Is our Surface Water Being Threatened by Climate Change?
Fresh surface water is water that is found on Earth’s surface that has a very low amount of dissolved salts. For the purposes of this discussion, this will include all water on earth except the oceans and ground water. Fresh water is very important because an estimated 76.5% of the water that humans use (in the USA) is obtained from surface water. The rest of our water comes from groundwater supplies.
Climate change means that there is an observable change in weather patterns over a long period of time. Current climate prediction models show that there will (and has been) significant changes in the global quantity and distribution of rainfall and evapo-transpiration. More simply put, the dynamic of the hydrologic cycle is changing. Some parts of the world are experiencing unprecedented droughts, while other are experiencing record flooding.
As many as 1 in 8 people on the earth don’t have access to clean, safe water. Climate change has and is expected to continue to exacerbate this fundamental problem. We will see the greatest effect of climate change on the developing nations of the Middle East and Africa. An increase in global temperatures will increase the drought problems that already exist there. It is predicted that within 100 years climate change will strain our fresh surface water supplies to an extent never seen before.
Once inhabitable and thriving places may succumb to droughts that never end (as experienced recently in Texas, USA). Another good example of a severe drought is the one experienced in the great plains region of the United States in the 1930's.. Lack of water for years turned this once thriving agricultural area into a practical ‘dust bowl.'
When there is a lack of precipitation, it leads to an increased strain on our other fresh water supplies. It not unlikely that larges pipes will have to be constructed all over the United States to import water from neighboring countries that have water supplies. In fact, concern over drought in the Colorado river basin is so strong that four major American Water Districts are in talks to import water from Mexican desalination plants. Obviously the idea of importing water has some major implications of its own.
Climate change will have a huge effect on our frozen surface water as well. Glaciers and icebergs, which hold a large quantity of freshwater, are melting at an increasing rate. When they melt, the water mixes with the ocean and becomes un-drinkable. This will also displace many people who currently rely on glaciers for their drinking water. Glacier melt is predicted to cause an estimated 3-foot rise in the oceans. Besides displacing many people, many of our surface water reservoirs, rivers, and lakes will become inundated with seawater. Ocean rise would have profound consequences on flood-prone countries and trigger more severe weather around the world which could lead to additional contamination of fresh water reserves. This rise in the ocean will also completely eliminate several sources of water currently available to us.
As the global climate naturally changes (as it has done for millions of years), society will have to adjust accordingly. There is plenty of evidence to support that the climate is indeed changing. However, the degree and severity of humanity's impact on it is debatable. In either case, mother nature will plot its own course into the future. Perhaps the only thing that we can do is convince our nation's leaders that the future lies not with growth and consumption but with conservation and sustainability instead.
References & Resources
Bigg, Mathew. Town Learns to Live with Water 3 Hours a Day. November 22, 2007. <http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21582319/ns/weather/t/town-learns-live-water-hours-day/#.TolJv9SyDV4>.
Boyd, Robert S. Glaciers Melting Worldwide, Study Finds. August 21, 2002. <http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2002/08/0821_020821_wireglaciers.html>.
Earman, Sam. Possible Impacts Of Climate Change On Groundwater And Surface Water Resources In The Western U.S.A. October 31, 2007. <http://gsa.confex.com/gsa/2007AM/finalprogram/abstract_129272.htm>
Fox News Latino. US Looks to Mexico for More Water. October 16, 2011. <http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/news/2011/10/16/us-looks-to-mexico-for-more-water/>
Hylton, Hilary. The Great State of Texas: The Drought That Wouldn't Leave Has Lone Star Farmers Scared. August 10, 2011. <http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2087489,00.html>
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The Regional Impacts of Climate Change: An Assessment of Vulnerability. November 1997. <http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/special-reports/spm/region-en.pdf>
Miller, Kathleen Dr. Climate Change Impacts on Water. November, 2011. <http://www.isse.ucar.edu/water_climate/impacts.html>
National Academy of Sciences. Global Warming Facts and Our Future. October 2, 2011. <http://www.koshland-science-museum.org/exhibitgcc/causes01.jsp>
National Resources Defense Council. Climate Change, Water, and Risk: Current Water Demands Are Not Sustainable. July, 2010. < http://www.nrdc.org/globalwarming/watersustainability/files/WaterRisk.pdf>
RealClimate. How much future sea rise? More evidence from models and ice sheet observations. March 26, 2006. <http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2006/03/catastrophic-sea-level-rise-more-evidence-from-the-ice-sheets/>