The Science of Super-Droughts—Interview w/Julio Herrera Estrada

Terrible droughts driven by climate change can increase greenhouse gas emissions in an unexpected way. When the reservoirs at electric power dams run low, utilities make up the difference by burning more fossil fuels. In a new case study of the American West, the extra emissions are significant. That is just one part of the big story emerging as the world warms.

Our guest is a drought specialist from Stanford University’s Department of Earth System Science. Julio Herrera Estrada is a Postdoctoral Scholar with published research on droughts in Mexico, the United States, and Africa. His Pd.D. thesis surprised me. I thought drought appeared in one place, and then perhaps in another region, but Julio’s research shows droughts can travel.

Show by Radio Ecoshock, reposted under CC License. Episode details at https://www.ecoshock.org/2019/01/global-heat-alert.html

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SHOW NOTES
We talk about Julio’s recent paper “Response of electricity sector air pollution emissions to drought conditions in the western United States.” That was published December 21st, 2018 in Environmental Research Letters.

Drought drives electric utilities to emit more emissions in two different ways. First giant power dams lose water capacity during a drought. Second, when water power is not available, some western states kick in natural gas generators, while others turn to coal. That make a significant difference in emissions.

A 2016 Technical report from National Renewable Energy Laboratory found “43 incidents of water-related power plant issues from 2000 to 2015… These incidents occur throughout the United States and affect coal and nuclear plants...” Drought can drive shutdowns of fossil fuel or even nuclear power plants.

When we think of big water users, it’s usually agriculture. But that NREL report says about 41% of all water withdrawal in the U.S. is for the thermal electric power industry. There are two factors leading to shutdowns (a) there is enough water but it is too hot and (b) there is not enough water.

A January 2016 Letter in Nature Climate Change, led by Michelle van Vliet, found, quote, “reductions in usable capacity for 6174% of the hydropower plants and 8186% of the thermoelectric power plants worldwide for [the period] 20402069.” Drought will be one factor in that.

There have been a lot of severe droughts in the U.S. in the last ten years. These include the 2011 drought in Texas, one in the U.S. Central Great Plains in 2012, and a five-year monster in California from 2012 to 2017. That has gone beyond “normal”. After a 2005 study of a three-million acre die-off of vegetation in 2002-2003, Dr. Jonathan Overpeck, then at the University of Arizona, raised the question of whether we are at the “dawn of the super-interglacial drought.”

In the February 2015 issue of Science Advances, Benjamin Cook and his co-authors published the ominous paper “Unprecedented 21st century drought risk in the American Southwest and Central Plains“. They suggest coming mega-droughts worse then records measured for Medieval Times.

Most people do not realize our current society is still a hydrological civilization. We collect water in the spring to irrigate farm lands during the growing season, for water power, and for water hungry cities. Is it possible some parts of the planet will become less viable simply due to irregular and unpredictable water supplies?

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