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Preparing for the New Normal: The Short and Long Term Costs of Drought and Wildfires

More than half of the United States is enduring an unrelenting drought that research reveals is a level of severity that only happens once in 800 years. As of August 14, 2012, the US Drought Monitor reports that 61.77% of the contiguous US is officially experiencing moderate to extreme drought, the highest percentage in over half a century.

This severe drought, which reflects climate change model projections of increasing weather extremes, has already taken its toll on the agriculture industry. According to the USDA Crop Progress Report for August 20th, 51% of corn crops in 18 producing states rated poor to very poor, and 37% of soybean crops rated the same. Low ratings and increasing area affected by drought are devastating to farmers, but the true cost goes far beyond the agriculture industry. Crop insurers in the US have reportedly paid out $822 million dollars for losses this season to date. It is still too early to determine what the final bill will be at the season’s end. However, predictions include a global rise in food prices and limited availability of feed for livestock.

Canada is not escaping the extreme weather and associated impacts to agriculture. Most of central and eastern Canada is experiencing drought as well, says David Phillips, a senior climatologist at Environment Canada. In a July 15th CBC News article on the increased heat and decreased precipitation around Canada, Phillips commented, “I’d call it a drought, no question about it.” The article goes on to explain the vulnerability of corn crops to the extreme reduction in precipitation. Evan Fraser of the University of Guelph told CBC that corn prices have risen about 30% in recent weeks. The cost of reduced crop quality and production will inevitably be passed to the consumer.

Unfortunately, the direct costs of rising insurance premiums and increased food prices may not be the worst of it. Drought can have long-term impacts on land and water resources, especially when wildfires enter the picture. Wildfires associated with drought have an immediate impact on watersheds: lost vegetation allows for increased flows, which often lead to extreme flood events and erosion of the already deteriorated landscape. This phenomenon is relatively well understood and coping mechanisms, though largely reactionary, are often in place. The long-term impacts are not as well known and could severely change ecosystem functions we depend on.

In a June 4th National Geographic article, Sandra Postel described research conducted on an Australian watershed that demonstrates how wildfires will, in the long term, reduce flows in a watershed. The Murray Darling Basin Authority and the Victoria state government commissioned the research to study the impacts of an extreme wildfire in the Murray River Basin. The research shows that the increased flows that follow a wildfire are lost after a few years as the watershed regenerates and growing vegetation consumes more water. Flows are notably lower for up to 15-25 years after the fire.

Some impacts of climate change will be realized in the next few years, but other problems could take decades to surface, and their level of severity is far more uncertain. Governments need policies and programs in place that enable society to adapt to increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events like drought and wildfire. ACT’s 2009 Climate Change Adaptation and Extreme Weather report provides a blueprint for an intergovernmental framework to support community-based adaptation for such events. This would be an important step forward in building adaptive capacity of short-term impacts.

Long-term impacts will require a more in-depth and collaborative strategy to adapt; they will require a new way of thinking about ecosystem goods and services. ACT’s 2011 Climate Change Adaptation and Water Governance report recommends a new Canadian water ethic be created and championed by a non-statutory National Water Commission. The new water ethic would promote monitoring and research of unknowns, repair fragmented policy, and integrate recognition of ecological flows into water policy.

Lauren Klose
ACT Water Governance Intern
Masters Candidate, SCARP, UBC

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  1. [...] rain, drought, and extreme storms all have the potential to devastate food production.  The long drought experienced by much of Canada and the US this summer is just one of the ways in which climate [...]

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