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Desert locust swarms have been multiplying across East Africa and the Middle East since January as a result of unusual climate processes. The desert locusts are crop-devouring insects that travel in swarms over 1 200km in size and eat as much in a single day as 35 000 people. Swarms are now plaguing parts of India and Pakistan, and a second wave of locusts is beginning to form in Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan. The COVID-19 pandemic is hampering efforts to stop the spread of the swarms of locusts, exacerbating the pressure on the already food insecure region’s food supply.  

The current spate of locust swarms has affected communities in 23 countries, stretching from Tanzania to Pakistan. The locusts have most recently invaded Western India, affecting over 50 000 hectares of land, and Pakistan. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), an estimated 38% of Pakistan’s territory is now a ‘breeding ground’ for locusts, resulting in the worst locust plague in over three decades. 

In East Africa, the last major desert locust swarm hit at the end of the harvest season in February, resulting in an estimated US$8.5 billion in damages to crops, livestock and other assets. A new generation of locusts is now expected to hatch in the region in June. This may have an even greater impact on crops as this outbreak will coincide with the beginning of the harvest season. The new swarm is also expected to be larger. “I can’t tell you if it’s by 20 times, but [the population] is much bigger,” comments Cyril Ferrand, FAO Resilience Team Leader for East Africa. As a result, the FAO is predicting that up to 25 million East Africans may suffer from food shortages in 2020. 

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The outbreak of the COVID-19 virus has further complicated efforts to combat locusts. New safety regulations have disrupted supply chains, making it challenging to transport pesticides and other equipment to badly affected areas, while border closures have hampered essential personnel movement. Locust swarms travel quickly, covering up to 100km per day, so the ability to expediently move equipment and personnel is essential. 

While the world struggles to contain the COVID-19 virus, many communities affected by locusts feel like the swarms pose a more immediate threat. “Some people will even tell you that the locusts are more destructive than the coronavirus,” says Yoweri Aboket, a farmer in Uganda. The coronavirus has also impacted local communities’ ability to respond to the swarms threatening their livelihoods. “If the coronavirus was not around I could’ve sought help, but there’s nowhere I can run to now. All places are closed,” says Tiampati Leletit, a farmer in Northern Kenya.

The swarms are the result of unusually high levels of precipitation in the Arabian peninsula, likely caused by changes to the climate and environmental degradation. However, the response to the locust swarms also has the potential to negatively impact the environment. As locusts ravage crops, some farmers have had to resort to cutting down trees to sell for charcoal, resulting in deforestation. Efforts to combat the locusts also include widespread pesticide spraying, which can affect crop growth and lead to the death of domestic and wild animals. 

In January, the FAO appealed for $76 million in funds to support the fight against desert locusts, a sum that was upped to $153 million in April as the swarms expanded their range. So far, 85% of this target has been raised. With this sum, responders have been able to save up to 720 000 tons of wheat, enough to feed 5 million people. 

This is a promising start, but governments and organisations will need to continue to work together to curtail the locusts’ spread. During plagues, desert locusts can affect 20% of the world’s land mass, damaging the livelihoods of a tenth of the global population. This unprecedented risk has been complicated by the coronavirus, but we still have the opportunity to support those who are most vulnerable. The World Bank, for example, recently made $500 million available to preserve food security and protect the livelihoods of those impacted. Further similar efforts will be required in tandem with broader efforts aimed at combating the climate crisis that gave rise to this generation of locusts. 

This is a follow-up piece to Earth.Org’s first story about the locust swarms plaguing parts of Africa and Asia. See the first piece here.

Featured image by: Iwoelbern

A study shows that within 50 years, a billion people will either be displaced or forced to live in insufferable heat for every 1°C rise in global temperature, illustrating that the human cost of the climate crisis will be far worse than previously believed. 

The paper, which examines how the climate crisis will affect human habitats, warns that under worst-case scenarios of increasing emissions, areas where a third of the global population currently live will be as hot as the hottest parts of the Sahara desert within 50 years.

Even in the most optimistic outlook, a rise in global temperature will cause 1.2 billion people to fall outside the comfortable ‘climate niche’ where humans have lived for at least 6 000 years.

Tim Lenton, one of the researchers in the study, says, “The numbers are flabbergasting. I literally did a double take when I first saw them. I’ve previously studied climate tipping points, which are usually considered apocalyptic. But this hit home harder. This puts the threat in very human terms.”

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The majority of humans have always lived in regions where the average annual temperatures are around 6°C to 28°C, ideal for human health and food production. However, this range is shifting and shrinking as a result of anthropogenic climate change, which is dropping more and more people into what the paper describes as ‘near unliveable’ extremes.

The researchers say that they are shocked at how sensitive humanity is, because we are concentrated on land- which is warming faster than the oceans- and because most future population growth will be in already hot regions of Asia and Africa. Because of these demographic factors, the average human will experience a temperature increase of 7.5°C when global temperatures reach 3°C warming.

At this temperature, about a third of the world’s population would live in average temperatures of 29°C, conditions that are rare outside of the most scorched part of the Sahara, but with global heating of 3°C, this is expected to be the norm for 1.2 billion people in India, 485 million people in Nigeria and more than 100 million in each of Pakistan, Indonesia and Sudan. This would create hundreds of millions more climate refugees and pose challenges to food production systems. In fact, David Wallas- Wells, the author of “The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming,” says that even at 2.5°C warming, the world would enter a global food deficit- needing more calories than the planet can produce, mostly thanks to drought.

Professor Marten Scheffer, one of the lead authors of the study, says, ““We did not expect humans to be so sensitive. We think of ourselves as very adaptable because we use clothes, heating and air conditioning. But, in fact, the vast majority of people live- and have always lived- inside a climate niche that is now moving as never before. There will be more change in the next 50 years than in the past 6 000 years.”

The authors hope that their findings spur policymakers to accelerate emission cuts and work together to cope with migration.

In late 2018, the UN World Meteorological Organization warned that global temperatures are on course for a 3-5°C rise this century, far overshooting the Paris Agreement target of limiting this increase to 2°C or less by 2100.

According to estimates from over 70 peer-reviewed studies, Carbon Brief paints a grim picture of the world under 2°C, 3°C and 4°C temperature rise this century:

At two degrees, the melting of ice sheets will pass a tipping point of collapse, triggering flooding in dozens of the world’s major cities and resulting in a global sea-level rise of 56cm. It is estimated that that global GDP will be cut by 13%. 400 million more people will suffer from water scarcity and heat waves in the northern latitudes will kill thousands each summer; this will be worse along the equator. In India, there would be 32 times as many extreme heat waves, each lasting five times as long and exposing 93 times more people. This is our best-case scenario.

At three degrees, southern Europe will be in permanent drought. The average drought in Central America would last 19 months, in the Caribbean, 21 and in northern Africa, 60 months- five years. Those areas burned annually by wildfires would double in the Mediterranean and sextuple in the US. Cities from Miami Beach to Jakarta will be submerged by sea-level rise and damages from river flooding will grow 30-fold in Bangladesh, 20-fold in India and up to 60-fold in the UK. This level of warming is better than we’d do if all of the nations of the world honoured their Paris commitments- which only a handful are.

At four degrees, there would be eight million cases of dengue fever each year in Latin America alone. Global grain yields would fall by as much as 50%, producing annual or close-to-annual food crises. The global economy would fall more than 30% than without climate change, and we would see at least half again as much conflict and warfare as we do today.

While great strides have been made in terms of the plummeting costs of renewable energy and the increasing global divestment from coal, carbon emissions are still growing. It is important to decrease emissions to level and then bend the curve.

One way of doing this is through a carbon tax. However, a tax needs to be far higher than any of those currently in use or being considered; The IPCC has proposed raising the cost of a tonne of carbon possibly as high as US$5 000 by 2030; they suggest this may have to increase by US$27 000 by 2100. Today, the average price of carbon across 42 major economies is US$8 per tonne.

These numbers would shock even those most optimistic; if estimates are correct, then by the end of the century, a rise in global temperature will displace up to 5 billion people, nearly two-thirds of the current global population.

Featured image by: Oxfam East Africa

All around the world, high mountain ranges have glacial water supplies known as water towers, which account for half the global population’s freshwater supply. However, these ecosystems are highly vulnerable to subtle environmental changes and a recent report by Nature suggests that water towers may disappear in the next 30 years, threatening the water supply of nearly two billion people.

Rising global temperatures and reduced rainfall are the two main factors in the shrinking availability of water in water towers. While these areas usually act as natural reservoirs, providing populations with clean water even through droughts, less glacier ice and rapidly increasing water consumption are threatening this resource.

What are water towers?

The term ‘water tower’ describes the importance of mountains meeting freshwater needs for adjacent areas downstream. 

Mountainous regions generate higher runoff seasonally due to orographic precipitation- snow and rainfall caused by moist air rising over mountains. Due to low temperatures at high altitudes, water is stored in snow and glaciers in mountains, therefore delaying the release of water and enabling mountains to have a buffering capacity. 

What are water towers for?

This means that downstream and upstream communities have a consistent supply of water for irrigation, energy and local ecosystems from water towers. Mountain systems are also home to around 50% of the global biodiversity hotspots, containing one third of terrestrial species diversity and rich plant diversity. 

Apart from regulating the hydrosphere and biosphere, the world’s mountains provide a host of other ecosystem services such as food supply and genetic resources for agriculture and medicine, with major crops such as wheat, rice, oats and grapes having originated or diversified into multiple varieties in mountain regions. Further, various indigenous communities who live in these regions have a wealth of traditional knowledge on climate adaptation, water and land management that needs to be preserved. However, rising temperatures are reducing glacier mass and increasing the rate of ice melt in warmer months and there isn’t enough cold weather to make up for this during other parts of the year.

Importance of Water Towers

Until now, the world’s mountain systems have never been quantified according to their importance or vulnerability. Researchers set out to fill this gap and studied 78 water towers globally. They ranked mountain systems in order of their supply of water, and demand for this water from adjacent lowland communities. The water tower’s vulnerability to future shocks include factors like hydro-political tension, government effectiveness, climate change, population change, baseline water stress and projected change in GDP. The quality and quantity of these freshwater supplies are essential to large populations, especially considering that less than 1% of the earth’s water is fit for human consumption.

Water towers most threatened with future scarcity primarily exist in Asia. The most relied-upon water tower is the Indus Basin, supplying water to India, China, Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

In fact, nearly all important water towers in Asia, such as Amu Darya and Ganges-Brahmaputra, were found to be more vulnerable than mountains in other countries. This is because these regions tend to be transboundary, densely populated and have competing land use needs. Unfortunately, these factors are met with weak governance and geopolitical tension, amplified by the worsening effects of the climate crisis, leaving Asia’s water towers in a highly vulnerable state.

South America’s water towers are just as vulnerable, more so than Europe and North America. However, even mountain towers in the developed world like the Colorado River Basin, the Rhone and the Po are vulnerable to pressures such as population growth and temperature rise.

Anthropogenic changes, such as the climate crisis, have been long identified by scientists as a leading driver of unprecedented and irreversible changes in mountain systems. Mountains are warming faster than the global average- temperatures high in the Himalayas have increased by nearly 2 degrees Celsius since the start of the century, 1 degree higher than the planetary average. 

Population growth and increased consumption also deplete water resources in mountain regions. For example, the population in communities dependent on the Indus River is expected to increase by 50% in the next few decades. The human factor plays just as significant a role as reduced rainfall and higher temperatures, if not more, since human activity is proliferating these conditions.

The climate crisis will affect the shape and size of glaciers and the level, frequency and intensity of precipitation. Countries that are socioeconomically vulnerable facing issues such as conflict over water rights, such as India and Pakistan, will be hard hit by the climate crisis, even with minute changes in the hydrological cycle in mountains. 

What Are the Solutions?

Mitigating the effects of the climate crisis will be the most pressing issue of the future. If global warming increases by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, scientists predict that 80% of water in tower storage units will evaporate by the end of this century. 

Communities affected by the inevitable consequences of changing water towers such as reduced water shortage in mountains, are already adapting. In Ladakh, located in the Indian region of the Himalayas, an engineer Sonam Wangchuk has come up with a solution to bring glaciers to people. He builds glacier stupas, small piles of ice that provide irrigation for farmers to counter shrinking glaciers and unpredictable rainfall. 

The research concludes with a call to protect Earth’s water towers with a global, mountain-specific approach, focusing on local water conservation policy and transboundary cooperation in affected countries, along with global climate mitigation actions to prevent the degradation of the cryosphere.

Increased water usage by growing populations and heightened power generation are lowering water storage units faster than the environment can replenish itself. Better managing water resources will be significant in minimising the impact of upcoming scarcity and preserving precious water for future generations. 

This piece was written jointly by Emily Folk and Lavanya Prakash.

Extreme weather events as a result of the climate crisis have resulted in resource scarcity and famine. The Syrian civil war that began in 2011 (that is still continuing) has caused more than 5 million ‘climate refugees’ to move to Turkey and neighbouring countries. The root of this war can be traced back to the drought the country experienced before 2011. How is the climate crisis related to extremism?

Climate Change and Extremism

Lack of food, water and other resources has created opportunities for militant and extremist groups to seize control of resources and exploit them to get recruits to join their ranks in exchange for work and food. This strategy has been found to be used in extremist groups in North Pakistan, Syria, Iraq and West Africa, which experience extreme water stress and famine. 

The MENA region is home to 6% of the global population, but only 1% of the world’s freshwater resources, according to the World Bank. Some experts believe that drought played a role in sparking Syria’s civil war. The prolonged drought led to the death of 85% of livestock in eastern Syria and widespread crop failure, which pushed 800 000 people into food insecurity and triggered mass migration, contributing to civil unrest.

A 2017 report commissioned by the German foreign office claimed that the impacts of the drought were also linked to the growing influence of ISIS in the Middle East. According to the report, ISIS ‘tried to gain and retain legitimacy by providing water and other services to garner support from local populations’ during the prolonged drought.

According to experts, the diminishing water sources are ‘flashpoints for violence‘ as communities struggle with reduced crop yields and high levels of poverty. Extremism is sometimes the only option available.

However, other researchers have disputed how much of a role drought played in the conflict.

Further south, across the Sahel region, the impact of the climate crisis is shown by the shrinking of Lake Chad. Spanning seven countries, including Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon, the lake is vital to the likelihoods of nearly 30 million people. However, the lake’s water supply has shrunk by over 90% since the 1960s, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Robert Muggah, who analyses global climate and security challenges at the Igarape Institute, a think tank in Brazil, claims that the drying of Lake Chad has bolstered recruitment efforts of groups including Boko Haram, the militant group operating in Nigeria.

This strategy was also used during the Great Depression in the US in the 1930s, where Mafia leader Al Capone ran a soup kitchen for poor people in Chicago as a way to gain support from blue collar workers and recruit members into the ranks of the mafia when the government failed to give them sufficient support. In Morocco, a report found that the more tyrannical and corrupt the government, the more extremist activity that occurred. 

Ultimately the rise of extremism is the result of government mismanagement and failure to deal with a crisis. In the case of the climate crisis, many developing countries do not have the resources or technology to adapt or mitigate the impact of it, which leads to rebellion and social unrest. Further, when these climate refugees move to other countries (usually developed Western countries), clashes in ideology can also lead to extremism. 

Many leaders gearing towards extremism, like Osama bin Laden, included environmental issues in his propaganda to recruit supporters. The group used the West’s failure to act against the climate crisis through the exploitation of natural resources in developing countries as a way to recruit people. However, some militant groups also finance their activities through oil extraction, illegal logging and mining, and other environmentally destructive activities, exacerbating the climate crisis and further destabilising developing economies. 

This unending cycle has caused many people to be displaced and forced to migrate elsewhere. Host countries often view these migrants as economic migrants or asylum seekers, however if it was considered that the ultimate root cause of these migrations was climate change, perhaps the conversation around the issue would be different, one that prioritises getting to the root of the problem instead of the end result. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defines two types of climate refugees: ones that are created through sudden and temporary environmental changes, such as hurricanes and floods. However, more often than not, those that are affected will return to their homes. The other type of climate refugee is the pressured environmental migrant, that is created through the long-term gradual change in environment such as droughts, desertification and sea level rise. 

Positively, there are some countries that foresee the impacts of the climate crisis and are acting to mitigate its effects. The low-lying Pacific country of Kiribati has purchased land in Fiji to prepare for the migration of its population of over 100 000 people should sea level rise render the nation uninhabitable. The majority of the land of the island is below 2 meters above sea level which, in addition to increased frequency of storms, has contaminated the atoll’s groundwater. The country has determined that it will be cheaper to relocate than to protect the island against sea level rise. A similar relocation strategy has been considered by the Maldivian government, who pledged in 2009 to become the world’s first carbon-neutral country. 

Nations that will be most affected by the crisis would be remiss not to have the same considerations. 

The climate crisis also highlights inequality, called the climate caste system, whereby poor people and nations suffer the most from the climate crisis while wealthier people and nations suffer less, while emitting the most carbon. The Climate Vulnerability Index summarises regions in the world that are most vulnerable to the impacts of the climate crisis by calculating the development level of the region and the climate change impact. The index found that the Sahel region in Sub-Saharan Africa, South and Southeast Asia and Latin America all have a high risk of climate vulnerability. 

how the climate crisis fuels extremism
A map showing the Climate Change Vulnerability Index and the regions that will be most affected by the climate crisis (Source: Maplecroft).

Solutions?

A study found that relative to a world that did not warm beyond 2000-2010 levels, there will be reductions of 15-25% in per capita output by 2100 for 2.5-3°C of global warming implied by current national commitments, and reductions of more than 30% for 4°C warming. The IPCC found that the cost of stabilising CO2 to 445 ppm would correspond to ‘slowing average annual global GDP growth by less than 0.12%’. 

The study emphasises that the uncertainties surrounding the future impacts of the crisis include the spatial pattern of temperature change, how global and regional economic output will respond to these changes in temperature and how willing societies are to trade present for future consumption. Humanity needs to change their patterns of consumption to avoid catastrophic consequences. The cost of inaction will only increase every year, demanding immediate action. 

The climate crisis acts as a multiplier, especially in fragile countries held by weak governance, poor economic perspectives, food and water scarcity and failing local institutions. To effectively address the crisis, large consumer countries must invest significantly in sustainable alternatives and adaptation programmes, even if it opposes political and economic interests, which will reduce people’s vulnerability to extreme climatic events. The wealth gap between developed and developing nations needs to be narrowed if extremism is to be tackled.

Countries must become more climate resilient through diversifying crop production and investing in renewable energy, especially in Africa and the Middle East. Muggah says, “By strengthening and empowering local residents, the influence of extremism can be weakened.”

Cold War-era US reconnaissance satellites have gone out of orbit. But they have left images that reveal the horrifying realities of climate change. A new study based on declassified satellite imagery revealed that the melting of Himalayan glaciers has doubled since the turn of the 21st century, compared to the previous 25 years.

A team of researchers led by doctoral student Joshua Maurer, from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, analysed Cold War-era spy imagery combining it with modern satellite data and found that 8bn tonnes of ice are being lost every year. Over 650 of the largest glaciers across India, China, Nepal, and Bhutan, which together represent 55% of the region’s total ice volume, have lost the equivalent of a vertical foot and a half of ice each year this century due to global heating caused by human activities.

Earlier, scientists had documented the rate at which the Himalayas had lost ice mass in the course of this century using more sophisticated satellite imagery. But this is the first comprehensive look at the melting rates of the Himalayan glaciers over a 40-year time span.

The Once-Secret Source

During the 1970s and 1980s, at the height of the Cold War, a US spy programme–Hexagon–had launched 20 satellites into orbit to secretly photograph the Earth.  The satellite missions, run by the National Reconnaissance Office, sought to capture wide-ranging views of what transpired around the globe. Each satellite was the size of a truck and weighed over 15,000 kilograms. In all, they photographed some 877 million square miles of Earth.

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One of the satellites KH-9 Hexagon, commonly known as Big Bird, before the launch

The covert images were taken on rolls of film that were then dropped by the satellites into the atmosphere to be collected by military planes. The films were contained in metal canisters, which deployed their parachutes before being captured by high-flying spy planes. The materials were declassified in 2011, and have been digitised by the US Geological Survey for scientists to use.

Among the spy photographs are the Himalayas–an area for which historical data is scarce.

The photos had lain unused in archives for several years. The Columbia University team developed a computer software to turn these old photos into 3D maps allowing them to digitally explore the Himalayan surfaces as they appeared in 1975. They looked at 650 glaciers and compared them with modern satellite data from Nasa and the Japanese space agency (Jaxa) to create the first detailed, four-decade record of ice along the 2,000km mountain chain.

How fast are glaciers melting?

Researchers found that between 1975 and 2000, the average loss of glacial ice was about 25 cm per year, but this doubled to 50 cm in the 21st century. These are average figures, spread out across the region, and in the worst-hit areas, that ice loss is as much as 5 metres a year.

Warming air temperatures have accelerated ice loss. Inferring data from local weather stations, the team found temperatures in the Himalayas have risen one degree Celsius higher than those from 1975 to 2000.  The rising temperatures are consistent with the observed melting. Further calculations also confirmed that one degree was indeed enough to produce such a massive loss of glacier ice.

The Himalayas contain many different types of glaciers — such as those covered in debris or located near bodies of liquid water lakes — in many different environments.

The study concluded that the rate of melt was consistent across all the glaciers they studied.  “All of the glaciers have lost similar amounts of ice. It indicates there is one overarching factor causing this,” said lead researcher Josh Maurer. “Global temperature rise is the only one that makes sense.”

Map of glacier locations and geodetic mass balances for the 650 glaciers.
Circle sizes are proportional to glacier areas, and colors delineate clean-ice, debris-covered, and lake-terminating categories. Insets indicate ice loss, quantified as geodetic mass balances plotted for individual glaciers along a longitudinal transect during 1975–2000 and 2000–2016. Both inset plots are horizontally aligned with the map view. Gray error bars are 1σ uncertainty, and the yellow trend is the (area-weighted) moving-window mean, using a window size of 30 glaciers.

Why are glaciers important?

Glacier loss at this rate points to an impending threat that might devastate an entire region of South Asia in the near future. Glaciers are a key source of fresh water for both natural ecosystems and nearby human communities, helping to feed mountain streams as they melt during the summer months. More than 800 million people from China, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh rely on seasonal Himalayan runoff for irrigation, hydropower, and drinking water. The ice and snow in the region are the source for Asia’s mighty rivers including the Indus, the Yangtze, and the Ganga-Brahmaputra. As these glaciers shrink, they could alter the local hydrology and disrupt the water supplies. As a result, densely populated areas in South Asia would face more severe water crisis than ever before.

Melting glaciers pose another unpredictable danger: disastrous floods. Glacial water gets blocked by piles of rubble and forms glacial lakes that can burst and flood villages and cities downstream. These lake outburst floods have killed thousands of people in the Andes, Himalayas, and Alps in the past. In May 2012, one such flood killed over 60 people in villages near Pokhara, Nepal; it also destroyed houses and infrastructure.

Another study published last February projected that, even in the best-case scenario, if the world rapidly decarbonised and was carbon neutral by 2050, limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the Himalayan glaciers are still melting rapidly and stand to lose a third of their total ice, because the peaks are warming at a faster rate than the global average.

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