Climate Change Wallops Alabama, but the State Climatologist Is a Climate Skeptic
Mitch Reid often takes his kids down to explore the creek behind his house in Hoover, Alabama, but this month, the stream ran dry. There’s no water to splash in—just dry rocks and thousands of dead fish, mussels, and snails.
It’s a strange scene in Alabama. The state averages 56 inches of rainfall a year, but a record-breaking drought has left Alabama abnormally dry. As of last week, 98 percent of the state is suffering from low rainfall, with the southwest region experiencing “moderate” drought conditions and more than a quarter of the northeast section in “extreme” or “exceptional” drought—the U.S. Drought Monitor’s highest classification.
“We’re going on 30-plus days with no measureable rain in the Birmingham area,” said Reid, who is the program director at nonprofit group Alabama Rivers Alliance. “We’ve got 15 streams recording record low flows, and we’ve got no indication that things are going to turn around anytime soon.”
In Jackson County, the drought is taking its toll on farmers. Themika Sims, county coordinator of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, said the rain deficit has killed grass, forcing ranchers to start feeding hay to cattle six months earlier than normal. Row crops aren’t faring much better.
“Corn is pretty much a complete loss this year in the county,” Sims said, adding that soybeans and cotton crops are expected to yield about a third of their averages for the region. “We just visited a farm last week, owner was 85 years old, and he said it was the worst he’d ever seen it—it’s definitely the worst I’ve seen in my 25 years on the job.”
All 67 counties in Alabama are experiencing abnormally dry conditions, and more than a quarter are experiencing ‘severe’ to ‘exceptional’ drought conditions. (Chart: U.S. Drought Monitor)
While the years-long drought in California and the Southwest has attracted much attention, Alabama’s record drought is an omen of what environmental activists see as the new reality in the Southeast. Longer periods of dry weather and hotter temperatures brought on by climate change will increase the severity and length of droughts, turning typical dry spells into potentially catastrophic events.
Forecasters are predicting a weak La Niña weather pattern to develop this winter, which should push storms north of Alabama and lead to a warm and dry end to 2016, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations’ latest weather outlook.
“Looking nationwide, the area where the impacts of La Niña are going to be most predictable are in the Southeast,” said Mike Halpert, deputy director of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. “If I was going to pick one area that was going to be dry this winter, I’d pick the Southeast.”
That’s bad news. Alabama broke heat records as recently as last week, with several cities staying above 90 degrees Fahrenheit in mid-October. Birmingham set a record on Oct. 19 for the latest 90-degree day of the year. Since Oct. 1, more than 1,000 wildfires have broken out, destroying more than 12,000 acres of forest and leading city officials to issue burn bans in 46 of the state’s 67 counties.
“It’s impossible to try and link one single weather event to climate change,” Reid said, “but when you see heat records being broken, a record number of days without rain, record low flows in rivers, and sea levels undoubtedly rising, you have to at some time acknowledge the stress these events are having on our water systems.”
Alabama’s 130,000 miles of rivers and streams are considered the world’s most biologically diverse habitats for freshwater mussels, fish, snails, turtles, and crayfish. Fourteen percent of all freshwater runs in the nation flow into Mobile Bay Estuary—a region dubbed “America’s Amazon.”
But rising sea levels are threatening that ecosystem as saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico creeps farther into the estuary, upsetting the brackish balance that oysters and certain species of shrimp and fish rely on to survive. Salinity levels could continue to rise if droughts reduce freshwater flows, Reid said.
“These rivers make Alabama one of the most biodiverse places on Earth,” Reid said. “But statewide, there’s no management plan on how best to conserve, monitor, or regulate water use, so every time there’s a drought, it’s a crisis.”
Computer models used in the federal government’s 2014 National Climate Assessment found that the Southeast is exceptionally vulnerable to “sea level rise, extreme heat events, hurricanes, and decreased water availability.”
NOAA’s climate prediction models only forecast one to two seasons out, Halpert noted, but climate change could increase the likelihood of droughts and also produce shorter, heavier downpours when it does rain.
“With the models we have today, it’s still hard to pin down how climate change is going to impact each state,” Halpert said. “In an ideal situation, states could account for all potential impacts of climate change, but it can be a ‘prepare for the worst and hope for the best’ attitude.”
In a 2012 report, the Environmental Law Institute gave Alabama a D grade after assessing its water efficiency and conservation policies, finding the state lacked in comprehensive water management and drought response planning.
In September, the National River Network compiled a report on Southeastern river flows, finding that Alabama lacked policies for implementing river flow protections and had no statewide drought plan, no established water budget, no surface water or groundwater tracking, monitoring, or permitting, and no statewide water conservation policies.
“We can’t account for who is using how much water, because we don’t have the monitoring policies in place,” Reid said. “So the state can’t manage how much water is going to irrigation, because we don’t have the tools in place.”
Alabama’s Office of Water Resources can declare a drought emergency, as it did in October. But it can’t impose restrictions or fines for overwatering, as has proved effective in California. Instead, the agency “strongly urges” local public utilities to implement drought management plans.
So how can a state be so far behind on drought management plans when Alabama’s climate is expected to see more extreme and longer-lasting droughts?
For one thing, Alabama state climatologist John Christy is a climate skeptic.
Christy’s job is to disseminate weather and climate information to the public, advise state policy makers on weather-related issues, and develop plans to mitigate the economic impacts of adverse weather. During testimony before Congress in 2012, he claimed that reducing greenhouse gas emissions was futile, as rising temperatures were due not to fossil fuel emissions but to increased development around thermometer stations that measure temperatures.
“Science is not really a factor here, sadly,” said Nelson Brooke of Birmingham-based Black Warrior Riverkeeper. “It’s his job to get the word out on the patterns and future predictions on our climate, but as long as he’s in that position, that’s two steps backward in the scientific process.”
Christy, who is an atmospheric scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, said the state is dealing with normal drought levels.
“Here in Alabama, we have soil that when the rain comes, it just drains right through it,” Christy said. “If we didn’t, we’re so wet here typically that we’d just be a big lake.”
Because Alabama’s soil doesn’t retain moisture, a drought can have an almost immediate impact.
“They say we’re always 10 days away from drought here,” Christy said, “and many places have gone 30, 40 days without rain—that’s going to be a serious problem.”
As far as the record low river flows being registered by the U.S. Geological Survey throughout the state, Christy said the change is not owing to the climate but to human demand.
“There is more human pressure and demand for water than ever before, and that is stressing out water supplies,” said Christy.
He added that to better prepare for shortages, the state needs to ramp up water resources “economically and sustainably” through water storage, irrigation infrastructure, and water distribution.
“The plan should be to use the water we have, store it, and move it to places where it’s needed, when it’s needed, like the federal government did in the West with Southern California,” Christy said.
In the meantime, endangered species such as the Black Warrior waterdog salamander, the flattened musk turtle, and the southern pocketbook mussel are all trying to survive in what little water remains in Alabama’s streams and rivers.
“Right now, we’re really focusing on the mussels and snails, because they can’t migrate and move with the water flows the way most fish can,” Reid said. “Some of these species are endemic to certain rivers, and if those rivers dry up, that’s their last refuge. There’s no bringing them back.”
Alabama Rivers Alliance has started a petition calling for Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley to restrict all outdoor watering from sources that impact stream flows in areas designated as “abnormally dry” or higher in the state.
“We recognize this is unfair to turf- and grass-growing industries, nurseries, and farmers, but at this point, the rivers are on life support,” Reid said. “We’re at this point now because the state’s response plan is in shambles. We’ve got to do everything we can to try and save these species.”