indian Community was not currently using. The partnership has enabled the Salt River Project to withdraw water from storage — while maintaining a “safe yield,” or making sure any water that is taken from aquifers is replenished. In return, the Community has gained long-term storage credit, Hauter explains. Such storage credit enables the holder to bank CAP water and, when necessary, recover the water for future use.
The Community also stores water in groundwater savings facilities (GSF), including one operated by the Salt River Project and another south of the Gila River operated by the Maricopa Stanfield Drainage District. While a USF physically stores water in the aquifer through direct recharge, a GSF is an “indirect” recharge facility that uses CAP water instead of pumping local groundwater.
In what Hauter described as an “in lieu” agreement, the Community provides the operators of these GSF facilities with a renewable water supply — another portion of its CAP allocation — and so reduces the Salt River Project and Maricopa District’s need to extract groundwater. In return, the Community gets storage credit for the water that can remain in the ground.
“Everything We Needed Was at the River”
While these external collaborations bolstered the resilience of the Community, as well as that of the arid surrounding region, Gila River residents only really saw the revival of their long-lost local waterway when Community leaders launched a homegrown storage initiative. Recognizing the value in keeping some unused CAP resources at home, they chose to establish a network of managed aquifer recharge (MAR) sites. This type of underground storage allows for the free flow of water from a naturally permeable area, such as a streambed, into an aquifer, as opposed to “constructed recharge” sites that involve injecting water into percolation basins by means of a constructed device.
In order to implement these plans, the Gila River Indian Community came to an agreement with Arizona to acquire state regulatory permits for the MAR projects, despite the fact that tribal nations have sovereign control over water management. As a result of this decision, the Community has been able to market long-term storage credits in a sort of environmentally friendly banking system that allows more groundwater to stay in the ground.
“They realized they could get multiple benefits from deciding to have their project permitted per the Arizona regulations,” says Sharon Megdal, director of The University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center.
“They voluntarily chose to abide by the regulations for storage and recovery and therefore come under the whole credit accrual and accounting system,” she continues, stressing that not only can credits be used to recover water when needed in the future, but they can also be purchased by outside entities, which creates a revenue stream for the Community. “That’s really exciting.”
Three MAR facilities are already operating on the reservation today: MAR-5, the Olberg Dam underground storage facility, permitted in 2018; MAR-1B, the Cholla Mountain underground storage facility, permitted in 2020; and MAR-6B, a western and downstream expansion of MAR-5, which came online a few months ago. Construction of MAR-8, located downstream from MAR-5, will be complete in a few years, according to Hauter.
Hauter adds that it was only while planning the initial MAR-5 site that Community members envisioned the riparian restoration program that served “to recreate the river,” allowing cattails and other plants to blossom and enabling community members to create baskets and traditional medicines. Although the idea of restoring the river was secondary to the storage plans, Hauter says that its flow is intrinsic to the Community’s culture.
“The tangible benefit for most members is really having the river back to some degree,” Hauter adds. “It wasn’t something the settlement intended to accomplish, but the settlement gave the Community the tools to make it happen.”
Lewis and his father, who had already retired at the time, used those tools to see the first MAR site to fruition. The Lewises and their colleagues understood the benefit in adopting innovative methods for accumulating water at their future storage site.
“He truly saw the MAR-5 as a living testament to our historic tie to the Gila River,” the governor says, adding that his father considered the facility an opportunity to “return the flow of the river.”
With the revived river flow, the riparian habitat quickly began blossoming, including 50 documented species of birds within the first year of MAR-5’s operations, Lewis says. An interpretive trail now weaves through the once arid wetland, providing educational signposts and offering sacred cultural spaces for spiritual practice, Lewis explains. Elders are now taking advantage of the plants and silt available to engage in traditional basket weaving, medicine making and pottery, he adds.
“They still remember the river sometimes flowing and the smell of the water,” Lewis says.
In recent years, before the opening of the MAR-5 site, the channel filled with water only in particularly wet seasons involving floods or heavy snowpack upstream, according to Lewis.
“Everything we needed was at the river,” he adds. “That was our lifeblood.”
Continuing to Plan For a Drought-Ridden Future
In conjunction with the opening of the MAR facilities, the Community cemented a pivotal agreement in 2019 with the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District (CAGRD), a groundwater replenishment entity operated by the Central Arizona Water Conservation District. Through this agreement, CAGRD leases 18,185 acre-feet (22 million cubic meters) of the Community’s CAP water and stores the majority of that water in the MAR sites, while receiving long-term storage credits in return from the Arizona Water Banking Authority. Only if the MAR facilities are full is CAGRD allowed to store the leased water elsewhere, Hauter explains.
Alongside the MAR projects, the Community has also been rehabilitating existing wells and building new ones in order to create a backup supply for agricultural use when Gila River flow is minimal. Well water is less expensive than CAP water, since wells can recharge naturally during storms — so much so that such events collectively add at least 100,000 acre-feet (123 million cubic meters) to the Community’s annual water supply, according to Hauter. The Community took additional steps to reroute its CAP supplies after the federal government and the seven Colorado River Basin States implemented their drought contingency plans, meant to elevate water levels in Lake Mead, in 2020. As part of that regional effort, Hauter explains, the Community is providing a total of at least 200,000 acre-feet (247 million cubic meters) of water to be stored in Lake Mead from 2020 to 2026, when the drought contingency plans expire. For its contribution, the Community gets money through the Arizona Water Bank and the Bureau of Reclamation.
Only through the Community’s creative collaborations and homegrown projects has so much of its CAP entitlement been able to help replenish Lake Mead, Hauter says. Today, the Community has reduced its CAP water usage for irrigation to 15,000 acre-feet (19 million cubic meters) per year, while its CAP water storage capacity in the MAR projects is up to about 40,000 acre-feet (49 million cubic meters) per year. After construction of MAR-8 is complete, total CAP water use for storage and irrigation will reach about 75,000 acre-feet (93 million cubic meters), Hauter says.
As the Community’s leaders continue to plan for a drought-ridden future, they are evaluating whether it will be necessary to use more of its CAP allocation for their own needs. At the moment, much of the reservation’s agriculture involves water-intensive crops like alfalfa, feed corn and cotton. An overhaul of the farming infrastructure, according to Hauter, would require “changing attitudes about how food is grown” and incorporating more efficient technologies, as well as encouraging farming among younger people.
Overall, Hauter says, “it’s an exciting future for the Community, and it will be interesting to see what happens in the next 20 or so years.”
Lewis is confident that the Community’s agricultural tradition will remain strong, particularly due to the younger generation’s concerns for social justice, equity and environmental issues.
“We want to provide opportunities for our community members to reengage in any way in our agricultural heritage,” he says. “We’ve always been innovators, going back to the Huhugam with their amazing engineering.”
In addition to the commercial company Gila River Farms, which is owned by the tribe and employs Community members, Lewis says that local family farms continue to thrive. Lewis also says that “there’s a big push” for young people to obtain degrees in agro-business, hydrology, water engineering and other relevant fields that will provide them with a livelihood while working for their Community — a place that has become even more special to them during the pandemic year.
“It’s a public health emergency that we’ve been going through,” Lewis adds. “But at the same time, I think this is an opportunity where you see a lot [of] our younger generation that are wanting to learn who it is to be from the Gila River Indian Community.”
“A Total Win-Win”
While the MAR projects and the larger water exchange deals serve to safeguard the Community’s water supplies, Hauter says he’s uncertain as to whether neighboring tribal nations could replicate this model. Other tribes, he explains, might have different agricultural interests or economic concerns, as well as varying geological and hydrological conditions.
In Megdal’s opinion, at least one aspect of the Community’s strategy could be replicable regardless of geography: the strategic accrual and marketing of long-term storage credits in permitted recharge facilities. The Gila River Indian Community has diversified its portfolio of storage credit and sales through “multiple vehicles,” she explains, including its MAR projects, the Salt River Project partnership, and its transfer of credits to CAGRD.
“They are able to meet their objectives including having riparian benefits and river benefits and sell the credits — because the credits are then recovered elsewhere. … For them, it’s like a total win-win,” Megdal says, adding that she considers the Community’s achievements to be “a bellwether project.”
Already, she says, the Tucson-region Tohono O’odham Nation has begun selling some credits to CAGRD. Acknowledging that the two cases involve varying geological and legislative circumstances, Megdal stresses that the Gila River Indian Community has demonstrated the benefits of the storage and credit accrual system.
“These long-term storage credits are the most marketable part of the water system,” Megdal says. “It’s an emerging market, and the Gila River Indian Community has emerged as a key leader in that market.”
“I see this example of a tribal nation entering voluntarily into an intergovernmental agreement with the state so that all the parties can develop these mutually beneficial exchanges or marketing transactions in a voluntary way,” she adds. “It’s really a notable innovation.”
Editor’s note: This story is also part of a four-part series — “Hotter, Drier, Smarter: Managing Western Water in a Changing Climate” — about innovative approaches to water management in the U.S. West and Western tribal nations. The series is supported by a grant from the Water Desk at the University of Colorado Boulder and is included in our nearly year-long reporting project, “Troubled Waters,” which is supported by funding from the Park Foundation and Water Foundation. You can find the other stories in the series, along with more drinking water reporting, here.
By Juergen Voegele, Veronique Kabongo and Arame Tall
When you land in Bujumbura, Burundi, you are immediately struck by the verdant landscape. Everything is green. The peaceful city is surrounded by beautiful Lake Tanganyika, the deepest in Africa, with majestic hills to the north. Soon, one discovers that those steep hillsides, the nearly 3,000 or so “collines” of Burundi, are much more than an extraordinary landscape. They are home to a patchwork of communities organized around each colline. In many ways, they represent the beauty but also the pains of the people who live on it and from it. These collines hold the souls of ancestors and families lost during past conflicts, including the 1994 crisis. They tell the country’s story.
But this impressive majestic landscape is threatened by overuse and degraded resources which are further aggravated by climate change. Climate-related disasters—chiefly torrential rains, floods and landslides—have triggered 100% of the forced displacements in 2020 in Burundi according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, underscoring the urgency of action to address compounded risks from rising climate impacts, fragility, and displacement.
Multi-risk vulnerability in Burundi’s colline landscapes
Furthermore, each year, Burundi loses almost 38 million tons of soil and 4% of its gross domestic product (GDP) to land degradation. The coffee sector exemplifies people’s dependence on natural resources for their livelihoods: half of the country’s households live off the sector which brings 90% of the country’s foreign revenue. But in the last 40 years, severe soil erosion led to a two-thirds decrease in coffee production, pushing millions back into poverty.
Burundi’s collines are home to more than 90% of the country’s largely rural population, composed of mostly women and youth, who rely on agriculture and forestry for their livelihoods. They also are critical hubs of multi-risk vulnerability: 75% of court cases are linked to land disputes, and the recent massive return of refugees from neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Tanzania has been a source of increased conflict and violence. Poverty and conflict in Burundi are closely linked to resource dependence and climate fragility. Since 2015, the country has experienced unprecedented forced displacement: 131,000 internally-displaced people were counted in 2020, 83% of whom were driven by climate-related disasters and 17% caused by other socio-economic factors, according to the International Organization for Migration Displacement Tracking Matrix.
In Burundi’s context, climate change compounds pre-existing risks through rising rainfall and temperature variability, projected to worsen by 2030-50, with recurrent flooding, landslides and soil erosion already destroying livelihoods and exacerbating poverty. Past extreme weather events including severe floods in 2006 and 2007 and severe droughts between 1999 and 2000 and in 2005 accounted for losses exceeding 5% of the GDP, affecting more than two million Burundians. In addition, river flooding from Lake Tanganyika poses an increasing challenge. Batwa communities are particularly disenfranchised, and at the heart of multi-sector vulnerability, making community-driven development approaches critical in Burundi’s development context.
However, 2,608 more collines are still degraded and will need to be restored to increase agricultural and pastoral productivity, and to build their resilience to current and future climate risks. The World Bank has committed to scale up activities nation-wide to cover all collines, starting with a study funded by PROGREEN, a global partnership promoting resilient landscapes. The new Burundi government has committed to invest more in driving out the root causes of degradation and fragility on all collines and lists climate change as one of its strategic priorities.
Figure 1: Scaling up Investment into Burundi’s Colline Landscapes
This is mission possible, but it cannot be done alone. While the World Bank is mobilizing additional resources through its Prevention and Resilience Allocation, it is essential to crowd-in financial and technical partners, including United Nations’ agencies and other climate concessional financing.
Addressing climate risks in fragile states has the potential to enhance resilience and reduce sources of conflict, while generating growth and long-term sustainable development. To be effective, climate investments must recognize the interlinkages between climate and conflict risks. In Burundi as in every other country, these investments must also be rooted in strong political and institutional support to trigger the changes needed to make the “land of 3,000 collines” resilient.
This, the researchers say, is as if the steady advance in agricultural productivity worldwide − in crop breeding, in farming technologies and in fertiliser use − has been eroded everywhere by more extreme temperatures, more prolonged droughts and more intense rainfall.
“It is equivalent to pressing the pause button on productivity growth back in 2013, and experiencing no improvements since then. Anthropogenic climate change is already slowing us down.”
He and colleagues from Maryland and California report in the journal Nature Climate Change that they developed new ways of looking at farm costs and yields that could account for climate- and weather-related factors. The findings are potentially alarming.
In the last century, the planet has warmed by at least 1°C above the long term average for most of human history, and is heading for 3°C or more by the end of this century.
A study of this kind − comparing the present world with one that might have been − is always open to challenge, and farmers have always had to gamble on good weather and cope with bad harvests.
But over the last seven years, researchers have repeatedly confirmed that a hotter world promises to be a hungrier one. Studies have found that yields of wheat, maize and rice are all vulnerable to climate change.
So the latest study simply provides another way of confirming anxieties already expressed. This time there is a new perspective: the attrition of climate change began decades ago. In the constant race to keep up with demand and compensate for possible loss, the farmers may be falling behind. Technological progress has yet to deliver climate resilience.
“It is not what we can do, but where we are headed,” said Robert Chambers, of the University of Maryland, a co-author. “This gives us an idea of trends to help see what to do in the future with new changes in the climate that are beyond what we’ve previously seen.
“We are projected to have almost 10 billion people to feed by 2050, so making sure our productivity is stable but growing faster than ever before is a serious concern.”
And Dr Otiz-Bobea said: “Most people perceive climate change as a distant problem. But this is something that is already having an effect. We have to address climate change now so that we can avoid further damage for future generations.” − Climate News Network
Images of colossal chunks of ice plunging into the sea accompany almost every news story about climate change. It can often make the problem seem remote, as if the effects of rising global temperatures are playing out elsewhere. But the break-up of the world’s vast reservoirs of frozen water – and, in particular, Antarctic ice shelves – will have consequences for all of us.
Before we can appreciate how, we need to understand what’s driving this process.
Ice shelves are gigantic floating platforms of ice that form where continental ice meets the sea. They’re found in Greenland, northern Canada and the Russian Arctic, but the largest loom around the edges of Antarctica. They are fed by frozen rivers of ice called glaciers, which flow down from the steep Antarctic ice sheet.
Ice shelves act as a barrier to glaciers, so when they disappear, it’s like pulling the plug in a sink, allowing glaciers to flow freely into the ocean, where they contribute to sea level rise.
If you cast your mind back to 2002, you may remember the sudden demise of Larsen B, an ice shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula – the tail-like land mass which stretches out from the West Antarctic mainland – which splintered over just six weeks.
Before Larsen B broke up, satellite images showed meltwater collecting in huge ponds on the surface, the precursor to a process called “hydrofracturing”, which literally means “cracking by water”.
Ice shelves are not solid blocks of ice: they’re made up of layers with fresh snow at the top, which contains lots of air gaps. Over many seasons, layers of snow build up and become compacted, with the bottom of the shelf containing the densest ice. In the middle, there is a porous medium called firn, which contains air pockets that soak up meltwater every summer like a sponge.
In the Antarctic summer, ice shelves get warm enough to melt at the surface. That meltwater trickles into the firn layer, where it refreezes when temperatures dip below freezing again. If the rate of melting every year is greater than the rate at which that firn can be replenished by fresh snow, then those air pockets eventually fill up, causing the ice shelf to become one solid chunk.
If that happens, then the following summer when melting occurs, the water has nowhere to go and so collects in ponds on the surface. That is what we can see in the satellite images of Larsen B before it collapsed.
At this stage, meltwater begins to flow into crevasses and cracks within the ice shelf. The weight of water filling these rifts causes them to widen and deepen, until suddenly, all at once, the cracks reach the bottom of the shelf and the whole thing disintegrates.
Scientists believe the collapse of Larsen B was caused by a combination of persistently warm weather and a background of ongoing atmospheric warming, which drove unusually high melt rates.
After its collapse, the glaciers that previously fed Larsen B sped up, spitting more ice into the ocean than before. Currently, the Antarctic Peninsula, an area that has seen more than half its ice shelves lose mass, is responsible for around 25% of all ice loss from Antarctica. It holds enough ice to raise global sea levels by around 24cm.
Three future outcomes
But what might happen to the rest of Antarctica’s ice shelves in the future is still uncertain. As the climate warms, ice shelves are more likely to collapse and accelerate global sea level rise, but by how much? This is something myself and a colleague have explored in a new study.
We used the latest modelling techniques to predict the susceptibility of ice shelves to hydrofracturing at 1.5°C, 2°C and 4°C of global warming – scenarios that are all still plausible. Like with Larsen B, the presence of liquid water on the surface of an ice shelf indicates that it is becoming less stable, and so vulnerable to collapse by hydrofracturing.
In our paper, we identified four ice shelves – including two on the Antarctic Peninsula – which are at risk of collapse if global temperatures rise 4°C above the pre-industrial average. If both were to disintegrate, the glaciers they hold back could account for tens of cm of sea level rise – 10-20% of what’s predicted this century.
But limiting global warming to 2°C would halve the amount of ice shelf area at risk of collapse around Antarctica. At 1.5°C, just 14% of Antarctica’s ice shelf area would be at risk. Cutting that risk reduces the likelihood of this vast and remote continent significantly contributing to sea level rise.
Clearly, reducing climate change will be better not just for Antarctica, but for the world.
The past few years have seen very severe wildfires in Australia, California, Siberia and around the Mediterranean. Wildfires have become one of the most potent symbols of the threats posed by global warming, and images of fire are widely used to illustrate climate change news stories.
People in the UK don’t often think of wildfires: it’s widely perceived that they occur in hot, dry places. But the wildfire danger in the UK is real. While the vast majority are small, several fires in recent years have threatened houses and infrastructure. Fires have burned through moorland and forests, and even passed through an onshore wind farm in Scotland. Although actual damage to property and harm to people has so far been limited, dealing with wildfires costs fire and rescue services up to £55 million per year.
Wildfires in the UK typically occur on moorland or heathland, and are almost always the result of some human action, sometimes deliberate but more usually accidental or inadvertent. The initial spark is unpredictable, but whether a spark leads to a wildfire depends on how much dry material is available to burn, and whether it is sufficiently windy for fire to spread. While we cannot say that climate change will alter the chance of getting a spark, we can be more confident that the conditions conducive to fire are likely to change into the future. Climate change will increase fire danger.
By how much? Colleagues and I recently estimated this by combining our version of the fire danger model used by the Met Office with the latest climate projections. The fire danger model indexes danger using temperature, rainfall, humidity, wind and evaporation to estimate how much dry material is available to burn and whether a fire will spread. It is based on an approach used in Canada, and a similar model is used to monitor fire danger in New Zealand and across Europe.
Using this model, we then calculated the level of fire danger up to the year 2100 in a low emissions scenario where climate change was relatively modest, and in a high emissions scenario with more extreme change.
The numbers vary with indicator, but in general we predict there will be large increases in fire danger across the UK. For example, in south east England there are currently around 20 days per year on average with “very high” fire danger, and with high emissions this rises to more than 50 days by the 2050s and around 90 days by the 2080s. In north west England, there are around five “very high” danger days per year, and this would increase to around ten and 30 by the 2050s and 2080s respectively.
The fire danger season is also likely to grow longer. Most of the increase is due to higher temperatures drying out surface material, but lower humidity also increases fire danger along with reductions in summer rainfall. Where and when fires occur in practice – and therefore how fire risk changes in different places – will depend on where and when fires are started. However, a warmer and drier climate means fire danger increases everywhere.
While the precise amount of danger and risk will depend on future emissions, our research implies that greater attention needs to be given to the danger of wildfires. That means factoring them into emergency planning and the regulations that guide land use, and in the development of guidelines for activities such as access to moorland or controlled land management burns that may inadvertently trigger fires. The UK won’t turn into Australia or California overnight, but it’s time to prepare for the worst.
Today, Myanmar is in the midst of a fight that will determine the future of its democracy. While this inevitably demands the full attention and energy of the population, the future holds other challenges of its own. The military takeover came just as the government was preparing for a crucial year for climate change, culminating in the COP26 UN Climate Conference in Glasgow, UK, in November. According to the 2020 Global Climate Risk Index, Myanmar is the world’s second most disaster-prone country, exposed to multiple climate-related hazards, including floods, cyclones, landslides, and droughts. Climate impacts will be felt through the whole economy and will touch all aspects of society. Building resilience will require the government to put climate change at the heart of its decision-making processes and development plans. Only an integrated approach that recognises the interconnected nature of climate risks will be effective.
Over the past decade, Myanmar has made some progress. The country had decreased its poverty rate from 48.2 per cent in 2005 to 24.8 per cent in 2017. Whilst this represents good progress, climate change threatens further development as it will impact all sectors in Myanmar, including agriculture, transport and energy.
Despite this progress, seasonal food insecurity remains a concern across Myanmar. Kundhavi Kadiresan, Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for Asia and the Pacific of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization said in a speech in 2019 that “much work remains to be done for Myanmar to achieve SDG-2, the Sustainable Development Goal of zero hunger by 2030.” Climate impacts threaten to make this goal even harder to reach.
Increased rainfall during the wet season and decreased rainfall during the dry season may reduce agricultural production for key crops. More frequent extreme heat and higher average temperatures may also lead to crop failures, reduce productivity, or alter staple crops’ nutritional content. Despite Myanmar’s economic progress, its reliance on the agricultural sector makes over half of the labour force highly vulnerable to climate change impacts.
Productivity is linked to connectivity – efforts to improve transport connectivity in Myanmar present opportunities to boost trade, growth and regional integration. When transport systems are efficient and reliable, they provide economic and social opportunities and benefits that result in positive multiplier effects such as better accessibility to market and employment.
Research suggests that increased public spending on transport infrastructure over the next decade could reduce logistics costs by around 30 per cent and increase annual GDP by up to $40 bn. Energy, water and telecommunications infrastructure also face increased risk from physical damage and disruption caused by storms, floods and other hazards becoming more frequent and intense due to climate change.
Over-reliance on hydropower holds its problems. Heatwaves and an increasing number of extreme heat days could increase energy demand for air conditioning and industrial cooling. At the same time, droughts and change in river flows due to erratic rainfall may affect hydropower energy generation. The costs of power outages will be felt across the whole economy, as industrial and commercial rely on a continuous power supply.
Diversified power systems that draw on multiple forms of renewable energy, such as solar and wind power, are more resilient to climate impacts and can deliver energy closer to the communities that they serve. Nature-based solutions, such as reforestation, can also reduce the risk to hydropower by regulating water flow and stabilising the soil, preventing landslides and improving water quality.
When Myanmar is able to look towards the future once more, it must take steps to build its climate resilience to achieve its development objectives. An integrated approach is required to manage these interconnected challenges.
Climate change must be integrated into decision-making across all government departments. For it to be taken seriously, it must also be understood as a priority issue at the highest levels including within the Ministry of Planning and Finance. A broader process of engagement with Myanmar’s people is also required to ensure the country can move forward towards a future in which everyone can share. There is much reconciliation to do in the meantime to achieve this.
Cover image: Landslide in Myanmar. Climate change will make these events more common. By Sukun, 2017
i.Food Security Cluster (FSC);
ii. The Myanmar Times (2020);
Extreme weather in Myanmar’s Magwe breaks temperature record
iii. Frontier Myanmar (2019); The
National League for Democracy’s power fail
iv. Global Witness (2020); Myanmar
jade mine disaster highlights government inaction
Even if the world keeps its most ambitious promise and contains global heating to no more than 1.5°C above the global average normal for most of human history, the future looks distinctly menacing.
And if the world doesn’t quite get there, and annual average temperatures − already 1°C above the historic norm − rise to 2°C, then vast numbers of people in South Asia will find themselves exposed to deadly conditions at least three times as often.
As the researchers make this sober warning in one journal, researchers on the same day in yet another journal make a simple prediction about the cost of ignoring such warnings altogether, to go on burning ever more fossil fuels and destroying ever more tracts of the natural world.
“The need for adaptation over South Asia is today, not in the future. It’s not a choice any more.”
The outcome could be devastating for the countries of South Asia − India and Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Burma among them − as the thermometer rises and the humidity increases. Researchers have warned for years that at a certain level of heat and humidity − meteorologists call it the “wet bulb” temperature − humans cannot labour productively.
That level is 32°C. At a wet bulb temperature of 35°C, humans cannot expect to survive for long. Some parts of the region have already felt such temperatures with a global average rise of just over 1°C: in 2015, at least 3500 people in Pakistan and India died from causes directly related to extreme heat.
At 1.5°C the consequences could be significantly worse, and at 2°C, the scientists say, the hazard will have been amplified by a factor of 2.7: almost threefold. South Asia could later this century be home to more than two billion people: of the working population, 60% are now engaged in agricultural labour out of doors, and many millions live in crowded cities and in severe poverty. The region should prepare itself for a dangerously hot future.
“The future looks bad for South Asia,” said Moetasim Ashfaq, of the US Oak Ridge National Laboratory, one of the authors, “but the worst can be avoided by containing warming to as low as possible. The need for adaptation over South Asia is today, not in the future. It’s not a choice any more.”
Once again, the statisticians have been at work, and the answer in the journal Climate and Atmospheric Science is: it will be much worse, over a vaster region and for a very large number of people in the Middle East and North Africa.
Their calculations suggest that temperatures could reach as high as 56°C, and even more than 60° C in sweltering cities. Such heat extremes could endure for weeks.
So within the lifetimes of those alive today, about half the region’s population − that is, about 600 million people − could face extreme temperatures of around 56°C by 2100 every summer.
The researchers put their message with unusual forthrightness in the headline: “Business-as-usual will lead to super- and ultra-extreme heatwaves in the Middle East and North Africa.” − Climate News Network
Extreme water events affecting water for drinking, cooking, washing and agriculture drive migration all over the world. Earlier this year, cyclone Eloise battered Mozambique, displacing 100,000 to 400,000 people and weakening the country’s infrastructure. People displaced by the storm were in need of food, hygiene kits and personal protective equipment (PPE).
Addressing water-driven migration will require research that crosses borders and research boundaries. As climate change continues to cause serious displacement and socio-political upheaval, governments must take action to minimize the effects on people vulnerable to migration.
The stakes of water-driven migration
Water-driven migration is a crucial challenge for people living in vulnerable and unstable regions. Water stress acts as a direct or indirect driver of conflict and migration. As water and climate extremes become worse, more people will face water crises and be forced to migrate.
For instance, take the famous case of the Aral Sea that shrank to 9,830 square kilometres in 2017 from 55,700 square kilometres in the 1970s. More than 100,000 people migrated due to collapse of agriculture, fisheries, tourism and increased illnesses such as tuberculosis and diarrhea.
Countries that have committed to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals could address water-driven migration through SDG 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions). Policy can be aligned with SDG 16 along a seven-point strategy:
Understand how water crises influence migration: Causality is important in addressing migration. Land, water and human security issues could serve as a base for outlining a preventative outlook for new and emerging migration pathways.
Integrate diverse perspectives in water migration assessments: Water co-operation treaties must integrate under-represented, marginalized and racialized migrant voices. The United Nations University’s Institute for Water, Environment and Health has developed an approach to aggregate the causes and consequences of water-driven migration. This framework can help policy-makers interpret migration in diverse socio-ecological, socio-economic, and socio-political settings.
Assess water, migration and development practices through participatory, bottom-up and interdisciplinary approaches: Research should be participatory, applicable between disciplines and socially inclusive to complement scientific, descriptive methods. Nuanced facts of the diverse influences that shape migration can provide understanding to build resilience among vulnerable populations.
Manage data, information and knowledge: Researchers need updated data to examine how water crises are linked with human migration. To close the gaps, the UN has pointed to the need to improve capacity for data analysis within and between countries. Also, there must be stronger co-ordination at the state, regional and international levels to share best practices.
Policy-makers must prepare for the consequences of water crises by adopting improvements that address the concerns of those vulnerable to migration. The seven-point strategy calls for policy-makers to use strategic and integrated approaches between disciplines. Research that maps causes, risks and impacts at the local, regional and global levels can strengthen water migration policies.