La Niña, southwestern droughts, and shared climate vulnerability

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A vehicle drives through an inundated road in the aftermath of Hurricane Rick in Infiernillo, Mexico, Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021. Rick roared ashore along Mexico’s southern Pacific coast early Monday with winds and heavy rain amid warnings of potential flash floods in the coastal mountains. Photo by Armando Solis/AP Photos

Last Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released their 2021-2022 Winter Outlook, which spells warmer temperatures in most of the country except the northwest, decreased precipitation all along the south and severe drought conditions across the western United States. While we may not realize so at first, this harsh weather has lots to teach about our vulnerability to climate change.  

Our winter weather conditions this year are related to the reappearance of La Niña: a meteorological term describing a change, generally every few years, in Pacific Ocean atmospheric circulation which affects weather around the world. La Niña and its opposite “El Niño” form a natural climate oscillation pattern governing the Pacific ocean respectively through warm and cool atmospheric conditions. The most recent La Niña happened from August 2020 to April 2021, and is now projected to occur between December 2021 to February 2022.  

While some of the coming months’ weather will be caused by this natural cycle, the effects we’re going to experience will be dramatically exacerbated by anthropomorphic climate change. According to the NOAA, the dramatic changes in precipitation and temperature brought about by the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle will . All of these problems fall within the extreme weather events which climate change is projected to multiply over the 21st century, especially with greater concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide and subsequently higher average global temperatures. Although La Niña is unique from anthropomorphic climate change, normal weather patterns like it will still overlap with and amplify climate impacts.undoubtedly lead to increased wildfires, droughts, flooding and perhaps even disease outbreaks. All of these problems fall within the extreme weather events which climate change is projected to multiply over the 21st century, especially with greater concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide and subsequently higher average global temperatures. Although La Niña is unique from anthropomorphic climate change, normal weather patterns like it will still overlap with and amplify climate impacts

La Niña is very dangerous. In the United States, the months between January 2020 and August 2021 comprised the lowest-precipitation-20-month period on record, which dates back to 1895. The NOAA-led task force on this drought found it greatly exacerbated by record level temperatures caused by human-induced global warming during the same time period. These conditions are contributing to a historically unprecedented southwestern drought. 

Over 40 million people across seven states, and some in Mexico, depend on water provided by the Colorado River. This year Las Vegas’s Lake Mead, the river’s largest reservoir, reached levels so low that for the first time in history the federal government declared a water shortage. We may first assume this leads to restrictions on water for lawns, swimming pools and car washes. While this is true, when water becomes as limited as it is right now, restrictions are imposed widely on bathing, drinking and agriculture. Further, river ecologies and hydroelectric power grids alike become threatened with collapse.  

Restrictions on basic necessities will become more common as key regions are threatened by droughts, famines and the shortages they bring. The current southwestern drought threatens to dramatically increase prices of food and water, which will contribute to food desertification, malnutrition and a host of health and financial problems if it does not also result in some starvation. The southwestern United States is an area projected to experience increasingly dangerous droughts indefinitely, or however long average temperatures continue to increase assuming society continues on a path of business as usual regarding fossil fuels.  

A boy plays near a tree uprooted by Hurricane Rick in Infiernillo, Mexico, Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021. Rick roared ashore along Mexico’s southern Pacific coast early Monday with winds and heavy rain amid warnings of potential flash floods in the coastal mountains. Photo by Armando Solis/AP Photos

From the comfort of the Northeast, we may see the drought, temperature and precipitation maps released by the NOAA and conclude that the weather this winter isn’t cause for concern. After all, we’re going to have a warmer winter, but this may actually be more comfortable because our winters are usually rather cool. Further, we aren’t expected to experience a lack of rainfall in the northeast, so we shouldn’t experience shortages.  

But if there’s one thing we must learn before we can solve climate change, it’s that our economy is equally interconnected, interdependent and global as is our ecosystem, and the former will be destroyed along with the latter.  

There’s very few regions of the world that are self-sufficient and most food is bought at market from elsewhere. In particular, western nations benefiting from manufactured goods produced using cheap labor in the global south, the agricultural labor of migrants and even prison labor will learn that their own amenities are threatened alongside the shaking legs of the global economy. When these workers no longer have access to food, water, clothing, a temperate enough climate and a place to lay their heads, who will produce our goods?  

Such global interconnectedness means that, even though certain areas of the world will be challenged by shortages more than others, the climate change supply vulnerabilities will be felt by all. When the southeast experiences a serious drought, even in the northeast we can reasonably expect the price of water in general and the price of food grown in that region to increase dramatically. If in the future that region or another region of the world becomes uninhabitable, we can expect a refugee crisis to further destabilize our supply chains and our society in general. 

Climate change is not even required to demonstrate the instability of our global economy. We’re currently experiencing a global supply chain crisis that is predicted to last months or years due to reductions in demand associated with the first outbreaks of COVID-19, almost 20 months ago. This is the reality of an economic system premised off infinite chains of purchases and obligations, subject to disruption and panic at the slightest fear of change. This is the reality of a system in which goods are allocated according to purchasing power in a world with a shrinking amount of essential resources. 

Persistence through and beyond climate change is absolutely a matter of realizing a just global economy where everyone shares access to fundamental resources, even as they become more scarce. But perhaps, in order to approach these ideas we may first need to understand that we can’t isolate ourselves from each other as the world becomes more dangerous. We will only be brought closer, in peace or in violence.  

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