Back in the 1930s, the Great Plains region of the US went through an environmental catastrophe so severe, tens of thousands of families were forced to pack up their belongings and families and abandon their homes.
Now, climate change may be about to create a similar situation, NASA scientists are warning.
During the Dust Bowl, severe drought and an aggressive exploitation of agricultural land, fuelled by the American view of expansion and autonomy from nature, loosened the top soil. When strong winds blew, it sent giant swirls of dust clouds, called “black blizzards,” across 150,000 square miles, from regions of Colorado and New Mexico to as far east as New York City. The dust choked livestock, plants, and blocked out the sun.
The Dust Bowl, which gathered ground over the course of 10 years, was “largely human-induced,” Ellen Stofan, NASA’s chief scientist, said at the James Beard Foundation’s “Rethinking the Future of Food” conference in New York City Oct. 19. “People generally watched it happen, and didn’t totally understand why it was happening.”
That was, until scientists stepped in and eventually remedied the situation, Stofan said.
Nearly 85 years later today, we’re on the brink of another human-induced environmental crisis. The planet is getting warmer, Stofan said. “The Arctic is the ‘canary in the coal mine.’ We see the effects of climate change happening; we see the loss of Arctic ice every summer.”
And we need to use what we learned from the Dust Bowl and start working solutions to climate change now, she continued.
Severe storms are threatening coastal cities. Seaside towns in Alaska are suffering from extreme erosion, and much stronger storms are expected.
Instead of white ice reflecting solar radiation back into the atmosphere, the exposed water is absorbing heat. And when the dark ocean absorbs heat, Stofan continued, that warmth gets recycled back into the climate system instead of into space, which causes temperatures to rise.
“We honestly don’t know what effect that’s having on our weather,” Stofan said.
In addition, NASA satellites have observed that as California extracts more and more water out of its aquifers during its extended drought, “the ground is dropping as the aquifer collapses,” Stofan said. “This is serious, and it is linked to climate change.”
If the ground continues to drop and for too long of a time, LiveScience reports, “it can permanently lose its ability to store groundwater.”
Average surface temperatures across the globe have already risen 0.8 degrees Celsius (1.4 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1880. This animation shows that warming trend from 1880 to 2013, where higher-than-normal temperatures are in red, and lower-than-normal temperatures in blue:
Meanwhile, new climate models predict that, by the end of the 21st century, temperatures could further rise by between 2 C and 6 C (between 3.6 F and 10.8 F).
This may not seem like a dramatic surge, but even small temperature fluctuations will bring potentially catastrophic consequences.
On the low end, a spike of just 2 C from today’s temperatures could melt a substantial part of Greenland’s and Antarctica’s ice sheets. That warming could also threaten coral reefs and mountain ecosystems.
On the high end of the range, a rise of 6 C would create “a scenario which is so extreme it’s almost unimaginable,” Mark Lynas, environmental writer and author of the book “Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet,” told CNN.
If we continue on the warming path we’re on right now, Stofan said, models predict that by 2099, our planet’s ability to grow food and sustain human life will be severely compromised. And this could create a mass exodus of refugees migrating from parched and ravaged regions of the world, or even spark water-fuelled territory wars. This situation is already playing out in California, where farmers on now fallow fields are forced to abandon their plots.
“Given the fact that we’re facing a whole new type of environmental crisis,” Stofan said, “how can we better use science and technology to help cope better than we did maybe with the Dust Bowl in the 1930s?”
One great way is to exploit the satellite tracking technologies and resources NASA has, Stofan said, in order to at least partially thwart another deadly catastrophe.
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