Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Drought and CO2 emissions

I just started reading Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (thank you Seattle Public Library!) and wanted to share something I ran across last night that I thought was interesting.

Apparently, it is quite common that, during periods of drought, plants act differently regarding absorbing CO2. For example, during the heatwave of 2003 in Europe, not only did scientists see a 30 percent drop in plant growth across the continent (due to high temperatures and drought), but instead of absorbing carbon dioxide from the air, the stressed plants actually began to emit it.

Around a half a billion tons of carbon was added to the atmosphere that summer as a result, which is the equivalent to one-twelfth of the total global emissions from fossil fuels. In fact, during the 1998 - 2002 droughts in the Northern Hemisphere, over a billion tons of extra carbon poured out of the plants and soils in response to the drought and heat. [p. 82]

So, there's another one of those hidden variables that isn't very obvious. It's bad enough that there's such dramatic impact as a result of higher temperatures on the planet, but I still can't get over the fact that 10,000 people died in Paris that summer (2003) from heatstroke. Can you imagine that happening in any one of our American cities? Do you think we are at all better equipped to deal with that many patients than Paris? I doubt it.

I'll share more tidbits with you as I read them!


Shandy said...

I'm not sure we're better equipped, but an upside of living in a more "decadent" society is the preponderance of air conditioners in the U.S. (even in the north) as opposed to Paris, where they aren't common. As long as you can afford the electricity to run them, that is. Your post seems so timely to me since just a few days ago on NPR they were talking about California's drought and the looming potential for serious water rationing and their inability to send water to the farms in the Central Valley. Images of the dustbowl in reverse?

Unknown said...

I read 6 Degrees last year and loved it - although some of it is quite frankly terrifying!

You should also check out Lynas's first book, High Tide, which also deals with climate change (as well as his inadvertent attempt to kill himself in the Andes!)

Anonymous said...

I just ordered 6 Degrees and am impatient to read (the local store didn't have it in stock).

As for heat waves...I do think the US is better equipped than Europe for heat waves. If we have electricity, we have a plethora of public spaces that are air conditioned. We also have established protocols and programs to distribute fans and open up airconditioned spaces to the public.

Europe is largely un-airconditioned and they don't seem to use fans as much as we do,which is why their heat wave was so devastating. I was actually in the UK at the start of that particular heat wave and can see how it would be easy for heat to pick off the weak and frail.


Farmer's Daughter said...

Plants *always* emit CO2 as a part of cellular respiration... breaking down sugars for energy (our cells do that, too). In extreme drought, photosynthesis will slow considerably because water is required for the chemical reaction (6CO2 + 6H2O --> C6H12O6 + 6O2)

So when photosynthesis slows, there is not the net result of CO2 being absorbed, rather it's a net release of CO2.

As for Six Degrees, one of my students read it for her book review last year. After her presentation, the class was silent. I asked her if Mark Lynas was some crackpot or a respected scientist... she said she looked into that too and he's a respected scientist.

Also... National Geographic has turned the book into a documentary called Six Degrees... for those of you who don't have time to read the book.

Anonymous said...

I live in Paris and we were here at the start of that heat wave in 2003. It got to be really hot. It stopped cooling down at night, at least to any level of relief. I think all those deaths came about partly because people here aren't used to dealing with temperatures THAT high (you need to adopt ALL the tricks: closing windows and curtains during the day, not moving too much until the sun goes down, drinking lots of water, even wetting your arms and head, and letting evaporation help to cool you, with the help of a fan).

The other big factor was older folks, who don't always notice that they are thirsty and can get really dehydrated. People didn't realize how big the risks were, and how people needed to be looked out for.

In Greece, where we visit family a lot, it often gets up to well over 100 F in the summer. There, the people are more used to dealing with it (think "siesta"). They don't even drive with AC, since that would cost too much in gas. Instead you drive with the windows open and a big scarf on, if you have long hair that you want to keep unmatted.

It's true that in the U.S., people are less at risk from the heat due to all the AC (which IMHO maintains the temperature WAY too low - I have to go outside periodically to warm up). But then if breakdowns or blackouts occur in the electricity supply, people will be all the more vulnerable and unused to coping without the AC.

Crunchy Chicken said...

Corinne brings up an excellent point regarding black or brownouts when temperatures soar and the strain on the electrical grid is high. I suspect we'll see more heat waves and more power outages as global heating increases and Americans won't be so easily "insulated" from the resulting health problems.

I was thinking more in terms of area hospitals and their ability (or not) of handling that many people. That seemed to be the bottleneck in Paris.

If power is still available in the US during heatwaves, then public air conditioned spaces are clearly lifesavers.

Crunchy Chicken said...

Abbie - Thanks for adding the science to the statements made in the book. Equations weren't included, but this helps (for me at least) explain the mechanisms behind it.

-Deanna (who took more physics than biology)

Sharlene said...

We had a horrible heatwave in 2006 and people did die but what seemed to be impacted alot more was livestock. Thousands of heads of cattle were lost. People can go to public air conditioning locations but animals can't. Also- I think if you are used to the heat its easier to deal. It got into the 90s in my house last year with no AC but it was more miserable than life threatening. We went to air conditioned locals or played in water.

Anonymous said...

I just picked this book up from our local library yesterday and should start reading it within a day or two, so I'm glad you're posting tidbits as you read the book.

Where I live (west-central Texas), we're already seeing temps that we usually do not see for another month or two -- we've had a number of days in the high-80's and low- to mid-90's, and we've not had a good rain since last September. This does not bode well for May thru August, which are typically high-90's and into the 100's and dry-ish.

Yes, I can imagine 10,000 people dying in one of our cities due to heatstroke, especially in cities along the southern coast where humidity remains high and your body simply cannot cool off (I'm specifically thinking of Houston, where I lived for many years), especially when brownouts and blackouts occur because of high temps and A/Cs being run more than usual.

Public spaces may be useful during the daytime, assuming those people who cannot afford to run their A/C have a way to get to those public spaces, but what about nighttime? Nighttime can be quite brutal when it's been 100+ degrees during the day and the nighttime temps are still in the mid- to high-80's for days on end. You just don't get a sense of relief from the heat at any point.

Our little city of 100,000 is the big city for many of the surrounding rural areas. When my kiddo was sick Jan. 2007, the doctor wanted to admit him to the hospital overnight, but then the doctor found out the pediatrics ward was full because so many kids were in the hospital because of the flu (dehydration) -- this is a typical scenario around here during flu season, kids and the elderly being admitted for dehydration when sick with the flu. We ended up bringing kiddo home, much to his and our relief, and that worked out just fine. But I definitely believe bottlenecks at our two local hospitals would be a huge problem if we started having lots of people needing to be treated and/or admitted for heatstroke, especially if folks from the surrounding rural areas were also needing that medical assistance.

Kristijoy said...

You might like this article too. blah.

Oldnovice said...

Where I live (west-central Texas), we're already seeing temps that we usually do not see for another month or two -- we've had a number of days in the high-80's and low- to mid-90's, and we've not had a good rain since last September. This does not bode well for May thru August, which are typically high-90's and into the 100's and dry-ish.

I hear ya, Glenda. We've already got the windows open and a cross-breeze blowing through the house. Just finished "early Spring - HAH!" planting and now researching mulches/companion plants to keep the soil from drying out so fast.

Alison Kerr said...

I know from working outside in spring and summer that it is really easy to get overheated. One thing that is not obvious is that the body stays hot even after the ambient temperature drops at night. I would work outside in 90F or so, taking breaks in the A/C of our truck to cool myself down. Then at night when I was camping the air temperature would be cooler, but the humidity went up. I'd wake up very hot and dehydrated. Even though I was long done with working I think I was still producing heat from the work earlier.

The body does adapt, but it seems to take about 6 weeks. Not everyone seems to be able to adapt to the same extent. I do better in a 68F house than my hubby does, but he does much better with the heat than I do.

I'm not worried about hospital capacity in my area - we seem to be oversupplied with facilities from what I can see. Now, whether we have the staff available to cope I don't know. I know that in Scotland there is a chronic shortage of hospital accommodation. From the New Scientist climate change map though we may all be planning to move to Scotland!

The Crone at Wits End said...

May I gently suggest that you read some of the many wonderful Australian blogs.

Over here parts of Australia are in severe drought, have harsh water usage restrictions and summer temperatures that boil your tomatoes on the vine (my garden thermometer reaches 45 (113) easily in summer)

You have to learn a whole different way of gardening and living. As the previous poster said, you wear hats, shade your houses, close the curtains, drink more water and move at a slower pace of life.

Lisa said...

That's not good. Where I live in Oklahoma is in a drought right now. We are having fires like crazy. It looks like rain right now but only a 10% chance...

Jamey and Carol said...

The ScienceDaily news link didn't work (chopped off the end), but here it is:

The gist is that the tropical rainforest shows the same pattern under drought - releasing 150% of the carbon they store (releasing 3 billion tons instead of storing 2 billion tons = 2 - (-3) = +5 billion tons into the air).

On the non-drought front, the Guardian UK reported on a talk from Copenhagen that the warming in humid areas may be bad news in a different way. No ability to sweat (or evapotranspire for our photosynthetic friends). Aussies will get a drier heat, the Southeast may be unliveable in Summer 2099 because of heatstroke as average temps rises 7-10C (11-16 F)(that's the new high-end of IPCC scenarios).

Diane MacEachern said...

Thanks for reminding of about this very important consequence of climate change. Drought is affecting all parts of the U.S. - the Great Lakes are lower, water is being rationed in Atlanta, and of course, there's almost no water of any consequence in the midwest anymore. Conservation is going to be critical and for many years to come if we all want to be able to quench our thirst while we're doing what we can to burn less fossil fuels!