Possibly more than any other climate catastrophe is the specter of drought. It is true that a hotter climate pumps more moisture into the atmosphere, and does bring more rain. But the extreme climate fluctuations cause more severe storms not necessarily where rain is needed. By the same token, more severe drought is tending to scorch areas where rainfall has diminished. Storms and flooding certainly can inflict immediate destruction, but drought desiccates entire regions for extended periods, killing ecosystems and economic systems both.
As drought is becoming more widespread – in the Pacific Northwest, the Amazon basin, Central America, the Sahel in Africa, Mongolia – a recent study published in Science Advances is predicting a 21st Century drought in the U.S. southwest and the High Plains, possibly for 100 years – US faces worst droughts in 1,000 years, predict scientists.
The Ogallala Aquifer, also known as the High Plains Aquifer, underlies an estimated 174,000 square miles of the Central Plains, mostly under Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, but also areas in New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota. The Ogallala is one of the largest underground freshwater sources in the world, holding as much water as Lake Huron. These agricultural states are already experiencing drought, prompting farmers to pump the Ogallala Aquifer at an alarming rate.
But as 60 years of pumping have pulled groundwater levels down by scores of feet, as much as 250 feet in southwest Kansas, most of the creeks and rivers that once veined the land have dried up. Throughout the 20th Century, the US Geological Survey estimates irrigation depleted the aquifer by 253 million acre-feet, about nine percent of its total volume. The Denver Post analyzed federal data and found that the aquifer shrank twice as fast from 2011 through 2017 as it had over the previous 60 years.
This is not sustainable. Considering the drought, some options are to switch from growing very thirsty corn to more dryland crops like winter wheat, beans, or sunflowers, to rely less on cornfed feedlot cattle, and to adopt no-till methods plus cover crops. But all the same, it still comes down to water. To address the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer, two counties in far west-central Kansas are exploring natural ways of recharging the aquifer.
An initiative begun in 2016 by the Wichita County Water Conservation Area (WCA) has been awarded $1.4 million by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to study how playa wetland lakes can help recharge the Ogallala – NRCS Awards $1.4 Million to Support Local Water Sustainability Project. Partnering in this effort will be Greely County Conservation District, the Kansas Association of Conservation Districts, the Playa Lakes Joint Venture, and Ducks Unlimited, in a program called the Groundwater Recharge and Sustainability Project (GRASP).
Playas are shallow, circular-shaped wetlands that are primarily filled by rainfall, although some playas found in cropland settings may also receive water from irrigation runoff. Some think that playas are carved by wind, but it’s more likely they are formed by land subsidence – in other words, sinkholes. Playas are ephemeral, filling only from Spring rainfall, and the average size being 3.7 acres. Recent research has revealed that water provided by playa wetlands adds three inches to the level of the Ogallala aquifer each year – Playas – Ephemeral Wetlands of the Great Plains – KU Aquatic Ecology Lab.
According to Abe Lollar, a biologist with Ducks Unlimited, native prairie shortgrass seed mixes are a necessary part of the playa restoration process. The planted grass buffer acts like a natural water filter. Rainwater from surrounding fields runs into the playa and carries sediment and contaminants with it. The shortgrass will stop much of the sediment from entering the playa and improve the quality of the water entering the aquifer. It will also provide habitat and a food source for birds and pollinators.
Playa lakes are arguably the most significant ecological feature in the High Plains, even though they cover only 2 percent of the region’s landscape. Supposedly there are more than 80,000 playas scattered across the Great Plains. The Kansas Geological Survey reported that varied estimates put the number of High Plains playas between 25,000 and 60,000. However University of Kansas researchers recently identified more than 22,000 in Kansas alone. No one has ever tried to count them all – Playas in Kansas and the High Plains.
The Amazon Rainforest is a moist broadleaf forest that covers 5.5 million square kilometers (1.4 billion acres) of the Amazon Basin which totals 7 million square kilometers (1.7 billion acres). Over half of the rainforest is located in Brazil but it is also located in other South American countries including Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, Guyana, Bolivia, Suriname and French Guiana. The Amazon represents over half of the planet’s rainforests, comprising the largest and most species-rich tract. It is home to half of all life on the planet.
It’s also commonly said that “the Amazon Rainforest is the lungs of the planet, producing 1/4 of Earth’s oxygen. Yes and no. Being such a huge aggregation of plants (making oxygen through photosynthesis), it does produce 20 times more oxygen than humans need. But none of the oxygen leaves the Amazon, because all the animal life there uses it among themselves. Nevertheless, the Amazon is critically instrumental in the larger process, indirectly supporting oxygen production. The process starts in Africa, in a place called the Bodélé Depression of the Sahara Desert.
10,500 years ago, a 5000 year period of monsoon rains over the Sahara Desert transformed the region into lush and habitable savanna. A number of low areas became lakes, and as with other bodies of water, there flourished an organism, four times thinner than a human hair, called a diatom, a type of phytoplankton. Each diatom lives only six days, yet they amass in vast numbers by doubling their population every 24 hours. After each boom-bust cycle, billions of dead diatoms settle to the bottom of oceans or seas, accumulating in thick layers. The key to future oxygen cycles lie in two essential minerals in the diatoms’ “skeletons” – phosphorous and iron – Saharan Dust Feeds Amazon’s Plants, and The Amazon Rainforest Gets Half Its Nutrients From a Single, Tiny Spot in the Sahara.
The Bodélé Depression in central Chad is an ancient dried up seabed, consisting of millions of tons of dead diatoms. From this site, and others in the Sahara, strong winds pick up 182 million tons of diatom dust each year and carry it across the Atlantic Ocean, where rains deposit about 72 million tons of it over the Amazon basin. The diatom-laden rain fertilizes the Amazon forest with phosphorous, replenishing the supply of this essential mineral which had leached away over the previous year. In turn, the rainforest trees transevaporate moisture from the soil up through their leaves. For example each Brazil Nut Tree, one of what are called “super trees”, lifts 260 gallons of water into the air daily – The Amazon’s Brazil nut tree creates its own rainfall — and it’s in danger. Each morning, a huge upward torrent of fog emanates from the treetops, condensing as it cools to form clouds. These rain clouds head west, encounter the Andes, and release the rain, which leaches phosphorous from the soil and carries it to the ocean to nourish the growth of diatoms.
The last stage of oxygen production is triggered by trace amounts of iron carried in the African diatom dust. Much of the deep ocean is devoid of iron, making it blue, while iron-rich coastal waters are green with biological growth. Iron is a limiting factor for plant metabolism, and diatoms need iron to photosynthesize and make oxygen. The dust from the Bodélé Depression contains iron, and only trace quantities are needed. The amount of iron needed in a ton of water would weigh about as much as a single eyelash. Between 71% and 87% of the iron in seawater samples originated in dust storms from the Sahara desert, enabling the diatoms to flourish and produce oxygen – Desert Dust Feeds Deep Ocean Life.
Unfortunately, as with other oceanic organisms, warming ocean temperatures due to climate disruption slow the growth of diatoms. The primary function of diatoms are as phytoplanktons making oxygen. Most data sources attribute 50% of the oxygen on Earth to diatoms, though some estimates are even higher. However, a study done at the University of Leicester has shown that if ocean temperatures rise around six degrees Celsius, oxygen production by phytoplankton could cease by disrupting the process of photosynthesis. The study’s lead analyst said “About two-thirds of the planet’s total atmospheric oxygen is produced by ocean phytoplankton, and therefore cessation would result in the depletion of atmospheric oxygen on a global scale. This would likely result in the mass mortality of animals and humans” – Failing phytoplankton, failing oxygen: Global warming disaster could suffocate life on planet Earth.
A lecture by Rev. Michael Dowd:
Ecology Must Be the Heart of Theology
Friday, 18 May 2018, 7:00-8:30pm
Science and religion are not enemies; indeed they must work together if humanity is to survive the 21st century. Given our impact on Earth’s climate, the seas and other species, humanity is facing “the Great Reckoning” that can also be “the Great Homecoming,” as our prodigal species comes home to reality.
This presentation focuses on points of agreement held in common by tens of millions of religious and non-religious people across the globe. It will inspire and encourage you in the face of changing climate and other environmental and societal challenges.
Sustainability Action Network seeks to facilitate discourse that leads to Action towards an ecologically sustainable Earth. Michael Dowd brings a unique and compelling perspective into issues of faith, science and our future.
Friday May 18 7:00- 8:30PM
Wakarusa Wetlands Discovery Center
1365 N 1250 Rd, Lawrence, KS 66046-9618
Tickets available at: https://ecologyandtheology.brownpapertickets.com
A science-based, deep-time big picture is vital for staying sane and sober in chaotic and contracting times. An evidential “dark optimism” can help us accept what is inevitable, avoid what is futile, and be a blessing to friends, family, and neighbors in a difficult and uncertain world.
The techno-fetish religion of growth everlasting was never sustainable. We tolerated it is because religion has been asleep at the wheel for centuries owing to idolatry of the written word, idolatry of the otherworldly, and idolatry of beliefs.
Anthropocentrism led us to defile primary reality — the climate, forests, soils, seas, and life upon which we depend. And now we are in the early stages of the Great Reckoning. The good news is that this may also be the Great Homecoming — the prodigal species coming home to Reality. By shifting from human-centered to life-centered measures of progress and success we can, once again, become integral members of the community of life.
By honoring the evolutionary significance of religion and the religious significance of science, we can experience a deep and profound love of life, trust in death, and passion for posterity. At the intersection of science, inspiration, and sustainability we find that ‘reality is divine’ and ‘ecology must be the heart of theology.’ Such a pro-future sacred realism clarifies our predicament and our way forward. MD
Rev. Michael Dowd is a bestselling eco-theologian and pro-science, pro-future ‘evangelist’ whose work has been featured in The New York Times, LA Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Newsweek, Discover, and on television nationally.
His book, Thank God for Evolution, was endorsed by 6 Nobel Prize-winning scientists, noted skeptics, and by religious leaders across the spectrum. Michael has delivered two TEDx talks, a program at the United Nations, and he and his wife, science writer and climate activist, Connie Barlow, have spoken to some 2,500 groups across North America since 2002.
He has also conducted an online conversation series: “The Future Is Calling Us to Greatness. Rev. Dowd’s entire body of “deep sustainability” text, audio, and video resources are accessible here and here. http://thegreatstory.org/new.html