Who’ll Stop the Rain?

girl-rainFuture Farm, Future Crop: Part 5 of 5.

Climate Change complication – what happens when the rain moves, as it already is moving?

Are farms in the right places? Are cities? Are the rivers and lakes?

By now, you’ve had an earful about climate change. But here in Digestville, when we want to get into a complete lather, we think about rain shift. If you haven’t noticed, the rain is moving. It’s not raining exactly where it used to, the way it used to. So it says in a report published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, here.

For example, it didn’t stop raining in the United States this past winter, it just stopped raining between the 34th and 40th parallels along the California-Nevada border, where it usually becomes the kind of snow that attracted the 1960 Winter Olympics to Squaw Valley. There it builds a snow pack that, as it slowly melts from April through October, releases the water that keeps California from being taken over by the desert.

Two years of that changing pattern — well, Californians have received water budget cuts of 30 percent — and good luck to you finding a company to dig a well, they’re so busy they can hardly pick up the phone to schedule an order.

This climate model from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab shows the movement of a midwestern prairie climate into the boreal forest zone.

This climate model from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab shows the movement of a midwestern prairie climate into the boreal forest zone.

Dust Bowl economics

Easy to predict? Hardly. A good weather model can’t tell you where it’s going to rain, and how much, next summer, much less over the next 30 years. Rain is the result of the most complex math on earth.

All we really know is where it used to fall, and how much. And if you think that’s a really great thing to rely on when planning your economy, I have just two words for you, “Dust Bowl”.

You see, it doesn’t take a smidge of temperature increase or rising water levels to unwind a civilization pretty quickly. All you have to do is move the rain, until all the cities, crops, lakes and rivers are in the wrong place. Rainfall in the Sierra Nevada powers the 6th largest economy in the world — move it 200 miles to the west and it falls uselessly into the Pacific. You may think that great cities are powered by industry, or agriculture, or mining, or tourism, but they’re really powered by watersheds.

BEEP! Why “Desalination” is the wrong answer

Oh, someone out there probably just said “desalination”. Which is perfectly fine as long as you have a transformatively cheap and abundant energy source, meaning nuclear, and you won’t. And that you don’t have to move the water you produce, which you will. And that that you can think of something safe to do with the tonnage of salt you’ll produce, which you can’t.

AgTech can lend a hand in this — with savings up to 30% as we have highlighted earlier in this series, with no loss in crop productivity.

But the underlying key to unlokcing all the advantages of amazing new technologies for revolutionizing agriculture — and to receive the resultant blessings of food, feed, fibers, fuels, pharmaceutical products and more, is to make sure that the rain stays roughly where it is right now, for as long as possible.

You see, you might have read somewhere in geography class that the Sahara was once a paradise of savannah grassland, teeming with life. Not so today.  The Sahara is slightly larger than the United States.

So, let me bring to your attention the cost and difficulty of moving the United States. Just because net rainfall will increase with climate change shouldn’t give anyone any comfort. A shift in rainfall patterns of just a few hundred miles and — well, the water that’s supposed to fall into the Mississippi-Missouri watershed falls instead on Boston and New York, where it causes havoc and then drains into the sea.

So, who’ll stop the rain from moving?

Turns out, we can, to a limited extent, by the simple act of refraining as much as possible from changing the molecular composition of the atmosphere.

Just thinking back on desalination for a moment. If you don’t like the cost and hassle of reducing rain shift by using sustainable biofuels — because the cost of producing and moving, say, 600 gallons of fuel per capita from nature’s bounty instead of just digging it out of the ground — you’re going to really hate the cost and hassle of producing and moving water.

You see, we use more gallons of water in the United States in a day than we use in transport fuels in a year. Produce that volume, move that volume — or any fraction of it, and you’ll get a really good introduction to the economics of the Dark Ages, PDQ.

Even if we were to have to replace just 5 percent of US water supply by producing and distributing water, we’d have to produce and distribute more water in a day than we produce and distribute renewable fuels in a year. Ouch.

So, one way to think about renewable fuels and other carbon-mitigating strategies is simply as an insurance policy against the rain moving and more than it already is. And remember, it not how much rain a country receives, it’s where it falls, because when it falls in the wrong place, you get flooding and soil run-off and backing up sewers (if you have sewers), or rainfall sinking down into clay aquitards instead of acquifers.

Bottom line: anything you don’t like in a year of “new fuel sources” policy you can get in each and every 24 hours in a “new water sources” policy.

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