Cape Buffalo, Bison and Water

By Bianca T. Esposito, NWNL Research Intern
(Edited by Alison M.  Jones, NWNL Director)

NWNL research intern Bianca T. Esposito is a senior at Syracuse University studying Biology and minoring in Economics. Her research this summer is on the intertwined relationships of biodiversity and our water resources. This is Bianca’s second blog on Biodiversity for NWNL. Read her first blog on wild Salmon here.

This blog compares how water impacts the health of sub-Sahara’s Cape buffalo populations to how North America’s bison impact the health of our water resources.  This investigation covers three of our NWNL case study watersheds: Africa’s Mara and Nile River Basins, and North America’s Mississippi River Basin.

The Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer caffer) is found in Kenya’s Mara River Basin savanna and Uganda’s Nile River Basin plains. The bison (Bison bison) used to dominate the Mississippi River Basin’s Great Plains and are still there in scattered small populations. Both species are large, herbivorous mammals that primarily graze on tall-grass ecosystems. However, their habitats and connections to water differ significantly.

Africa’s Cape buffalo migrate seasonally in large herds on cyclical routes dependent on fluctuations in water availability. They move out of areas with limited resources and into areas where moisture and nutrients are available. Cape buffalo also migrate away from their habitat when water levels increase, since flooding restricts their foraging abilities. In these cases, Cape buffalo move to a drier habitat where, in turn, they may experience drought. Either way, when resources become low, their vulnerability becomes high.

Jones_090927_K_9062.jpgA lone Cape Buffalo bull in Kenya’s Mara Conservancy (© Alison M. Jones)

Africa’s famed Serengeti-Mara Ecosystem is located throughout northern Tanzania and extends into Kenya. Much of this region is situated within the Mara River Basin. In the Serengeti National Park, the migration pattern of the Cape buffalo, similar to that of the wildebeest-zebra migration, is dependent on the fluctuation of rainfall each year. Generally, this journey begins in April when Cape buffalo depart their southern plains habitat to head north. This movement is triggered by the onset of heavy rain that floods the plains, reducing the Cape buffalo’s ability to graze. By May the herd is in the northwest Serengeti, where the dry season lasts through July and proximity to the equator allows rainfall to be more evenly distributed, allowing greater opportunities for foraging. Then, in August, the late dry season hits, causing the herd to move further north. On their venture north, they cross the Mara River into Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve. The Cape buffalo remain here enjoying green pastures until November, albeit subject to drought if there’s no rainfall. In December, usually the first rainfall comes which they sense as the onset of the rainy season. They then trek back into Tanzania’s southern plains for the wet season. From January to April, they graze there on plentiful, nutritious grasses.  

Syncerus-caffer-Masaai-Mara-Kenya.JPGHerd of Cape buffalo in Kenya’s Mara Conservancy (Creative Commons)

When Cape buffalo inhabit dry lands their reproductive success (also referred to as “recruitment ability”) decreases; but their body condition improves due to what seems to be a fat-storing mechanism that anticipates limited future resources. One benefit of Cape buffalo having to cope with drought is that when food supplies are reduced, they forage through peat layers in dried-up underground channels, releasing nutrients otherwise trapped below ground.

A current major concern for this species is that anthropogenic factors (human activity) causing climate change are expected to increase both water levels and drought, which could push the Cape buffalo outside of their protected areas. In 2017, the Serengeti experienced a drought that lasted over a year causing declines in populations of many species, including Cape buffalo. Drought also causes herds of cattle, goats and sheep outside to enter protected lands to graze, creating a competition for resources between wildlife, livestock and humans in both the Maasai Mara National Reserve and Serengeti National Park. If the Mara River – the only major river in the area – dries up, there would be few resources for ungulates. As well, when droughts end, there is always potential for flash-floods which deter herds from crossing rivers to find greener pastures.

Jones_120107_K_0640.jpgA lone Cape Buffalo bull in Kenya (© Alison M. Jones)

When water is scarce in the Serengeti, a decline of Cape buffalo leads to increased lion mortality. When Cape buffalo lack sufficient food due to drought, they become weak and must travel increased distances to quench their thirst. This leaves the herd fatigued, causing some members to fall behind and thus become more vulnerable to predation. Also, after a drought and the rains begin, Babesia-carrying ticks infect Cape buffalo. Infected buffalo become weak or die, allowing easy predation by lions. Unfortunately, their carcasses transfer babesiosis disease to lions. Alone, this disease is not fatal to the lion. However, babesiosis coupled with canine distemper virus (CDV) is lethal.

Babesiosis from Cape buffalo has caused two major declines in Serengeti lion populations. In 1994, a third of the lion population was lost due to this combination, killing over 1,000 lions.

Lions_taking_down_cape_buffalo.jpgLions taking down a Cape buffalo (Creative Commons)

On a smaller scale, in 2001 the Ngorongoro Crater lion population also lost about 100 lions due to this synchronization of disease. Craig Packer, a University of Minnesota biologist, stated, “Should drought occur in the future at the same time as lions are exposed to masses of Babesia-carrying ticks—and there is a synchronous CDV epidemic–lions will once again suffer very high mortality.” He also warns that extreme weather due to climate change puts species at greater risk to diseases not considered a major threat before.  Fortunately, mud-wallowing that Cape buffalo use to cool down their bodies is also an effective shield against infiltrating bugs and ticks once the mud dries.

Overall, Cape buffalo rely heavily on rainfall patterns; but climate change is disrupting traditional migratory patterns by raising water levels or causing drought. Both extremes present negative impacts to the Mara River Basin and the biodiversity that inhabits it.  

North America’s bison – a bovine counterpart to African Cape buffalo – historically occupied The Great Plains west of the Mississippi River. Early settlers recorded 10 to 60 million bison openly roaming the fields. Like Cape buffalo, bison also migrate in search of food. Their migration paths used to cover vast territory, thus paving the way for many current roads and railroads. A major threat to  bison – as with most species – has been habitat loss due to human infringement, as well as well-documented, extensive hunting by new settlers heading west. By 1889, only approximately 1,000 bison remained in North America.

Jones_121024_TX_6814.jpgFarmed bison in Texas (© Alison M. Jones)

Due to recent conservation efforts, bison populations are rising; however, not to past numbers. Currently, they are found only in National Parks, refuges and farms. As of 2017, approximately 31,000 pure wild bison remain in 68 conservation herds. “Pure wild bison” are those not bred with cattle for domestication. However, only approximately 18,000 of the remaining population “function” as wild bison. This count excludes very small bison herds used for research, education and public viewing – or bison held in captivity waiting to be culled by protected areas such as Yellowstone National Park due to required limits.

Bison inhabiting the Mississippi River Basin, which drains throughout the Great Plains, have many positive impacts on its waterways and tributaries. Yellowstone Park, where the Yellowstone River drains into the Missouri-Mississippi River system, is the only place in North America where bison continue to freely roam as they used to. In Yellowstone, bison occupy the central and northern area of the park where they migrate by elevation, seasonally choosing food according to abundance, rather than quality. In the winter, they select lower elevations near thermal hot springs or rivers where there is less snow accumulation.

Bison positively affect water supplies when they wallow and paw at the ground. This results in intense soil compaction that creates soil depressions in grasslands. After many years, this soil depression tends to erode since bison don’t like to wallow on previously-created depressions. However, during the rainy season, wetland plants and vegetation grow in these wallows created by bison dust-bathing and trampling. For a short time many species enjoy these ephemeral pool habitats before they disappear in droughts or floods. Meanwhile bison wallows increase species diversity that would otherwise not be present in grasslands.

A_bison_wallow_is_a_shallow_depression_in_the_soil.jpgBison rolling around in a dry wallow (Creative Commons)

Bison have other positive impacts on water. As they trample through streams, they widen available habitat and alter water quality. Even after a bison dies, it can still contribute to the health of its ecosystem. Their carcasses are a nutritious food source for wolves, coyotes and crows. Studies suggest that bison carcasses take roughly seven years to fully decompose, during which time their remains release nutrients such as phosphorus and carbon into rivers. These nutrients sustain microbes, insects, fish and large scavengers of the area. A bison carcass can also provide sustenance for local fish since maggots, green algae and bacteria grow over their bones during decomposition. Bison carcasses also deposit nutrients into the soil which fertilizes plant regrowth.

Bison can negatively affect water resources, by decreasing native plant diversity due to overgrazing. However, they graze on only grass, which allows forbs (non-woody flowering plants) to flourish, adding biodiversity in grasslands. As well, when bison urinate, they deposit nitrogen into the soil, a key nutrient for grass growth and survival. Their urine also becomes a selectable marker allowing them to return to formerly-grazed pastures during the season. This constant reselection of grassland, allows combustion in ignored, non-grazed pastures, since fire tends to occur in tall grass with nitrogen loss. After fires, the bison are attracted to newly-burned watersheds because of C4-dominated grass which grows in dry environments. Bison select C4-dominated grassy areas because they have low plant diversity, unlike less-frequently burned sites where forbs are abundant. Thus, bison’s pasture preferences allow for more biodiversity, creating healthier watersheds.  

Jones_121024_TX_7314.jpgMural near of Native Americans on bison near Masterson, Texas (© Alison M. Jones)

Each of these two similar bovine species have significant, but different, relationships to water availability and quality within their river basins.  The African Cape buffalo migration is guided by water fluctuations. This could impact their future since anthropogenically-caused climate change could incur longer and more frequent droughts and increased flood-water levels to an extent that would drive Cape buffalo out of their protected habitats. In contrast, North American bison herds improve the health of waterways in the Mississippi River Basin in several ways. Nutrients from their decomposing carcasses add to the health of tributary streams and rivers; and their mud wallows support greater diversity of wetland and grassland flora.

Whether we look at watersheds in Africa or North America, it is clear that it is as important to study how biodiversity is affected by water availability, as how watershed water quality and quantity affects its biodiversity. Any changes to these ecosystems due to climate change could drastically affect the biodiversity and health of these watersheds.

Bibliography:

Briske, David. Springer Series on Environmental Management, accessed June 19, 2018, via link.
van Wyk, Pieter. MalaMala Game Reserve Blog, accessed on June 19, 2018, via link.
Bennitt, Emily. Journal of Mammalogy, accessed on June 19, 2018, via link.
Wilcox, Bradford. Springer Series on Environmental Management, accessed June 19, 2018, via link.
Chardonnet, Philippe. Gnusletter, accessed on June 19, 2018, via link.
Defenders of Wildlife, accessed on June 20, 2018, via link.
Coppedge, Bryan R.
The American Midland Naturalist, accessed on June 20, 2018, via link.
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The Southwestern Naturalist, accessed on June 20, 2018, via link.
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American Institute of Biological Sciences, accessed on June 20, 2018, via link.
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BioScience, accessed on June 25, 2018, via link.
Water Resources and Energy Management (WREM) International Inc., accessed on June 25, 2018, via link.
Defenders of Wildlife, accessed on June 26, 2018, via link.
Yellowstone National Park, accessed on June 26, 2018, via link.
Huffman, Brent. Ultimate Ungulate, accessed on June 26, 2018, via link.
Department of Primary Industries, accessed on July 9, 2018, via link.
Popescu, Adam. New Scientist, accessed on July 9, 2018, via link.
Hoagland, Mahlon B. Exploring the Way Life Works: The Science of Biology, accessed on July 9, 2018E, via link.
White, PJ. Yellowstone Association, accessed on July 9, 2018, via link.

Chasing Environmental Change

By Joannah Otis, for No Water No Life

Joannah is a Georgetown University sophomore studying Environmental Studies, Art History and Psychology. A member of the university’s Environmental Club, she enjoys spending her free time in N.J.’s Raritan River Basin, a NWNL case study watershed.  Joannah is a NWNL Researcher for Fall 2017.  Below is Part II of her analysis of our 2016 NWNL Survey.  Part I can be found here: A Green Education for the Younger Generation.

 

From the mid-to-late 1900’s, climate change and water-use issues began to appear more and more consistently in the popular media.  Yet, based on results of a 2016 NWNL Survey, working-age adults between the ages of 31 and 50 are surprisingly unaware of environmental disruptions in their own communities, even though the concept of climate change gained traction during the formative years of their lives. In 1975, the term “global warming” was introduced by American scientist Wallace Broecker. By 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established to assess the effects and dangers of emissions, water use, and pollution. Two years later, this panel released its initial Report detailing how greenhouse-gas emissions lead to increased average temperatures. Later IPCC Reports state that it is 95% likely that humans are causing global warming.

 

Jones_140316_CA_0484Refineries on the northern extension of the San Francisco Bay, California (2014)

 

Shortly thereafter, Al Gore’s 1992 book Earth in the Balance further exposed the general public to the threats human behavior was placing on biodiversity, water, soil and climate. He proposed a “Global Marshall Plan,” intended to eradicate poverty, protect the environment, and promote sustainable development through an Eco-Social Market Economy.1 The “Climategate” affair of 2009 stirred further public debate concerning wasteful human practices when hackers released some e-mails from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit.2  In spite of these decades of publicity on climate change and human effects on the planet, wasteful water use continues today.

Those between 31 to 50 however have been exposed to environmentally-friendly practices starting at a young age.  So perhaps that’s why they as a group are more likely to be frugal water users. The NWNL Survey revealed that nobody polled in this age group considered themselves wasteful with water. In fact, 30% claimed to be frugal water consumers vesus only 14% of the 18-30 year-old respondents. It is also notable that 28% of the youngest group in the survey, the under-18-year-olds, admitted to being wasteful. [See Part I of this Survey Analysis on the need for under-18-year-olds to become more aware of environmental issues, the need to reduce consumption, and their carbon footprints.]  Those in the over 50-year-old bracket were the least willing to alter their wasteful water practices. This information is reconcilable with the fact that the older generation did not grow up with encouragements to be environmentally friendly and thus are hesitant to alter their habits.

 

Jones_111026_LA_0547Clay water jug being filled from wall pipe, Atchafalaya Basin, Louisiana (2011)

 

At the same time, about 79% of those in the 31-50 age range never or infrequently recycle water. This survey response is somewhat tilted, given that the majority of people surveyed did not come from drought-afflicted areas. In states like California where water shortages are a perpetual part of everyday life, water recycling has become much more popular. Starting in 2015, the California Water Environment Association and other municipal water groups produced recycled water from community waste treatment plants  for free. Although not all recycled water is suitable for drinking, all recycled water can be used for landscaping and agricultural purposes.3  Going further, some extremely arid California communities, including San Diego, began recycling “black water,” which is processed from sewage that includes human waste, into drinking water beginning in 2011.4  (Once overcoming “the mental yuck factor,” those that drink this recycled water, including NWNL Director Alison Jones, say it’s delicious).   Such government water-recycling projects make it much easier for people to be more responsible water users.

 

Jones_140322_CA_3870Sign for non-potable reclaimed water, San Joaquin River Valley, California (2014)

 

While it is concerning that more than half  (58%) of 31-50 year-olds are unsure of what water changes are being pursued in their community, it is encouraging that a large percentage of them are individually willing to make water use changes. Of those surveyed in this age group, 73% were open to buying fewer “high-water-content” items. These items include leather, paper, cotton clothing and merchandise from drought-ridden areas. For example, producing just one pair of jeans takes about 1,800 gallons of water,5 while one sheet of paper demands almost three gallons.6

NWNL hopes more will be done to encourage these working-age adults, who say they are willing to put water-saving techniques into practice, to learn more about climate-change impacts on their community. A renewed emphasis on presenting reliable, factual information in the news and in social media will be important in promoting effective approaches to responsible water consumption practices.   

 

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

On “The Rim of Fire”

Essay and Photos by NWNL Director Alison M. Jones. 

FIVE NWNL EXPEDITIONS have focused on CA’s recent multi-year drought, ended by winter 2017’s heavy snows and rains.  I returned last week to report on any impacts from that drought – only to find drought is back already! Flying into Central California, I was stunned to see how arid this region is – again!   It doesn’t take California long to dry out, especially with Climate Change consequences!  This year, the state’s 2nd wettest winter was followed by its hottest summer. That combination on top of a 5-year accumulation of dead, droughty vegetation created this horrid tinderbox that is taking lives and destroying whole towns this week.

Jones_160929_CA_7297Sign warning of wildfire, in Kaweah River Valley, California, 2016

SINCE NWNL BEGAN IN 2007, our project has noted that wildfires degrade our rivers, streams, lakes and reservoirs.  Losing forests means losing their storage and filtering of water in tree roots for later release.  Forests also shade streams, creating cool habitats for fish, especially needed for spawning salmon and trout.

BUT, WE MISSED A 2007 ARTICLE noting high CO2 emissions from wildfires.  Today, on a California hilltop above the Pacific Ocean, I’m monitoring the upcoming weekend’s Santa Ana winds and heat in the dry canyons behind me. Listening to local weather, I learned that 2 days of these CA fires emitted more CO2 than CA cars do in a year.  Sadly, this worsens the global warming that intensifies hurricanes, sea level rise, droughts, high temperatures, local storms and yes, wildfires. Global warming is a vicious cycle we’ve created.

Jones_080816_BC_4159Forest fire smoke in the Kootenay Rockies, British Columbia, 2008

CALIFORNIA’S FIRE TSUNAMI rages on as I write, destroying lives and livelihoods.  Its explosive blanket of kindling was created by 5 years of drought, as well as high temperatures and increased building on fire-prone hills. Now, the sweep of damaging urban wildfires has been lowered from treetops to rooftops.  A NOAA analysis has connected these Oct 2017 CA fires to climate change, predicting that the state’s fire risks could quadruple by mid-century if CO2 emissions stay at current levels.

SINCE ARRIVING LAST WEEK, I’ve read much here in CA on how climate change and water-related consequences relate to wildfires. This year’s Whittier Fire above Lake Cachuma left its drainage slopes bare and vulnerable to massive erosion by future rains.  Soil sliding into this reservoir will degrade water quality and decrease storage capacity for Santa Barbara’s main source of water. (Santa Barbara Independent, Sept 28-Oct 5, 2017, p 12). Also at peril from ravages of fire and landslides are municipal water infrastructure and distribution systems.

Jones_140207_CA_9966Lake Cachuma reservoir at 39% capacity from 3-year drought, 2014

A MORE GLOBAL FOCUS on this topic by Mongobay expands the impacts of wildfires beyond CA.  Its weekly newsletter states that “forest degradation has turned the Amazon from carbon sink to carbon source; while globally, humanity’s carbon emissions are worsening drought and fires. Brazil’s rapid Amazon development deepens the problem. Researchers warn of mega-fires that could be coming, unless trends are reversed.”

TODAY, INDIVIDUALLY WE CAN ONLY HOPE for the best for Californians and their dramatically beautiful state.  NWNL will keep raising awareness of the nexus of water-related issues, climate change and wildfires.  Meanwhile, it’s time to reduce our individual CO2 footprints. We can offset our role in CO2 emissions by supporting climate-change research groups like TerraPass. For the record, all NWNL expedition travel and in-office energy consumption have been offset since we began in 2007.

Jones_140207_CA_9707Dry stream bed of the Santa Ynez River, California, 2014

TOMORROW, IT’S TIME TO DEMAND a much deeper commitment from our government to use every effort possible to stop wildfires, sea level rise, deadly heat waves, Category 5 hurricanes….  It’s simple, if we’ll look ahead, rather than gaze at today’s profit margins.  Let’s not find ourselves mourning that we’ve stolen our youth’s future. Promoting ignorance with a myopic focus on today’s profits for a few will curse the future of all of us, even more than it has this month in Houston, Florida’’s Keys, The U. S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and now California.

Jones_150824_CA_6365Santa Ynez River, low stream bed due to 3-year drought, 2015

 

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

A Green Education for the Younger Generation

By Joannah Otis, for No Water No Life

Joannah is a sophomore at Georgetown University studying Environmental Studies, Art History and Psychology. She is a member of the University’s Environmental Club and enjoys spending her free time horseback riding through the Raritan River Basin in New Jersey.  Joannah is an NWNL intern for the fall semester of 2017.

As catastrophic weather events hit with increasing ferocity and drought expands its domain across the United States, it falls upon the shoulders of the younger generations just as much as the older ones to change their habits and stay abreast of environmental concerns for the safety of their future planet. A survey conducted by No Water No Life (NWNL) in early 2016 has revealed a startling unawareness amongst teenagers of environmental issues and of the steps being taken to address them. Although the data was largely collected from adults over 50 years of age, the responses of younger participants shed an interesting and somewhat concerning light on how the up-and-coming consumer thinks of the environment.

Jones_170616_NE_5079Severe storm at sunset, Missouri River Basin, Nebraska. (2017)

Compared to 4.7% of the overall survey takers, 28% of the under-18-year-olds admitted to wasteful water use. This was the highest percentage recorded amongst the four age groups surveyed for wasteful consumption. Among younger participants, 71% also believed that they would have enough water even in times of drought. This is compared to the overall 46% who answered they would have sufficient water supplies.

However, it is encouraging and significant that over 80% of the teenagers believed they would use less water if they were charged for it. In fact, an overwhelming number of survey participants from all age groups reported that taxing water use, or creating incentives for less water consumption, would be the ideal way to address current or imminent water shortages.

Jones_170209_INDIA_8478A public water source in the Ganges River Basin, India. (2017)

The trouble comes with how to enact such taxes. In late August 2017, California began consideration of a tax on tap water in light of its recent six year drought. The intent of this tax was to encourage moderation and to fund the cleanup of contaminated groundwater. Some countered that water is a human right and questioned whether the money would in fact be directed to improvements. Such diverse views complicate the enactment of solutions to issues agreed upon by majorities, like those in the survey.1

Jones_160930_CA_7924Sign at a peach orchard, California Drought Expedition. (2016)

In an age where social media and smartphones have replaced hard-copy newspapers, it is not a surprise that only 40% of under-18-year-olds have read about water issues, or even considered doing so. Compared to the 81% of over-50-year-olds who have stayed abreast of water concerns through reading, this is an unsettlingly small percentage of informed young people. Granted, some in this age group may be too young to have any interest in reading about current events. It is also possible that they do not have access to newspapers in light of the fact that the Pew Research Center has recorded a 9% decline in weekday newspaper circulation since just last year.2 These explanations in themselves are unsettling.

Jones_170615_NE_4867Art & Helen Tanderup, active protesters of the Keystone XL pipeline, Missouri River Basin, Nebraska. (2017)

One would hope that this younger generation, which could make or break the severity of global warming and other concerns, would have more awareness or interest in the environment. The survey revealed that almost 70% of the under-18-year-olds were unaware of changes in their communities concerning water use.

The data from the NWNL survey points to an undeniable need to educate our youth about water usage; environmental issues; and what they can do to help. Their lack of awareness about the impact of human consumption on the planet can be attributed to a simple ignorance of the facts, rather than an unwillingness to learn. Therefore, it is imperative that environmental education be more heavily emphasized in elementary and middle schools. Teaching the next generation of homeowners, voters, and lobbyists the importance of respecting our planet is of utmost importance if we expect positives changes to emerge from a world in flux.

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

Drought: A Photo Essay

From 2014 until the beginning of 2017  California suffered through a major drought. It was a hot topic in the news, and NWNL conducted five Spotlight Expeditions to document and bring attention to that drought and its significance.  But what exactly is a drought? What causes droughts?  What are the effects of droughts? What does a drought look like?

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Boat launch, Kinbasket Lake Reservoir, BC, Canada. 2007

Jones_070607_BC_1963
Kinbasket Lake Reservoir, BC, Canada. 2007

Basicplanet.com defines a drought as a “lengthy period of time, stretching months or even years in which time land has a decrease in water supply.” Droughts usually occur when rain doesn’t fall often enough during prolonged periods of warmer temperatures, causing high pressure winds and and reduced water content.

NA-SK-109.tif
Aerial  of dry river bed, Skeleton Coast National Park, Namibia. 2006

Jones_090921_K_1821
El Molo Swamp in Mau Forest during Kenya drought of 2009

Human activity can also be the cause of drought. Deforestation, farming, excess irrigation and erosion can lead to drought. Climate change also creates drought. Rises in average global temperatures greatly effect the possibility of drought, by reducing water content in the air.

Jones_150813_CA_4202Rio Hondo River, a tributary of Los Angeles River, California. 2015

Jones_140207_CA_9687Dried up succulent in the Santa Ynez Valley, California. 2014

There are many more affects of drought than most people realize. The most obvious affect is the shortage of water. Because of this, crops and animals will die. Droughts lead to malnutrition, dehydration and deadly famines. Wildfires and dust storms are much more probable and common effects. Industries that rely on water are forced to cutback, thus forcing people into unemployment. Wars have occurred due to droughts.

Jones_150813_CA_4124

Jones_140323_CA_4310

USA: California, Kettleman City, sign about effects of drought and no waterSigns posted during the California Drought,  2014 – 2016.

 

Posted by Sarah Kearns, NWNL Project Manager.

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

Glaciers: A Photo Essay

Edit (9/27/17): Since publishing this blog, the Washington Post reported the calving (or splitting) of a key Antarctic glacier, the Pine Island Glacier.  The article states, “the single glacier alone contains 1.7 feet of potential global sea level rise and is thought to be in a process of unstable, ongoing retreat.”  To learn more about how climate change contributed to this calving, and what the affects will be, read the article here.

 

“The alarming rate of glacial shrinkage worldwide threatens our current way of life, from biodiversity to tourism, hydropower to clean water supply.” (climatenewsnetwork.net)

During and in between NWNL’s dozens of expeditions to its six case-study watersheds, we have explored the value and current condition of glaciers on three continents, since they are a critical source of freshwater.  NWNL visited the Columbia Icefields of Alberta, Canada in 2007; Argentine glaciers in 2003 and 2005; and Rebman Glacier on the summit of Tanzania’s Mt Kilimanjaro in 2003.   We have witnessed the effect of climate change on glaciers. The melting of glaciers will affect  all forms of water resources for human and wildlife communities.  Just as upstream nutrients and pollutants travel downstream, “the loss of mountain ice creates problems for the people who live downstream.” Glacial loss must be thought of as just as important in the climate-change discussion as flooding and drought have become.

 

Jones_030809_TZ_0745Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro via the Machame Route. Tanzania, East Africa. (2003)

 

Jones_050402_ARG_0155Hole in ice of Lake Viedma Glacier in South Patagonia’s Glacier National Park, Argentina. (2005)

 

Jones_070609_ALB_2357Sign marking the former edge of the glacier. Columbia Icefields, Alberta, Canada. (2007)

 

ARG SC LVgla 059DA.tifLake Viedma Glacier at Glaciers National Park in Southern Patagonia, Argentina. (2005)

 

Canada: Alberta, Columbia Icefields Center Bus Tour, Athabasca GlacierAthabasca Glacier in Columbia Icefields. Alberta, Canada. (2007)

 

ARG SC Azul 004DA.tifGlacier melting and pouring into Blue Lake in the Andes Mountains. Southern Patagonia, Argentina. (2005)

 

Posted by Sarah Kearns, NWNL Project Manager.

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

 

On Combating Drought and Desertification

Today is “World Day for Combating Drought and Desertification.”  Ironically, today I am on a NWNL expedition in Nebraska atop the northeastern edge of the Ogallala Aquifer, which spans and supplies water to 8 states, all the way down to Texas.  The farmers I’ve talked to here are all aware of this observance.  After all, Nebraska was one of six of those same states so heavily impacted by the severe Dustbowl drought in the “Dirty Thirties.”  While these “black blizzards” caused terrible casualties and human displacement, much was learned about the importance of dry-land and no-till farming, planting windbreaks and the value of deep-rooted prairie grasses – all of which prevent wind erosion of these sandy “loess” soils.  During the Dustbowl, more than 3/4 of the topsoil was blown away in some regions.  Thanks to indomitable “Great Plains” human spirit, there has been recovery, albeit at the expense of large population declines, and continuing slim profit margins, provoking yearly concern.  The lesson still to be considered today is how we can mitigate extreme weather patterns.  Several means come to mind: irrigation and farming technologies, drought-tolerant crops, reduced consumption, reduction of fossil fuels that contribute to climate change, and paying attention to the lessons of history.

THE ROLE OF WATER IN HUMAN HISTORY:

For how long have our species worried about water availability?   For eons, civilizations settled on the planet’s great rivers and have flourished. I think of the Nile and its pyramids; the Tiber and its Roman Forum; and the Ganges and its Taj Mahal. There were also great civilizations that are believed to have literally dried up. I think of the Mississippian, Anasazi, and Incan cultures. Their power was decimated by their wanton consumption of natural resources, which intertwined with intense droughts and resulting food scarcity.
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Taj Mahal next to the Yamuna River, India. Photo by Alison M. Jones. NM-CCK-210A os.tif

Anasazi ruin ‘Chetro Ketl’ in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. Photo by Alison M. Jones.

THE ROLE OF WATER IN THE US WEST

Recently, David Beillo reviewed David Owen’s Where the Water Goes: Life and Death Along the Colorado River. He began his article by saying, “The waterways of the [U.S.] west now exist as monuments to an ambitious desert civilization. Across this vast region of America, few, if any, rivers flow without hosting one or more dams, concrete channels, diversions or other human-made ‘improvements’ that allow people and farming to flourish in this dry country.”

Nevada: Boulder City, Hoover Dam,

Hoover Dam, Boulder City, Nevada. Photo by Alison M. Jones.

Owen’s book follows a stream of well-known authors who’ve analyzed the issue of water availability in the desert – from Wallace Stegner’s many books to Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert (where did my well-worn copy of that classic go??) to John Fleck’s recent book on the Colorado River, Water is for Fighting Over. In describing the changing American West, Stegner muses on John Muir’s approach: “Instead of thinking what men did to the mountains, he kept his mind on what the mountains did to men.” A riverine parallel could be: consider what men have done to rivers in order to address what lack of rivers could do to men. Stegner succinctly states: “The West’s ultimate unity: aridity.”

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Parker Dam, hydrodam across the Colorado River that siphons water from Colorado Aqueduct to Los Angeles. Photo by Alison M. Jones.

In The Sound of Mountain Water: The Changing American West, Stegner describes the Cowboy Country – much of which supplies critical bounties of food and livestock – as a “land of little rain and big consequences.” The U.S. West is an extravagantly endowed region, but has one critical deficiency – water. Without water, watersheds, timber and crops are all vulnerable. Stegner mused, “There have been man-made deserts before this in the world’s history. The West could be one of those.” NWNL undertook five “Spotlight” expeditions to document the just-ended, six-year California Drought, including ten August days in the Mohave Desert when nights never cooled down below 108 degrees. Experiencing such extreme heat seemed to be possible preparation for what might be the norm in the future for larger areas than the deserts we now know, given climate change predictions.

Jones_140322_CA_3790California Aquaduct, seen from levee road, in San Joaquin River Valley, California. Photo by Alison M. Jones. 

Rising populations are using many straws to pull from that finite source of water called the Colorado River. It was named the Red River because of the color of the soil it carries, but perhaps we should also consider its color being derived from the blood of dying ecosystems and water-dependent livelihoods and communities. The death toll that many fear is exacerbated by the increasing droughts seemingly induced by climate change.

DESERTIFICATION IN AFRICA

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Aerial view of deforestation of Mau Forest, Kenya. Photo by Alison M. Jones.

Africa is also haunted by the specter of drought and desertification. The late Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to stem deforestation and resulting desertification by gathering legions of women to plant saplings across Kenya. No forests, no water, no life, no peace – as Ms. Maathai told NWNL after an appearance at NYC’s Cooper Union. But forests continue to disappear across Africa to be replaced by fields of maize to feed a growing number of mouths. Politics also interferes with efforts to protect Africa’s precious water towers, like Mt Kenya’s slopes and the Mara River’s Mau Forest headwaters.

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Indigenous cedar stump. Deforestation of Mau Forest, Kenya. Photo by Alison M. Jones.Jones_120124_K_5375

Truck full of cut logs. Deforestation of Mau Forest, Kenya. Photo by Alison M. Jones. 

THE FUTURE

In the face of today’s increasing droughts and deforestation, change is needed and is possible. But, given the human species’ tendency to short-termism, is it probable? Counter that tendency, our species also has often risen to crises — whether they were created by uncontrollable forces or by ourselves. Our inventiveness can overcome our inertia with leadership from grassroots and legislative actions. We certainly possess the ability to fight the specter of water scarcity.

We just need the will to change behavior and habits in order to stop deforestation, desertification and droughts. We need the will to reduce unnecessary consumption. We need the will to invest in research and technology. We need the will to respect nature’s needs and consider the long-term impacts of our human footprint.