PRBO Conservation Science
Quarterly Journal of PRBO Conservation Science, Number 162, Fall 2010: The Water Issue


A Vital Resource, Out of Balance

Too Much Water, Too Little Water

Ellie M. Cohen

California's Water Legacy
CEO's Column
A Shorebird Saga
Willows and Warblers
Profile of Dave Shuford
PRBO Highlights
TomKat Ranch
Len and Patti Blumn
Staff Migrations

Ellie M. Cohen. PRBO photo.
It was March 1998, the tail end of a strong El Niño winter that brought an enormous amount of much needed precipitation to California. Pounding rainfall was running off soil long ago fully saturated. I was heading to an early morning meeting in rural Sonoma County, on a back road, when a flash flood erupted right before me. As my car entered a rising stream I managed to safely turn around. I drove to another road only to find that I was again blocked by rushing waters. I found high ground and, shaken, waited it out.

Global warming has increased ocean temperatures, altered the jet stream, and increased water vapor in our atmosphere, causing unusual and more extreme weather. Scientists now believe it may also be increasing the frequency and intensity of El Niño, the tropical Pacific Ocean's warm phase that drives weather across much of the planet.

Too much water, too little water--the roller coaster of our rapidly changing climate is ever more evident.

The summer of 2010 saw the pendulum swing wildly. Deadly heat, drought, and fire devastated Russia while in Pakistan record-breaking, monstrous monsoons took thousands of lives, displaced more than 20 million people, and flooded an area more than one-third the size of California (Pakistan--A Sad New Benchmark in Climate-Related Disasters, M. Gronewold, NY Times/Climatewire Aug. 18, 2010).

This past summer also saw a Manhattan-sized iceberg break off Greenland and the Arctic ice cap shrink to its lowest volume ever recorded.

Following are quotes from prominent scientists about these recent events:

"The climate is changing. Extreme events are occurring with greater frequency and in many cases with greater intensity."--Jay Lawrimore (National Climatic Data Center; Weather Chaos, a Case for Global Warming, J. Gillis, New York Times, Aug. 16, 2010

"It's not the right question to ask if this storm or that storm is due to global warming, or is it natural variability. Nowadays, there's always an element of both."--Dr. Kevin Trenberth (National Center for Atmospheric Research; Weather Chaos, a Case for Global Warming, J. Gillis, New York Times, Aug. 16, 2010)

"Would an event like the Moscow heat wave have occurred if carbon dioxide levels had remained at pre-industrial levels? Almost certainly not."--Dr. James Hansen (NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies; How Warm Was Summer 2010? NASA, Sept. 30, 2010)
Intense storms and parched conditions will increasingly challenge ecosystems and infrastructure across the West. Photo: Flickr Creative Commons

How does this inform PRBO's work? Due to climate change, the subtropics have already expanded more than four degrees latitude poleward over the past few decades, bringing more drought and more dry, hot days to the Southwest.

A recent water resources assessment (Climate Change Impacts on California Water Resources,, Oct. 16, 2010) projects California facing "high to extreme water sustainability issues mid-century." And a new drought study (Drought May Threaten Much of Globe Within Decades, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Oct. 19, 2010) finds that "most of the [West] will be significantly drier by the 2030s." PRBO scientists have already documented the negative impacts of extended drought on breeding desert songbirds and of extreme heat on breeding seabirds.

Ironically, climate change is also bringing more record-breaking rainfall that challenges California's traditional approaches to storing and managing water.

In this context of uncertainty and extremes, and as this Observer highlights, PRBO scientists are working with a multitude of partners to understand and manage for the water requirements of various bird populations and the ecosystems we all depend on.

My brief personal encounter with flood waters a decade ago was, thankfully, inconsequential. A few short hours later, the sun came out, spring took hold, and the roads were clear. Water's excess that morning left me in awe. Yet its long-term scarcity, bound to become more severe as the climate is further disrupted, carries far greater consequences. Fortunately, they can be reduced through concerted action today.

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