Several scientists from NASA recently held an “Ask Me Anything (AMA)” q&a session on Reddit, and they didn’t hold back in their responses about just how disastrous the effects of climate change will be on the United States, the Weather Channel reported.
When asked if he could see drought becoming a nationwide problem within the next 50 years, climate scientist Ben Cook said he thinks such events will be a major problem, and they will likely get worse over time.
First, the climate is changing, and we expect North America, along with the rest of the world, to get steadily warmer over the next century. Even disregarding changes in precipitation (rain and snow), these warmer temperatures will mean more evaporation and lower lake and reservoir levels, reduced streamflow, and drier average soil conditions. So, when natural droughts do occur, they will occur in this much drier baseline and be that much worse compared to droughts of the past.
Second, Western North America (where we expect these future drought impacts to be the worst) is an area with 1) a growing population and associated water demand, 2) home to most of the domestically grown crops in the US, and 3) rapidly declining non-renewable groundwater resources. Combined with changes due to climate, the increased demand and reduction in groundwater availability will mean that droughts, when they do occur, will be that much more impactful to agriculture and local communities.
Regarding the effects of these droughts, research scientist Narendra Das warned that a lack of water will result in damage to almost all aspects of daily life.
“Extended drought period [sic] will lead to socioeconomic drought,” said Das. “The repercussions will be felt by humans in many ways, prominent examples are: failure of crop/agriculture; strain on water supply; increase in commodities prices; inflation; job loss — increase in unemployment; and failure of dairy and meat industries.”
“I’d say there are ‘known unknowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns,’” added hydrologist and climate scientist Ben Zaitchik. “Known unknowns would be things like ecological feedbacks — e.g., the kind of thing that could cause a drought to lead to a pest infestation or a change in ecosystem composition. Unknown unknowns might include things like social instability. For example, how have droughts influenced political change in Syria, or how will the current drought influence behavior and economy in the US?”
“Neither kind of unknown is easy to predict,” said Zaitchik. “But the known unknowns at least fall in the realm of physical and biological models that we couple on a regular basis. Once we get into human dynamics, things get much more difficult to predict.”
Despite the grim future described by the scientists, they were optimistic that, with changes, the human race does stand some chance of survival.
“The planet will survive for another 5 billion years,” said oceanographer and climate scientists Bill Patzert. “Whether it looks like it does today and it has humans … We have to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. The planet is warming, ice sheets are melting and sea level is rising. This will continue for centuries. No stopping it, but we can slow it down and have a liveable climate. It would be very, very nice to continue the human experience. We can do it.”