Environmental Geography

The (Temporary) Rebirth of California’s Once-Huge Tulare Lake?

The southern half of California’s vast San Joaquin Valley is almost never depicted as a desert nor is it officially classified as one. But it clearly is a desert by climatological criteria. Most of the San Joaquin Valley gets less than 10 inches of precipitation a year, with much of the southern valley receiving less than seven, and it has an extremely high rate of evaporation from late spring through early autumn. But with abundant water flowing from the adjacent Sierra Nevada range, the southern San Joaquin Valley is a verdant, intensely cultivated land. Before the late 1800s, it was the site of the third largest freshwater lake entirely within the United States (as measured by surface area). But when the rivers that formerly flowed into Tulare Lake were diverted into canals to irrigate crops, the huge lake disappeared. Today, the former lakebed is highly productive farmland with only a few small seasonal wetlands providing natural habitat.

As the paired maps posted below indicates, the extent of Tulare Lake varies greatly in different cartographic depictions. This is because the lake itself varied significantly in size on both a seasonal and multi-year basis. As Tulare Lake did not drain in most years, it would expand in winter and spring and then contract through summer and early fall. It would also grow to an especially large size in wet years and shrink dramatically in dry ones. In particularly wet years, the lake would rise high enough to drain to the sea through the San Joaquin River, thus flushing out any accumulated salt and ensuring that its water remained fresh.

A shallow and nutrient-rich lake, Tulare was extremely productive. The Yokuts people who lived around its shores were reputed to have had one of the highest levels of population density of any indigenous American ethnic group. For several decades after the gold rush, Tulare’s aquatic resources from were shipped in huge quantities to San Francisco. As the Wikipedia article on the lake notes:

Even well after California became a state, Tulare Lake and its extensive marshes supported an important fishery: In 1888, in one three-month period, 73,500 pounds of fish were shipped through Hanford to San Francisco. It was also the source of a regional favorite, western pod turtles, which were relished as terrapin soup in San Francisco and elsewhere.

Turtles in Tulare Lake were so abundant that they were even fed to hogs. Today the western pond turtle is classified as a vulnerable species, suffering from competition with invasive exotic turtle species and undermined by the loss of habitat.

Environmentalists occasionally dream about bringing back Tulare Lake, emphasizing the vital habitat that it once provided and contending that its revival would be a relatively easy way for California to store excess runoff. Such a scenario, however, is extremely unlikely. Not only is the former lakebed highly productive farmland, but it also contains the city of Corcoran, home to some 22,000 residents.

But regardless of human plans and desires, Tulare Lake will probably reappear this spring, if only for a short period, owing to the extremely heavy precipitation that has been experienced this winter in the southern Sierra. Tulare County has already seen levee-breaks and the flooding of several towns, and water is now beginning to accumulate in the old lakebed. Local flooding could easily persist as snowmelt begins in April or May. Noting such factors, a recent article by Dan Walters claims that “It’s almost certain that Tulare Lake will once again spring to life.” Walters concludes by arguing that, “the probability is generating some hopeful, if unrealistic, speculation that state and or federal governments could buy up the lakebeds fields and bring back to Tulare lake permanently.”

This season’s reborn Tulare Lake will probably evaporate over the course of the summer, which will almost certainly be hot and bone dry – as is always is in the San Joaquin Valley. But if California enters a multiyear wet cycle, which is possible although not probable, winter and spring drainage could become a big problem for the farms and towns of the Tulare Basin. The city of Corcoran well known for its continual subsidence, dropping in elevation by about two feet a year due to the overuse of groundwater. Subsidence has already created major headaches for Corcoran. As noted in The Science Times,

The town levee had to be reconstructed for $10 million after the casings of drinking-water wells were crushed, flood areas changed, and the town levee had to be rebuilt. The situation has increased homeowners’ property tax bills by around $200 a year for three years.

Another powerful storm is slated to slam into California on Tuesday, March 21. Like most of this year’s major storms, it will be most pronounced in central and southern California, largely missing the normally much-wetter northern third of the state. More than 48 inches of additional snow is expected in the southern Sierra, which drains into the Tulare Basin. Thus far this winter, the southern Sierra has received an astounding 268 percent of average annual snowfall.

As can be seen on the map posted above, the northern and central parts of the Sierra have also received much higher-than-average amounts of snow this winter, but not to the same extent as the south. This pattern is highly unusual and was not expected. Until recently, the eastern Pacific was under La Niña conditions, which usually means a drier than average wet season, especially in Southern California. By winter 2024, El Niño conditions may assert themselves, which usually means a wetter than average winter for southern and central California. If so, Tulare Lake might fill up yet again.

Mapping the Extraordinary Cost of Homes in California

California Median Home Price MapAs promised in late 2015, GeoCurrents be will continuing its policy of giving away easily customizable base maps made with simple presentation software (Keynote and PowerPoint). Today’s base map, which depicts the counties of California, can be downloaded at the links at the bottom of the page. (As before, several maps are included in each set, each one with slightly different feature.)

Whenever I finish such a base map, I feel compelled to use it for some sort of thematic illustration. In the case of California, my first inclination was to map a topic of local obsession: the cost of homes. Housing prices in parts of California have reached a level so astronomical as to provoke widespread despair (coupled, however, with a certain degree of concealed glee among the beneficiaries). The geography of housing costs can be easily grasped by juxtaposing a map of median home prices in USA Home Price MapCalifornia with a similar map showing all of the United States. As can be seen on the first map, extraordinary expense is primarily a feature of the San Francisco Bay Area, particularly the string of counties that runs from Marin in the north to Santa Clara (“Silicon Valley”) in the south. Elsewhere in the state, homes are relatively inexpensive. “Relatively,” however, is the key word. The median list price in Sacramento County ($270,000) may seem like a bargain compared to that of San Mateo County ($974,000), but in national terms it is still high. As can be seen in the Trulia real-estate map of the United States, relatively few counties in the entire Midwest fall into the same category of expense as Sacramento County.

California Average Home Price MapSeveral people to whom I showed the map of median home prices found it surprising, as they expected to see higher prices in such counties as Monterey and Santa Barbara, which are widely known for their up-scale communities. Both counties, however, also contain extensive agricultural areas characterized by moderate to low levels of income. The exclusivity of the upper end of the market in Monterey and Santa Barbara counties is nicely captured by the map of average list prices for homes. Here Santa Barbara ranks in the third position, with a figure just below 1.5 million dollars.



California Median Income MapThe price of homes in California correlates relatively well with income levels, but with some interesting differences and discrepancies. The most significant is the fact that median household income varies by less than a factor of three, whereas the median price of homes varies by a factor of almost 10. The distinction between California’s two main metropolitan centers is also notable. Housing is relatively affordable, when considered with regard to median household income, in such southern California counties as Orange and Ventura than it is in such Bay Area counties as San Francisco and Alameda. East/west differences also come into play. Placer and El Dorado counties in the east are particularly affordable, characterized by high incomes but relatively modest home prices. Both of these counties are largely rural, but they also include some of Sacramento’s more up-scale suburbs and share as well the amenity-rich Lake Tahoe basin. Mendocino County on the north coast exhibits the opposite pattern, with home prices in the same range as Placer and El Dorado but with a much lower median household income. But Mendocino’s official income figures are unduly low, as they do not factor in the county’s large but mostly underground cannabis economy.

California Unemployment rate mapCalifornia’s unemployment map is also worth examining in the light of the state’s housing crisis. Here we see low unemployment figures for the Bay Area, particularly San Mateo and Marin counties, located just south and north of San Francisco respectively. But many jobs here are difficult to fill owing to the severe shortage of housing and the astronomical levels of rent. The off-the-chart 29.9 percent unemployment figure for rural, agricultural Colusa County is difficult to explain, if indeed it is accurate. Many other farming counties in California also have high unemployment figures, but not nearly to this extent. Only Imperial County in the far southeast comes close.

The cost of homes and levels of rent found in the San Francisco Bay Area provoke a tremendous amount of discussion but generate little in the way of concrete action. Stanford Professor David Palumbo-Liu emphasizes the class dimension of the issue in a recent article in Salon:

The most extreme case of this vast difference in the ability to afford housing may be that of 1950 Cowper Street in Palo Alto, which recently was bought by Google executive Ruth Porat for the sum of $30 million. That’s right, $30 million. For a three-bedroom house of 5,000 square feet. Contrast this with the massive displacement of ordinary working-class people and the diminishing if not evaporated chances of owning a home for what used to be called “the middle-class family.”

Writing from a leftist perspective, Palumbo-Liu would seek to address the crisis by instituting rent control and other forms of tenant protection. Many other authors, in contrast, emphasize instead the lack of new construction, which in turn stems largely from environmental and quality-of-life opposition to development. As Gabriel Metcalf, writing in CityLab (from The Atlantic), argues in regard to the city/county of San Francisco:

Regardless of these realities, most San Francisco progressives chose to stick with their familiar stance of opposing new development, positioning themselves as defenders of the city’s physical character. Instead of forming a pro-growth coalition with business and labor, most of the San Francisco Left made an enduring alliance with home-owning NIMBYs. It became one of the peculiar features of San Francisco that exclusionary housing politics got labeled “progressive.” … Over the years, these anti-development sentiments were translated into restrictive zoning, the most cumbersome planning and building approval process in the country, and all kinds of laws and rules that make it uniquely difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to add housing in San Francisco.

(See also this article by Conor Friedersdor for a similar perspective.)


Bay Area Housing Production MapAlthough Metcalf and Friedersdor focus their discussions on San Francisco, their observations hold just as well—if not better—for the Bay Area’s other cities and towns. Here again we can turn to cartography for clear evidence, thanks to Scott Wiener and his article “Want to Know Why the Bay Area Has a Housing Crisis? Read This Map” (the map in question is from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, and is posted here to the left). As can be seen, San Francisco is doing much better in reaching its modest housing-construction goals than most other cities in the region. Oakland, which has experienced skyrocketing rents over the past year, is doing much worse, whereas tony San Rafael in ultra-hip Marin County is apparently adding no new housing whatsoever.


Most young people growing up in Silicon Valley and San Francisco will be forced to leave their communities on reaching adulthood, as they will simply not be able to afford local housing. Could this impending “expulsion from home” contribute to the well-known “stress epidemic” that is plaguing Silicon Valley teens? Over the past few years, the small city of Palo Alto—arguably the heart of the Valley—has been in anguish over two spates of suicides at Henry M. Gunn High School. A recent article in The Atlantic, “The Silicon Valley Suicides: Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves,” has riveted—and angered—much of the community. Most analyses of the problem focus on the pressure felt by Gunn students to excel at academics and everything else that they take on—and to take on a lot. Could some of this pressure stem from a simple desire to remain in their home cities, something that demands a high salary at a young age? My daughter, an 11th grader at Henry M. Gunn, gives this idea some credence.

California Customizable Maps (Keynote, older version)

California Customizable Maps (PowerPoint)



Argentina’s Controversial Energy Policies

Argentina Oil Natural GasAs noted in the previous post, the most economically productive areas of Argentina depend heavily on the extraction of oil and natural gas. Argentina, however, is not a major fossil-fuel producer, and its reserves of conventional oil and natural gas are modest. Although it still exports some crude oil and until recently sold large quantities of natural gas to Chile, Argentina has been a net importer of both gas and oil since 2011. Its economy is also heavily dependent on fossil fuels, with natural gas alone supplying 55 percent of its total energy supply. Considering Argentina’s high inflation rate and other economic difficulties, this situation generates considerable concern.


Argentina does, however, possess massive quantities of unconventional oil and natural gas. Such deposits are locked up in shale formations and are Shale Gas and Tight Oil by Countryonly economically recoverable through hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). According to most estimates, Argentina’s shale gas reserves are second only to those of China, while its tight oil reserves are the world’s fourth largest. Most of the country’s shale gas and tight oil deposits are found in the Vaca Muerta (“dead cow”) formation, located mostly in Neuquén province. A year ago, optimism ran high in this region, as many experts predicted a boom similar to the one that had had emerged in the Bakken Formation of North Dakota. As noted in The Economist in 2014:

Argentina Vaca Muerta MapNeuquén is readying itself for a boom. Shopping centres have sprung up; so have clean new hotels that boast English-speaking staff and American-style food. Horacio Quiroga, the city’s mayor, compares its residents to expectant diners who have tied on their bibs. Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, is equally hopeful. “I shall no longer call [it] Vaca Muerta,” she said last year. “I shall call it Vaca Viva (‘Living Cow’).”

But at the same time, other observers were urging caution. Shale-gas deposits elsewhere in the world were proving more difficult to tap than those of North America, in part because of local geological particularities but also because of the large amounts of capital and high levels of technical expertise required for successful fracking. In most cases, substantial foreign investment would be necessary. Argentina’s history of fraught relations with overseas-based energy companies, however, has created major investment obstacles.

But despite such problems, significant investments have been made in in the Argentine energy field over the past several years. A recent report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration contends that outside of North America only China and Argentina have produced commercial volumes of gas and oil from fracking. As detailed in the report:

In Argentina, many international companies hold leases and have drilled wells in shale formations. Much of the initial activity has targeted shale oil and natural gas in the Neuquen Basin’s Vaca Muerta shale formation, located in west-central Argentina. National energy company Yacimientos Petroliferos Fiscales (YPF), the largest shale operator in the country, reported production in April 2015 of 22,900 barrels per day (b/d) of oil and 67 million cubic feet per day (MMcf/d) of natural gas from three joint ventures in Vaca Muerta: one with Chevron at the Loma Campana field, a second one with Dow Chemical at the El Orejano field, and a third joint venture with Petronas at La Amarga Chica field. In addition, China’s national oil company Sinopec and Russia’s national oil company Gazprom have recently signed a memorandum of understanding with YPF to jointly develop shale from the same basin.

Considering its economic difficulties, the Argentine government is not surprisingly eager to frack for natural gas and oil. The steep drop in the global price of oil over the past year, however, threatens the viability of the industry. Argentina has responded, as it often does, by manipulating the market. In particular, its government has fixed the local price of oil at US$ 77 a barrel, a figure almost twice that of the world market. Such policies aid producers, but harm consumers. As explained by Bloomberg Business:

South America’s second-largest* and most enigmatic economy is marching to its own drummer. In most of the developing world, governments subsidize fuel prices. In Argentina, motorists now are subsidizing oil and gas producers.

“This is not sustainable in the long term,” said Agustin Torroba, senior analyst at Montamat & Associates, an energy consulting firm. “It is the most expensive oil in the world.”

The policies of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, whose second four-year term ends in December, are rarely considered conventional. In addition to energy, Argentina’s unusual approach to economic management includes currency and import controls, export taxes, reneging on sovereign debt commitments and general acceptance of 25 percent inflation.


As is true elsewhere, fracking has generated considerable controversy in Argentina, as can clearly be seen in the website ASF Argentina Sin Fracking. Opposition to the process by Pope Francis has gathered considerable attention, both in Argentina and abroad. In eastern Argentina, many communities have instituted fracking bans. As was recently reported in Free Speech Radio News:

The red carpet treatment for foreign energy companies has met resistance in various parts of Argentina.

Authorities in around 50 municipalities have enacted local fracking bans in response to public pressure. This has, in turn, created a power struggle between national and local officials over what steps communities can take to prevent energy projects.

“We want to have the right to protect our water from pollution, to keep living in our hometowns,” says Ignacio Zabaleta with the Assembly of Fracking-Free Territories, a network of groups opposed to the extraction technique. “It’s a response to the sidelining of the will of the people. It’s about people who have lived in certain areas for centuries being displaced for the benefit of two or three corporations and for the benefit of corrupt and immoral officials.”

Most of the municipalities that have rejected fracking are in the province of Entre Rios, home to part of the Guaraní Aquifer — one of the world’s largest underground bodies of freshwater. The aquifer spans the borders of Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay.


Argentina will be holding a presidential election in late October of this year. Some observers think that the outcome could significantly influence the country’s economic and energy policies. A recent Stratfor report, however, argues to the contrary. Its forecast runs as follows:

  • Regardless of election outcomes in October, Argentina’s next government will begin liberalizing its economy, potentially loosening restrictions on the repatriation of funds, reducing the enforcement of price controls and reducing subsidies.

  • Despite slight changes to Argentina’s regulatory framework, the government will continue to bar some investment and businesses to stem capital flight and to maintain a positive trade balance.

  • Though the next administration may begin laying the groundwork to attract greater energy investments, the country’s barriers are unlikely to be completely lifted during the next presidential term.

* This assertion is questionable. Although most data assembled by international economic organizations place the Argentine economy above that of Colombia in both nominal and purchasing-power-parity terms, a 2014 International Business Times article came to a different conclusion:

Argentina, once the third-strongest economy in the western hemisphere, extended its decades-long decline by ceding the No. 3 spot among Latin American economies to Colombia later this year — thanks to the second-weakest currency in the region, soaring inflation, weak economic growth and chronic political problems, Capital Economics said on Monday. Brazil and Mexico remain No. 1 and No 2, respectively.


Oil, Coal, and Economic Development in Colombia

Although Colombia is not usually classified as a major oil-producer, it ranks 19th in the world according to the Wikipedia, turning out more than a million barrels a day in late 2014. Although this figure was well below that of Venezuela (2.5 million barrels a day), it surpassed those of such well-known oil exporters as Oman and Azerbaijan. It is no surprise, therefore, that Colombia has taken an economic hit from the recent decline in the price of oil. Compounding Colombia’s woes are the continuing strikes on its oil infrastructure by leftist rebels. According to a recent Financial Times article, “rebel attacks on pipelines cost state-controlled oil company Ecopetrol $430m in lost output last year.” As a result of such problems, the “Colombian peso [is] one of the weakest freely-traded currencies in the world, rivalling the rouble and the Brazilian real by falling 36 per cent over the past 12 months.”

Colombia exports treemapBut as another Financial Times article notes, Colombia has been able to weather the recent economic storm better than most oil exporters. The Colombian economy is buffered by its broad production of other goods. As its currency has fallen, exports such as coffee, flowers, car parts, and textiles have surged ahead. Columbia is particularly competitive in swimwear and Venezuela Exports Treemapunderwear; in 2013, its international sales in these categories brought in some US$ 133 million. As the export treemaps posted here show, Colombia is much less dependent on oil than Venezuela, its neighbor and rival. (Tensions between these two countries have intensified in recent weeks, as Venezuela has closed the border and deported hundreds of Colombians.)

Colombia GDP per capita mapBut despite the profitability of some of Colombia’s other exports, oil still looms large. Its significance is readily apparent in the map of per capita GDP posted to the left. As the map shows, the value of goods and services produced per person in Colombia’s 32 departments varies by more than an order of magnitude. The Colombia oil mapmost economically productive departments, Meta, Arauca, and Casanare, form the heartland of the Colombian oil industry. All are relatively lightly populated Colombia GDP per capita map 2lowland departments; Casanare, for example, has only around 350,000 inhabitants. Their economic productivity runs counter to the more general Colombian pattern, as the country’s elevated plateaus tend to be more prosperous than its lowlands. This pattern is apparent on the next map, in which the highland zone is outlined within dark black lines.

Per capita GDP figures, however, do not necessarily tell us much about the actual economic conditions found in particular places. At the sub-national level, wealth from extractive industries in peripheral areas often flows to more politically powerful regions. Unfortunately, more economically revealing statistics on such measures as average household income are not readily available for Colombia. Colombia Reports, however, has posted a Colombia poverty mappoverty-distribution map, which unfortunately lacks a key and excludes Arauca, Casanare and other eastern departments. As can be seen, oil-rich Meta has a relatively low poverty rate, but not to the extent that one might expect based on its raw economic output. Meta’s per capita GDP figure is roughly three times that of Cundinamarca, yet Cundinamarca, located near the capital city of Bogotá, has a lower poverty rate. Poverty is most pronounced in the distressed Pacific coastal department of Chocó, moreover, even though Chocó is more economically productive on a per capita basis than such departments as Nariño and Sucre.

Colombia kidnapping mapIn some respects, Colombia’s oil-rich departments are more troubled than many much less economically productive areas. The oil industry apparently attracts not just attacks on infrastructure by rebels, but also other forms of crime and violence. As the Colombia Reports kidnapping map shows, Meta, Arauca, and Casanare rank at the top of this unfortunate indicator. Kidnapping in Chocó, a department noted for drug smuggling and corruption, is also elevated.

Colombia’s oil industry is associated with a significant amount of environmental degradation, although its severity is much debated. Many locals even attributed a severe drought that hit Casanare Department in 2014 to oil extraction. Although oil drilling itself has no influence on precipitation, it is possible that a variety of oil-extraction activities reduce dry-season stream flow. Informed observers, however, are more inclined to blame such problems on deforestation in the headwater areas located in the Cocuy Highlands. More recently, however, the problem has been one of excess rain, as floods in early and mid-August 2015 forced many people in Casanare to flee to higher ground.

Colombia coal graphOil is by no means Columbia’s only major source of energy. The country has a fair amount of natural gas and significant hydroelectric potential. Coal is even more important. Colombia ranks 11th in the world in coal production, and its standing in terms of coal reserves is similar. Colombia’s reserves are almost entirely composed of high-quality anthracite and bituminous coal. Colombia coal mapAs a consequence, both production and exports have surged ahead in recent years. Colombia’s largest coal mines are located in the northern departments of La Guajira and Cesar, but deposits are widely scattered across the northwestern half of the country.

Global coal prices have dropped significantly, and the use of the fuel is of course increasingly opposed due to concerns about climate change. Some coal producers operating in Colombia, however, remain committed to expansion. As was recently reported in BloomburgBusiness:

Murray Energy Corp. plans to increase output at the Colombian coal mines it bought from Goldman Sachs Group Inc. this month, betting it can lower costs enough to withstand the prospect of several more years of low prices.

The U.S. coal producer founded by Robert E. Murray intends to push up the annual output rate at the La Francia mine in northern Colombia to 3 million tons by the end of the year from about 2.5 million tons now, Murray said in a telephone interview Monday from his headquarters in St. Clairsville, Ohio.

The industry is in a “very distressed and dangerous condition,” with low prices set to last through the end of 2017, he said. “Murray Energy has done its planning to contend with and compete in this depressed market.”

Local activists, not surprisingly, have leveled harsh criticisms against foreign-based coal producers operating in Colombia. Glencore PCL in particular has been accused of “whisking profits out of the country, while causing environmental and labor issues.”



Short GeoCurrents Break, But First a Seemingly Impossible Rainfall Map

(Note to readers: GeoCurrents will soon be taking a short summer break. Regular posting will resume in mid-August. But before the pause begins, I have one more post, which discusses the possibility of a seemingly impossible map. )

California July 2015 RainfallThe map posted to the left appears to be bogus, as it depicts patterns that would seemingly not be found in nature. It shows precipitation over a specific 30-day period (from late June to late July, 2015) in California, mapped as a percentage of average precipitation, recorded over many years, during the same one-month span. Over a large swath of the central part of the state, colored dark red, rainfall is shown as having been extremely meager, less than five percent of what would normally be expected. Yet just to the northwest, northeast, and south of this region, large areas are depicted as having been extremely wet during this same period, with more than 600 percent of average rainfall. (This map, and the next three maps in this post, are found here.)

At first glance, such a pattern might appear highly unlikely but not actually impossible. What seems truly absurd is rather the lack of intermediate gradations. Along the “A-B” line that I have inserted only one intermediate color is encountered between the dark red of “less than five percent” and the hot pink of “more than 600 percent.” Such mapping seems to contradict the continuous nature of natural phenomena such as rainfall, and therefore appears impossible. Would not one have to pass through all of the color categories on the map when moving from a place with the highest value to a place with the lowest value? Yet as it so happens, that is not the case in this instance.

The most basic problem here is one of scale. Intermediate categories are present but cover areas too small to appear on the map. They would be present, in other words, if the map had been made at a much larger scale. Such a map, however, would be much too large to depict all of California on a single computer screen.

More interesting issues are encountered when we consider the specific features of California’s climate along with the unusual weather that the state experienced in mid July 2015 that led to such an bizarre map.

California July Rainfall 2015 Map 3Over the lowlands and hills of central and southern California, July precipitation is essentially nil, as can be seen on the next map. Only over the highest mountains does average rainfall in this period reach 0.5 inches (12 mm). In the lowlands, most years see no rainfall during this time of the year. But every decade or so a rare rain event occurs, generating average rainfall totals of a couple hundredths of an inch. In Sacramento, for example, July precipitation averages 0.04 inches, but in most years the actual figure is absolutely nothing. As a result, the dark-red areas on the map that appear abnormally dry during this period actually experienced typical conditions.

California’s extreme summer drought can make an area that received a California July 2015 Rainfall Map 2meager shower seem quite wet on a map such as this. The location near Sacramento labeled “C “is shown as receiving more than 200 percent of average rainfall on the fist map, but as the next map shows, all that it got was around 0.1 of an inch (2.5 mm).

The most striking feature of the initial map is the vast area that received more than 600 percent of average precipitation. Due to the hyper-aridity of California’s summer, some of these areas received only about a quarter of an inch. Other places, however, got more than two inches (50 mm), and one small area recorded over five inches (127 mm), staggeringly high figures for mid-summer in California. Most of this rain resulted from an unusual influx of moisture in the middle of the month from the so-called Arizona monsoon. The rainfall associated with this event pushed northward about halfway up the state and then abruptly terminated, giving rise to the extraordinarily sharp gradient along the “A-B” line in the first map. (In northwestern California, the relatively high precipitation figures for this period also reflect the unusual passage of an upper-level low-pressure center earlier in the month.)

California 2015 Rainfall MapThe rain that did fall in California this summer did very little to alleviate the state’s on-going, multi-year drought. As can be seen in the map posted to the left, almost all parts of the state are well below average for the period extending back to October 1, 2014. Oddly, however, there are a few specks of green and even of blue on this map, indicating higher than average rainfall. Palo Alto, where I live, is on the edge of one of these small zones, as it received unusually heavy rain during two December 2014 storms.

Climate Prediction MapDrought-weary Californians are hoping that the El Niño conditions that have emerged over the eastern Pacific presage a wet winter. Climate prediction maps, however, indicate a good chance of a heavier than normal precipitation only in the southern two-thirds of the state. California’s vast water delivery system, however, relies mostly on precipitation that falls in the northern third of the state.



Aysén Chile in Comparative Context

Chile North America Map ComparisonTo understand the physical geography and scale of Chile, it is useful to compare it to its North American counterpart, a region that extends in the north-south direction from southeastern Alaska to Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula, and which is bounded to the east by highland crests. As I was not able to find any maps that made this comparison explicitly, I constructed my own in a somewhat crude manner using Google Earth images. I inverted the resulting map of Chile to keep each region in the same perspective, with the poleward extremity on the top and the equator-facing extremity on the bottom.

As can be seen, the resemblance is rather extraordinary. To be sure, some major differences exist. Chile’s desert region in the lower part of the map, for example, is much drier than that of Baja California. Corresponding climate belts are in general displaced somewhat toward the equator in Chile, as can be seen in the relative positions of the 30° latitude line on the two maps. Valdivia, Chile at latitude 39°, for example, has a climate similar to “the windward side of the Olympic Mountains in the Pacific Northwest region of North America” (according to its Wikipedia article), which is situated at around 47°.

Aisen Chile MapChile’s Aysén (or Aisén) Region is situated in the same general latitude range as the states of Oregon and Washington in the United States, but is climate, vegetation, and landforms are much more similar to those of western British Columbia or southeastern Alaska. A little larger than Iceland, Aysén has only 94,271 inhabitants, fewer than live in Reykjavík, Iceland’s capital, giving it an extraordinarily low population density. Excluding indigenous inhabitants, it was also very recently settled. Its main port, Puerto Aysén was established in 1914 and not recognized as a city until 1928. (I find it intriguing that “Aysén” exists at four separate levels of Chile’s official spatial hierarchy, as can be seen in the map posted to the left.)

Aysen Region ChileThe terrain in western Aysén Region is not particularly conducive to heavy human settlement, given its steep slopes and intricate mixture of mountains and waterways. More favorable areas are found further to the east, especially around Coihaique, the region’s capital city (population 54,000). Coihaique is even younger than Puerto Aysén, having been founded in 1929. As the Wikipedia article puts it, “Until the twentieth century, Chile showed little interest in exploiting the remote Aisén region.”

The Lonely Planet description of Coihaique is interesting in regard its depiction of both the town’s appearance and its problems:

The cow town that kept growing, Coyhaique is the regional hub of rural Aisén, urbane enough to house the latest techie trends, mall fashions and discos. All this is plopped in the middle of an undulating range, with rocky humpback peaks and snowy mountains in the backdrop. For the visitor, it’s the launch pad for far-flung adventures, be it fly-fishing, trekking the ice cap or rambling the Carretera Austral to its end at Villa O’Higgins.

For those fresh from the rainforest wilderness of northern Aisén, it can be a jarring relapse into the world of semi trucks and subdivisions. Rural workers come to join the timber or salmon industries and add to the growing urban mass. In February 2012, massive citizen protests shut down the region and highlighted problems with poor public services and the high cost of living in Patagonia. The movement, known as Fuerza Aysén, expressed a growing frustration with the central government that remains unresolved.


Chile Patagonian Steppe MapWhat I find most intriguing about Coihaique is its mere location on the east side of the Andes. I had always assumed that the Patagonian border between Chile and Argentina generally followed the Andean spine, with Chile occupying the wet west and Argentina the dry east. In actuality, Chilean Coyhaique Satellite Mapterritory in several parts of Aysén Region extends well into the semi-arid steppe zone. The town of Chico Chile, for example, receives only 296 millimeters (11.6 inches) of rain a year. In Puerto Aysén the figure is 2,647 millimeters (104 inches). The Coihaique area, however, occupies an intermediate position, with annual rainfall of just under 1,000 millimeters, or 40 inches. Glasgow, Scotland makes a fairly close Chile Coyhaique Climateclimatic analogue of Coihaique, as can be seen in the paired Wikipedia climate tables posted here.

Troubled Socotra – the “World’s Most Alien Place” – Seeks Autonomy

Socotra mapYemen’s Socotra Archipelago, dominated by the main island of the same name, is best known for its unique flora, with almost 700 species found nowhere else. Some of its plants have gained fame for their unusual forms, such as the dragon blood tree and the cucumber tree. Socotra’s millions of years of isolation, its complex geology, and its harsh climate have contributed to the evolution of its vegetational oddities. Owing to such plant life, the Dragon Blood Treeisland is often described as the “most alien place on Earth” (see also here). It has also been famed since antiquity as a place of magic. Marco Polo supposedly claimed that, “The people of this island are the most expert enchanters in the world.”

Cucumber TreeA relatively arid land, most of the island receives only about 250 millimeters (10 inches) of rain annually, fairly evenly distributed across the year. The Haghier Mountains in the center-northeast, which reach 1,500 meters (almost 5,000 feet), are considerably wetter and cooler than the rest of the island. Catching both the southwest and northeast monsoon winds, Socotra Satellite Imagethese highlands experience frequent seasonal fog. As a recent meteorological study concluded, “Preliminary measurements suggest that at higher altitudes, fog-derived moisture may constitute up to two-thirds of total moisture, amounting up to 800 mm.” Fog drip is vital for dragon blood tree, which in turn provides shade necessary for the survival of many other species. The tree itself is widely regarded as something of a wonder, as its red resin provides a wide array of products. According to the Wikipedia, it is used as a stimulant, abortifacient, astringent, toothpaste, breath freshener, lipstick, wound dressing, coagulant, varnish (especially for violins), and treatment for rheumatism, diarrhea, dysentery, fever, and ulcers.

Unfortunately, Socotra is currently a troubled place, and even its iconic dragon blood tree is in some danger. Socotra’s problems are mostly not of its own doing, but rather stem from the fact that it is part of Yemen. As Al Jazeera recently reported:

The current power vacuum in Yemen has left Socotra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in a precarious situation. Concerned about the rise in food, fuel and gas prices, islanders have scrambled to purchase goods in the island’s capital, Hadibo. Budgets for infrastructure and recreation have also dropped amid the turmoil, island residents say – and because all flights to Socotra require a stopover on the mainland, tourism has also taken a hit.

According to the BBC, tourist arrivals dropped from around 4,000 in 2010 to some 1,400 in 2013, delivering a devastating blow to the nascent business. But tourism on Socotra seems to be adapting, and direct flights from Dubai now available weekly for $650. The drop in fuel subsidies, however, continues to generate discomfort. According to a recent article in Yemen Times, “the island’s pristine nature and rare plant life has come under threat from a domestic fuel crisis that has left locals without gas or electricity, forcing many to begin cutting down the rare trees to collect firewood”

Socotra has faced other perils in recent years. In 2011, reports claimed that Somali pirates were using the archipelago as a refueling hub. More recently, rumors have been circulating that the United States and Yemen are planning “to build a military prison — a ‘new Guantánamo’ — on the remote island of Socotra.” A less likely threat comes from the government of Somalia, which has “claimed that the islands of Yemeni Socotra Archipelago are part of it, requesting the United Nations to determine the status of the archipelago…” Considering Somalia’s inability to control its own territory, such claims hardly seem realistic. They would also be vehemently rejected by the majority of Socotra’s inhabitants, whose cultural and historical affinities are with the Al Mahrah region of eastern Yemen, not Somalia. (The marginalized

Greater Somalia MapSocotran minority of African descent, however, might feel otherwise.) Still, in newspaper discussion forums, some commentators claim that Socotra is rightfully part of Somalia. Here I find the comments of one Hassan Adam to be particularly pertinent: “In the good old days of greater Somalia we were taught in the school that Socotra is part of Somalia — but no more.  I guess Somaliland or Djibouti could claim better. Today its part and parcel of Yemen and the people are more Yeminate in their Arabic than Somali. Let us conserve for all.”

Although, as Hassan Adam notes, Arabic is widely spoken on Socotra, it is not the first language of the island’s indigenous inhabitants. The people of Socotra, some 50,000 strong, speak Soqotri, a South Arabian Languages Mapmodern South Arabian language most closely related to Mehri of Yemen’s Al Mahrah Governorate. Soqotri, however, is quite distinctive. As noted in the Wikipedia, “the isolation of the island of Socotra has led to the Soqotri language independently developing certain phonetic characteristics absent in even the closely related languages of the mainland.” As Marie-Claude Simeone-Senelle noted in a 2003 study, Soqotri is characterized by a high level of dialectal diversity. She expressed concern, however, that many of its dialects are disappearing. She also claimed that the language itself is under some threat from the spread of Arabic:

The influence of Arabic is noticeable in the numeration system: seven years ago, Soqotri people, from the inland or remote places, used the Soqotri system of numeration from one to ten in commercial transactions with other Soqotri speakers in ˆadibo. But, in 2001 in ˆadibo, even old people used Arabic system, and it was very difficult to obtain the first ten numbers in Soqotri from young people. When they remember Soqotri, the syntax was often incorrect, and copied from Arabic.

Many young people in the town borrow from Arabic, and code-switch with Arabic; they do not remember any piece of literature…

One problem faced by Soqotri is its historical lack of a written form that could be used to preserve the island’s rich poetic traditions. That stumbling block, however, has recently been eliminated, as a Russian team of linguists led by Vitaly Naumkin has devised a writing system for the language. As was recently reported in Al Jazeera:

[Naumkin’s] team also invited Socotri-speaking “informants” to Moscow – where they spent months retelling their mother island’s oral poetry and folk tales, or conjugating verbs for the Socotri grammar tables.

There, in 2010, one of the informants named ‘Isa Gum’an used the Arabic script to write down a story he’d heard from a friend. “It was our major surprise … when one November evening in 2010, ‘Isa Gum’an somewhat timidly revealed to us that, in order to better preserve an interesting story he had heard from a friend a few days earlier, he had decided to put it in writing using Arabic script,” Naumkin wrote in the preface to the 2014 book of Socotran folklore.

The eureka moment prompted the invention of an easily accessible Socotri alphabet based on the Arabic script. To reflect the phonetics of Socotri, Russian linguists decided to add four letters to the Arabic alphabet – using symbols that denote non-Arabic phonemes in the languages of the Indian subcontinent.

But it was not the use of the Arabic script and additional symbols that make the new alphabet matter – it is the comprehensive scientific effort that followed it.

Such Russian interest in Socotra might seem surprising, but Socotra was formerly part of South Yemen, which was a close Soviet ally in the 1970s and ‘80s. For a time, the island even hosted a Soviet military base.

Today, political discontent in Socotra understandably runs high. Dissatisfaction with Yemeni rule, however, may be leading to a revival of the Soqotri language. A 2012 article by Nathalie Peutz provides essential context. As she reports:

For if revolution has reached Socotra, as many young enthusiasts in Hadiboh would claim, it is manifest not merely in the biweekly gatherings of male protesters marching through the dusty market to the familiar slogan, “The people want the fall of the regime.” It is evident also in the way that Socotrans have begun to speak openly and forcefully about their preferences for Socotra’s political future. And it was measurable in the islands’ largest cultural event, a five-day festival during which nine Socotran wordsmiths vied for the title of “poet of the year.” Now in its fourth year, the festival, which began on the eve of 2012, featured poem after poem, in the islanders’ native Suqutri tongue, reflecting on the Arab revolts, the turmoil on the mainland and the fate of the archipelago. Where political discontent long found expression in ruminations on a pastoral past, today it is articulated in contending verses on the prospects for Socotran sovereignty.

Mahra Sultanate MapPeutz also reports that although many Socotrans look back at the period when the island was part of the Mahra Sultanate of central-southern Arabia as a “time of autonomous, sovereign statehood,” they still tend to view the sultanate itself as a foreign, mainland imposition. As a result, many want full autonomy or even independence. Yemen did make Socotra a separate governorate in 2013, but that was not enough to satisfy local aspirations. But as Peutz’s reporting makes clear, Socotran’s are far from united in their vision of the island’s political future:

Many poets wrestled over the future of Socotra, with some calling for “return” to south Yemen (through secession with the former South) and others calling for total independence (or even restoration of the sultanate). Several presented the practical problems of secession; others argued for or against the former Socialist regime and Yemen’s 1990 unification. … Many poets decried the factionalism brewing in Socotra. One warned evocatively that, in such a climate, not even the swollen riverbeds yield pasture, though the streets were not yet stained with the “colors” (blood) of Tunisia or Libya. Another argued against the proposed Socotra Authority. Even the few verses about the sultanate were juxtaposed to the “fires” or “dark rain clouds” of the present.


Dhofar: The Other Arabia

Arabian PeninsulaThe Arabian Peninsula is a relatively coherent region, tied together by a number of common features. In terms of physical geography, it is noted for its harsh desert landscapes. Even the highlands of Yemen, which receive enough precipitation for rain-fed agriculture, are relatively dry, covered with vegetation that could hardly be described as lush. In terms of cultural geography, the peninsula is the homeland of the Arabic language and hence the Arab people. Most language maps show Arabia as entirely Arabic speaking.

A relatively small area in south-central Arabia, however, differs significantly from the rest of the peninsula on both measures. Designated in a general sense as Dhofar, this distinctive region includes the southwestern portion of Oman’s Dhofar (Ẓufār) Governorate and the southeastern corner of Yemen’s Al Mahrah (Al Mahra) Governorate. Most Dhofar Camels Khareefrural people here speak non-Arabic “Modern South Arabic languages,” although Arabic is more common in the cities and is spoken everywhere as a second language. In the Middle East, the region is most famous for its seasonally humid climate. From late June through August, the Khareef season, the moisture-laden winds of the southwest monsoon catch a limited portion of southern Arabia, turning the landscape a verdant green.

South Arabian Languages MapThe Modern South Arabian Languages are distantly related to Arabic, but they are more closely linked to the Semitic languages of Ethiopia, such as Amharic and Tigrinya. (They were formerly believed to be descendants of the Old South Arabian languages, such as Sabaean, but this is no longer the case). The two most important mainland Modern South Arabian Languages are Mehri, spoken in Arabian Peninsula language mapboth Oman and Yemen, and Shehri (or Jibbali), spoken in southwestern Oman. Mehri has roughly 125,000 speakers and Shehri some 45,000. The other languages in the group are spoken by only a few hundred or a few thousand people, and are thus regarded as severely endangered. Even Mehri may be at some risk, due to pervasive bilingualism and the fact that it has no written form. Locally, these languages are sometimes incorrectly regarded as aberrant dialects of Arabic, and thus of no great significance. The Wikipedia reports, however, that, “Jibbali [Shehri] pride and sense of separateness has contributed to a strengthening of speakers’ attachment to their minority language.” And even if these languages were to disappear, a degree of Arabic Dialects Maplinguistic separation would persist, as the local Dhofari dialect of Arabic is limited to the region and is distinctive enough that it is sometimes regarded as a language in its own right.





Middle East Rainfall MapIntriguingly, the climatic peculiarity of the Dhofar region is not apparent on most climate maps or in most climatological tables. The rainfall map of the Middle East posted here shows it as receiving less than 10 inches (254 mm) annually, the conventional cut-off for a desert climate, whereas the precipitation map of Oman depicts it as extremely arid, getting less than 100 Oman Rainfall Mapmillimeters (3.9 inches) per year. Climate data for Salalah, the largest city in Dhofar, gives a slightly higher figure of 131 millimeters (5.1) inches. But total rainfall is not the only pertinent measurement when it comes to potential vegetation, as such features as seasonality and relatively humidity also play important roles. As can be seen in the Salahla data, rainfall here is concentrated in July and August, a period of extremely highly relatively humidity and very little sunshine. Even so, Salalah remains a dry place, marked by desert vegetation. But if one Climate Table Salalahtravels to the mountainous escarpment just to the north of the city, rainfall totals are significantly higher. In the 2014 Khareef season, one station near Salalah received 499 millimeters or rain (around 20 inches). Although 2014 was a wet year, a sizable strip of land in this area turns a lush green every year, owing to the almost continual light rain and drizzle carried by the southwest monsoon winds.

Humid Areas of Dhofar Map 1I have not been able to find any maps of the seasonally humid lands of Dhofar. But Google Earth does allow crude mapping of this distinctive region, as the local vegetation is so much denser than that of neighboring regions that it clearly stands out in satellite images, even those captured at the end of the long dry season. Photographs attached to the Google Earth site further allow one to visually assess the vegetation, and hence get a rough sense of precipitation. As can be seen from the maps that I made and posted here, one Dhofar Khareefpart of the humid zone is limited to a narrow coastal strip in far southeastern Humid Areas of Dhofar Map3Yemen and the adjacent portion of Oman. A little to the east around Salalah, a drier coastal plain is encountered, with the (seasonally) humid zone found a bit to the north in the uplands and along the mountainous escarpment. Elevation is not the crucial factor, however, as in the loftier heights slightly further to the east the humid zone is attenuated and appears to support scantier Dhofar Khareef2vegetation. What really matters is the existence of uplands situated at the correct angle to catch the saturated winds of the southwest monsoon. But as weather stations are few in this part of the world, it is difficult to make conclusive statements.

Tourists flock to Dhofar to enjoy the green landscapes of the khareef season, and Oman is eager to enhance the flow. As a recent promotional article in the Times of Oman put it, “World-class hotels, villas, furnished apartments and accommodation areas are also ready to receive the growing number of tourists visiting the governorate during the tourist season.” Oman’s government, along with private organizations, are also interested in conserving the region’s unique environment. The Muscat Daily recently reported that the “Environment Society of Oman (ESO) has planted 900 saplings of indigenous species in Dhofar as part of its Native Tree Planting Campaign.” Particular attention is being given to the endemic Dhofar baobab, which has been reduced to some 200 individual trees.

Despite the Khareef rains, Dhofar in general is still a dry region, often beset by water shortages. As a result, plans have been made to collect some of the region’s ample fog drip. As reported in the Muscat Daily in 2013:

To tackle desertification in the governorate of Dhofar, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs (MECA), in cooperation with the Directorate General of Environment and Climate Affairs, is implementing fog collection project.

According to a press release, the directorate on recently received a delegation from Mitusbishi Company, which is implementing the project in the niyabat of Qyroon Hayrty. ‘It is one of the most important projects of the ministry to prevent desertification in Dhofar governorate. The project is being implemented in partnership with several international and regional organisations,’ the release stated.

Under the project, net traps, also called moisture traps, trap fog and condensate to produce water. ‘This water is expected to support the growth of vegetation in nearby areas and recharge groundwater.’


The next post will examine the political evolution of Dhofar and neighboring areas.


Is the Earth Greening? If So, Where and Where Not

Greening Earth Map 1Several important studies, based mostly on remote sensing, indicate that the world is gaining vegetation. According to Jesse H. Ausubel, director of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University, such “global greening” is “the most important ecological trend on Earth today. The biosphere on land is getting bigger, year by year, by 2 billion tons or even more.”

Such global greening runs counter to common concerns about global warming, which stress the probable increase in drought, as well as the fact that higher temperatures mean increased evapotranspiration, which, all other things being equal, hampers plant growth in arid and semiarid lands. But over the world as a whole, a warmer world will also be also a wetter world, due to increased evaporation over the oceans, resulting in enhanced plant growth in many areas. Higher temperatures in cold-limited arctic and sub-arctic environments can also generate greener conditions. Higher concentrations of carbon dioxide, moreover, can bolster vegetation almost everywhere. As explained in the Wikipedia:

Plants can grow as much as 50 percent faster in concentrations of 1,000 ppm CO2 when compared with ambient conditions, though this assumes no change in climate and no limitation on other nutrients. Elevated CO2 levels cause increased growth reflected in the harvestable yield of crops, with wheat, rice and soybean all showing increases in yield of 12–14% under elevated CO2 in FACE experiments.

Increased atmospheric CO2 concentrations result in fewer stomata developing on plants which leads to reduced water usage and increased water-use efficiency.


Although some writers argue that such global greening means that we need not fear climate change, most specialists take a more cautious stance. At a certain temperature level, any such benefits will be cancelled out. Increasing concentration of carbon dioxide is also linked to ocean acidification, which carries huge dangers of its own.

It is also essential to note that not all parts of the world have seen enhanced plant growth. Maps showing changes in primary production over the past several decades indicate that some areas have instead seen significant vegetative decline. The first map posted here, for example, shows significant “browning” in eastern Mongolia and adjacent parts of northern China, southeastern Australia, much of northwestern India, and especially the Chaco region of Paraguay and Argentina. It is not clear why these areas would run counter to the global norm, although drought is a likely culprit. In the Chaco, land clearing for agriculture might seem a possible factor, but other parts of South America that have seen similar land-use transformations are not mapped as having experienced a drop in primary productivity; agriculture, after all, can be quite productive.

Greening Earth Map 2As I have been intrigued by such maps of the “greening Earth” for some time, I decided to run a simple test by comparing a number of such maps to see if they show the same patterns. My effort here is highly preliminary and certainly not up to scientific standards: all that I had time to do was locate six Greening Earth Map 3such maps by a simple internet search of “greening Earth,” without checking the original sources. These maps are not fully comparable by any means, as they cover slightly different periods of time and are based on somewhat different measurements. But that said, they are still roughly Greening Earth Map 4comparably.

As it turns out, even the simplest comparison of these maps reveals major inconsistencies. Compare, for example, the depiction of south-central Africa Greening Earth Map 5in maps 1 and 6. In Map 1, which covers the period from 1990 to 2011, this area is shown as having experienced some of the world’s most intensive greening. In Map 6, on the other hand, which covers the period from 1980 to 2003, the same areas is shown as having experienced substantial “de-greening.” Hypothetically, the vegetative decline shown in Greening Earth Map 6Map 6 could have occurred in the 1980s, while much of the increase shown in Map 1 could have happened after 2003. Such a scenario, however, seems rather unlikely.

Bowning Earth MapOverall, these six maps depict quite different patterns of greening and browning. To highlight the inconsistencies, I have crudely indicated all the various areas shown as having experienced primary productivity declines on a single map, color-coding them according to the map on which they are so depicted. As can be seen, substantial overlap occurs in only a few parts of the world.

As a result of this little “experiment,” my confidence in the idea that the Earth is generally greening has been shaken. If these measurements are accurate, should not we expect widespread agreement? My own investigation, however, is admittedly crude, conducted over the course of a single afternoon. Perhaps some of these maps are reasonably accurate while others are deeply flawed. Surely further investigation would be warranted.

If the world were to “green” so extensively that large expanses of what are now barren deserts ended up being covered with vegetation, the results would be mixed. Local productivity would soar, but the oceans could suffer – and so too could distant tropical rainforests. Many of the nutrients that fertilize plankton originate from dust storms over the Bodélé DepressionSahara and other extreme deserts. Even the Amazon benefits from Saharan dust. The largest source of such nutrients is the former lakebed in northern Chad called the Bodélé Depression. New research, however, indicates that Lake Chad extended into this depression as recently as 1,000 years ago, raising questions about Amazonian fertilization in earlier times. As was recently reported in ScienceDaily:

“The Amazon tropical forest is like a giant hanging basket,” explains Dr Simon Armitage from the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway. “In a hanging basket, daily watering quickly washes soluble nutrients out of the soil, and these need to be replaced using fertiliser if the plants are to survive. Similarly, heavy washout of soluble minerals from the Amazon basin means that an external source of nutrients must be maintaining soil fertility. As the World’s most vigorous dust source, the Bodélé depression has often been cited as a likely source of these nutrients, but our findings indicate that this can only be true for the last 1,000 years,” he added.


Cannabis Cultivation, Carbon Budgets, and the Promise of Biochar

(Note: This is the final post in a brief end-of-the-year series on marijuana cultivation. After this series is over, GeoCurrents will take a short break. More conventional posting will resume by the middle of January.)

As is explained in a previous post, most marijuana growing currently carried out in California and neighboring states is environmentally destructive, generating a gargantuan carbon footprint. But it need not be. As I have learned from interviewing small-scale growers in northwestern California, the cultivation of cannabis can be done in an environmentally benign manner. The problem, as these producers see it, is the fact that neither the marijuana market nor the environmental movement gives them any credit for their efforts. They persist nonetheless, with the more devoted among them trying to figure out how to reduce their impact as much as possible.

The purpose of this post is merely to provide the perspective of a small group of individuals engaged in an interesting and legally nebulous* activity, not to advocate on their behalf. My own eco-political viewpoint, it is essential to note, deviates markedly from theirs. I adhere to the philosophy of eco-modernism, which holds that environmental protection is best achieved through continuing economic growth and technological progress, whereas they tend to be eco-romantics, skeptical of—if not hostile toward—both high technology and untrammelled economic development.

It is also important to note that although my interviewees all consider themselves ardent environmentalists, they themselves deviate from conventional green thinking, most importantly by veering toward a form of left-wing libertarianism. As is common among rural property owners, they are not opposed to the notion of property rights, and they generally think that they should be able to do they think is best on their own lands, allowing for reasonable exceptions. As a result, they are not fond of land-use restrictions and permitting regimes, and they are happy that the county in which they live is quite relaxed about such issues. Most of them also own guns, drive trucks, ride all-terrain vehicles, use chainsaws, and do not hesitate to employ heavy earth-moving equipment. Their culture might best be described as an unlikely hippie-redneck synthesis, which is precisely why I find it so fascinating. But unlike either the stereotypical hippie or redneck, these people tend to be well-read and highly intellectually engaged.

Environmentally conscientious growers are helped by the fact that cannabis is a hardy plant that is not particularly troubled by insects or other pests. To be sure, in greenhouses and indoor cultivation facilities, some pests can multiply uncontrollably, especially spider mites. But the growers I interviewed claim that in their operations this is almost never a problem. They did mention a few minor issues with leafhoppers and caterpillars of unknown species, but they also maintain OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAthat manual removal is adequate to keep their populations in check (small-scale growers typically lavish extraordinary attention on each plant). Their only real problem is bud-mold during the maturation period. Some spray neem oil on their plants during the earlier vegetative stage to reduce mold infestations, but once the buds have started to form the only remedy is manual removal followed by the spraying of alcohol to thwart further spread. Disagreement about the efficacy of this technique, however, is pronounced.

As mentioned in previous posts, one of the major forms of environmental damage associated with outdoor cultivation if the use of rodenticides to control woodrats. My informants again insist that this is not an issue in their operations. Woodrats do not actually eat cannabis plants, Woodratthey told me, but rather use the stems for nest building. One grower admitted that he had had a rat problem in his first year of operation, but after one season of concerted trapping he no longer suffers much damage. Separating gardens from the surrounding woods and meadows with stout redwood fencing, a precaution demanded by the county, also seems to help in this regard. Fencing also prevents harm from feral hogs, which can otherwise be a huge headache. Hogs do not eat the plants, but they do root into the irrigated soil for worms, causing extensive damage.

Although outdoor marijuana growing is vastly less carbon-intensive than indoor cultivation, it is certainly not carbon free. Everyone that I interviewed pumps water from wells, as cannabis is a water-demanding crop and the area in question has a Mediterranean climate with a rainless summer. One grower hopes to install solar panels to operate his pump, and another outlined a scheme for storing runoff during the rainy season, but as it now stands, they all use either grid-delivered electricity or fossil-fuel-powered generators. In the harvest season, the dehumidification of drying rooms is also necessary. In a year such as 2014, when the initial rains were relatively warm, dehumidification can be a major energy drain. During this season, intensive illumination is also required for trimming crews during the evening hours.

cloning2Even larger energy expenses are encountered among those who plant clones rather than seeds. Clones have one huge advantage over seeds, as every plant is guaranteed to be female, and males are worthless. The main problem with clones is that they cannot be grown exclusively under sunlight until late May, which reduces their growing time and therefore limits their size. This restraint stems from the fact that clones are obtained from indoor growers who keep them under light for 18 hours a day; as cannabis flowering is keyed to day length, if a clone is planted when the nights are still relatively long, the plants will prematurely bud. As a result, even outdoor growers sometimes augment the sun with artificial illumination for the first few weeks or even month of the growing season. Even Light Deprivationmore energy-demanding is the greenhouse-based system of light deprivation, which requires especially early planting but allows especially early harvesting, the latter achieved by artificially reducing day-length in the early summer with opaque coverings. But according to the more environmentally fastidious growers, “light dep” is halfway to indoor cultivation and is therefore to be shunned.

Some of those who grow by seed disdain the entire cloning procedure as unnatural. They further argue that clones are often weak, especially if they are derived from old mother-plants, and that even in the best of circumstances they never develop proper taproots. The main problem faced by those who grow from seeds is the fact that roughly half of their plants will be males, which not only must be uprooted and discarded, but which can also contaminate an entire crop if they release pollen before they are detected. Daily vigilance is needed to avoid this potential disaster. To remain within the new-ebb-n-flow+blackjack-clones3-16-10-0301county’s 25-plant limit throughout the season, such growers are therefore restricted to some 12 or 13 plants in the end. Some purchase expensive “feminized seeds” to try to increase the ratio of females to males, but the efficacy of this technique is also much debated.

But if carbon emissions are an unavoidable consequence of the cannabis production process, some growers nevertheless think that their operations can be carbon neutral or even carbon negative in the end. The key procedure here is carbon sequestration, Biochar1accomplished by burying charcoal the soil. Charcoal used in this manner is called biochar, which is defined by the Wikipedia as:

a name for charcoal when it is used for particular purposes, especially as a soil amendment. Like most charcoal, biochar is created by pyrolysis of biomass. Biochar is under investigation as an approach to carbon sequestration to produce negative carbon dioxide emissions. Biochar thus has the potential to help mitigate climate change, via carbon sequestration. Independently, biochar can increase soil fertility of acidic soils (low pH soils), increase agricultural productivity, and provide protection against some foliar and soil-borne diseases. Furthermore, biochar reduces pressure on forests. Biochar is a stable solid, rich in carbon and can endure in soil for thousands of years.

terra pretaAs environmentally diligent growers are quick to note, biochar has been used to enhance soil fertility and texture for thousands of years. It has been revealed as the secret ingredient of the perennially fertile terra preta soils of the Amazon Basin, which formed islands of agricultural productivity in an area otherwise noted for its impoverished soils, almost useless for long-term farming. These anthropogenic soils terra preta mapare discussed in detail in Charles Mann’s best-selling book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, a work well known among these growers. Interestingly, much of Mann’s analysis is rooted in the scholarship of geographers such as William Devevan who had trained in the old Berkeley school of cultural geography, the source of my own graduate education.

Growers who use biochar in hope of neutralizing their carbon budgets are also concerned about soil fertility. Charcoal by itself does not enhance fertility to a significant degree and can even be harmful if used in raw form, but it does allow fertility maintenance by greatly reducing nutrient leaching; it also boosts soil porosity and water retention. Biochar enthusiasts claim to be making investments that will last for thousands of years, permanently improving the quality of their lands. Growers who use biochar also argue that it produces healthier plants than those grown under other conditions. They have not, however, carried out any controlled experiments.

The growers I interviewed produce biochar in a crude manner. They simply burn piles of firewood during the rainy season, and then shovel dirt on the glowing embers after the flames have died down. The resulting charcoal, along with the potassium-rich ash, is then thrown into large hand-dug holes, approximately four feet deep and ten feet across, where it is mixed with manure, compost, and native soil and then allowed to age for months before planting. The growers admit, however, that this process is far from ideal, as it is both wasteful and polluting, generating a great deal of smoke. Much preferable, they contend, would be wood pyrolysis, which would allow them to capture both the flammable gasses and the smoke particles, turning them into useful products. The video pasted in below, produced at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, shows what they regard as an ideal system, one that would produce not only biochar but also wood-gas for home, water, or greenhouse heating, as well as wood tar (creosote); how exactly the wood tar would be used remains unclear**. But despite the enthusiasm of a few growers, no one has yet constructed a pyrolysis apparatus. One problem is that dreams here tend to exceed realities. Whether that results from excess consumption of the crop produced on these micro-farms remains an open question.



Finally, the enthusiasm for biochar extends beyond carbon sequestration and soil improvement to encompass landscape management. A significant amount of wood must be cut every year, they insist, to preserve the existing ecological balance. The area in question supports a vegetational mosaic in which dense redwood and tanoak forests predominate on north- and east-facing slopes, but where south- and west-facing slopes are, or at least were, mostly covered by grass. Rainfall is heavy enough, however, that forests spread everywhere in the absence of human intervention. In earlier times, regular burning maintained the mosaic. Native Americans burned extensively, and the sheep-raising settlers who replaced them intensified the practice. But with fires all but eliminated, grassy slopes are being colonized vigorously by Douglas fir and a few other light-loving tree species. As a result, open-country animals such as jackrabbits (hares, actually) that were formerly abundant have been diminishing in number. Biochar production, its proponents argue, thus helps maintain a higher level of biodiversity than would otherwise be found.

biochar2One grower goes so far as to contend that biochar offers a global solution to almost all problems associated with climate change, energy production, and agricultural productivity. Here my deeply cultivated skepticism kicks in. At the local scale, biochar does seem to offer a number of advantages, but in planetary terms I suspect that its promise is quite limited. But I would certainly like to see more research on the topic.

* As mentioned in the first post in this series, the growers in question all run small-scale operations that are as legal as possible. They cultivate under medical license, remain within the county’s 25-plant limit, and sell their product to official medical dispensaries. According to the federal government of the United States, however, their activities are completely illegal.

**Wood tar does have a wide array of potential uses, the most intriguing of which are medicinal and gustatory. Food preserved by smoking is essentially conserved by tar. According to the Wikipedia,

Tar Liquor SaunaIn Finland, wood tar was once considered a panacea reputed to heal “even those cut in twain through their midriff”. A Finnish proverb states that “if sauna, vodka and tar won’t help, the disease is fatal.” Wood tar is used in traditional Finnish medicine because of its microbicidal properties.


Wood tar is also available diluted as tar water, which has numerous uses:

  • As a flavoring for candies (e.g., Terva Leijona) and alcohol (Terva Viina)

  • As a spice for food, like meat

  • As a scent for saunas. Tar water is mixed into water, which is turned into steam in the sauna

  • As an anti-dandruff agent in shampoo

  • As a component of cosmetics.

Why Does the Environmental Movement Ignore Carbon-Intensive Indoor Marijuana Cultivation?

As noted at the end of the previous post, many anti-environmentalists no doubt view hypocrisy over carbon-intensive indoor marijuana cultivation as evidence that environmental politics is not really what it claims to be, as it is apparently more concerned about advancing a broad political agenda than it is about greenhouse-gas emissions per se. This view is widely encountered in a variety of eco-skeptical blogs and other media outlets. One common refrain runs as follows: “I’ll take global warming seriously when the people who say it’s a problem begin acting as if they believe it.”

Al Gore Energy ConsumptionEvidence that prominent environmentalists often act as if they are not very concerned about carbon dioxide emissions comes from a variety of sources. Most often mentioned are the personal lifestyles of noted eco-activists, with critics pillorying Al Gore for the gargantuan energy demand of his Nashville mansion and Bill McKibben for the prodigious air millage that he racks up. Some of these criticisms seem somewhat unfair to me, such as those leveled at McKibben, whose political activities require frequent flying. Others, however, hit closer to their targets, such as those focused on the head of the Sea Change Foundation, Nathaniel Simons, who commutes from Berkeley to San Francisco on a gas-guzzling, 1,550-horsepower, 54-foot luxury yacht.

But such personal matters are not really central to the allegation that the Germany New Coal Power Plants mapenvironmental movement does not in practice prioritize greenhouse-gas emissions. More important is the fact that most green activists steadfastly oppose many carbon-free technologies, including nuclear power and hydroelectricity. Indeed, the most fervent environmentalists typically regard these power sources as anathema, and thus hope to dismantle existing dams and reactors. Yet as Germany’s energy transition demonstrates, denuclearization has been associated with rising CO2 emissions, the increased mining and burning of coal, and surging residential electricity costs; even deforestation has been heightened by rapidly expanding biomass combustion. Likewise, the environmental movement as a whole loathes natural gas derived from fracking, which many experts think has significantly reduced carbon emissions by replacing coal; according to a detailed recent report by the Breakthrough Institute, “the growth of natural gas generation, along with reduced electricity demand, is responsible for the vast majority of reduced emissions in the US power sector since Germany Biomass Map2007.” Even many of the carbon-sparing transformations that environmentalists celebrate in theory are more often than not opposed in practice. While urban intensification may be lauded in recent environmental writings, try getting new high-density housing developments approved by the municipal authorities of such eco-friendly cities as Berkeley, San Francisco, or Palo Alto. The same goes for wind power, which tends to be supported only when it is installed in others peoples’ backyards, and even then the appalling bird and bat mortality as well as the rural industrial sprawl entailed by windfarms give many activists second thoughts, and for good reason.

Instead, almost all environmental faith is placed in solar power, which is currently unable to provide anything near the level of electricity required by modern societies. Solar power’s biggest problem is its failure to flow when the sun is not shining, which occurs significantly more than 50 percent of the time in most places. When this Energy storage optionsimpediment is pointed out, the typical green response is to emphasize energy-storage technologies, which often entails abruptly switching to a mode of technological optimism and extolling new storage devices that are supposedly just around the corner. Here again it is difficult to deny the charge of hypocrisy. To begin with, all forms of energy storage cause their own environmental problems, which are often severe but are almost always overlooked. Lead-acid batteries, the typical choice in off-grid solar systems, are especially problematic. As noted in EC&M:

During normal operations, SLABS [stationary lead-acid battery storage systems] have their own Pandora’s box of environmental compliance, enforcement, and liability concerns. Batteries (whether sealed or flooded) present a potentially large remediation and liability expense in terms of sulfuric acid and lead. Since sulfuric acid and lead are extremely hazardous, the potential of a hazardous material spill exists anywhere you have SLABS.

But ignoring the eco-hazards of energy storage is only the beginning, as mainstream environmentalists tend more generally to regard technological optimism as the height of naiveté. Green activists often revile as cornucopian fools those who think that a wide array of existing and forthcoming technologies will allow continuing economic growth without destroying the planet in the process, while lauding as planetary saviors those who see solar salvation in some yet-unrealized energy-storage technology. Here again, the paradoxes run deep indeed.



Given these inconsistent attitudes, it is perhaps understandable that many anti-environmentalists would conclude that anthropogenic global warming is more a smokescreen than an actual focus of concern in and of itself. But the reality is more complicated than that. Most environmentalists, I am convinced, are genuinely concerned about climate change, and for good reason. Their attitudes and actions are hypocritical not because they partake in a grand conspiracy to mislead the public, but rather for much more mundane reasons stemming from basic human mental proclivities and assorted shortcomings.


Most all of us, I am convinced, are inclined to see the world in somewhat Manichaean terms, dividing opposing groups into the “good guys” and the “bad guys”. We are predisposed to overlook the sins and omissions of members of our own side, and particularly by ourselves, just as we tend to magnify those of our opponents. Double standards, in other words, are omnipresent across both the political spectrum and the globe. Such a predisposition was no doubt adaptive in earlier times, when small groups of humans competed with others in existential struggles. As such, the tendency is difficult to overcome, and attempting to do so can be quite disconcerting. It can also be politically costly. Coalitions are not enhanced when one looks with an unjaundiced eye on one’s own friends and allies, calling them out when they betray supposedly shared ideals. Expedience thus calls for willful ignorance in this regard. Such are the unfortunate facts of human nature.


We should thus not be surprised that the Humboldt chapter of Earth First! is untroubled by the local industrial-scale cannabis operations that are extirpating the fisher and more generally wreaking havoc on nature. Many members of the chapter probably derive some of their income from these same operations, which hire trimmers and other workers by the score during the autumn harvest. By focusing their environmental outrage instead on logging companies and other suitable targets of the opposition, they spare themselves both troubling political infighting and cognitive dissonance. Such a dynamic is not quite so clear in the case of large environmental organizations and indoor cannabis cultivation, but the basic pattern still holds. For the Sierra Club and 350.org, energy companies make fine enemies, but indoor marijuana growers fit uncomfortably within this category. Even the largest growers are not multinational corporations but are rather individual operators—although corporatization does seem to be the wave of the future. More to the point, most pot growers no doubt embrace the same overarching political position as the environmental movement, and would thus be counted as allies in the most general sense. Support for marijuana legalization and normalization is likewise mostly* associated with the political left, and as such drawing attention to the problems associated with it could help the political right. As an entirely inconvenient truth, the carbon-spewing reality of indoor cannabis cultivation is all too easy to ignore.


But the psychic underpinnings of such inconsistent behavior probably goes a good deal deeper than simple self-interest and political benefit. Perhaps I am naive, but I think that most people generally want do good—as they conceptualize what “good” is—but they often imagine that doing so is a fairly straightforward thing. As a result, most of us seem to balk at the Utilitarian ethicsnotion of intrinsic trade-offs and positively recoil when faced with utilitarian calculations. Nuclear power, hydropower, and fracking all cause considerable environmental damage; as a result, one should not be surprised that they provoke forthright opposition from the green community. By the same token, photovoltaic power seems wholly benign on first glance, and is thus unsurprisingly embraced without reservation (the waste-streams of Chinese PV plants, however, might elicit second thoughts). It would be marvelous indeed if rooftop solar panels could supply all the power that we need, and as a result many would leave it at that, preferring not to grapple with the limitations of the technology. Wishful thinking, in other words, can be too comfortable to deny.


I encountered this kind of blinkered utopianism in a particularly stark form many decades ago at a family dinner, an event that permanently changed my thinking. A close relative beloved for her kindness and compassion opined that she was completely against all new development, opposing housing construction, road building, and everything else. Such activities, she went on, displace wildlife habitat and are therefore simply unacceptable. A few minutes later, she announced that she was opposed to all immigration restrictions; anyone ought to be able to immediately move to the United States and settle anywhere. To exclude would-be immigrants, she explained, was morally abhorrent, as all people, and especially the poor and needy, must be accommodated. When I ventured that there might be a contradiction between her two statements, she looked at me with blank incomprehension, stating simply that “Immigrants don’t need much room; they don’t live in big new houses.”


This conversation made a particularly deep impression on my teenage mind because at the time I shared my relative’s basic beliefs about both development and immigration. But I could not go all the way with her, as the trade-offs were just too glaringly obvious. Ever since then, I have determined to take a questioning, skeptical, and hard-headed approach to all political issues, leaving me with a surfeit of doubt and uncertainty. The ethical highroad, I have concluded, is seldom obvious and is almost never a straight path. At some level, cold utilitarian calculations are necessary, and as a result one must be willing to countenance a certain degree—and often a significant degree—of harm in order to achieve what one hopes will be a greater good.


Righteous Mind Book CoverMy thinking about such issues has more recently been influenced by Jonathan Haidt’s path-breaking work, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. As Haidt demonstrates, moral judgments flow more from intuition than from rational reflection, and stem largely from six basic six moral foundations. Perhaps the most important of these is sanctity, coupled with its inverse, degradation. Haidt contends that this ethical pillar is more pronounced on the political right than on the left, but here I part company. The bestowal of sanctity seems to me to be one of our most deeply embedded traits, and as such it cannot simply be deleted by abandoning traditional religious beliefs. For the most ardent environmentalists, who tend to be either secular or unconventionally spiritual, the Earth itself is the ultimate font of sanctity. As such, it can seem essentially blasphemous to examine key environmental issues under the heartless lens of utilitarianism. Fracking, for example, entails the injection of toxic chemicals deep into the veins of Mother Earth, and is thus not a suitable issue for compromise regardless of what environmental audits might uncover. Much the same could be argued in regard to both genetic engineering and geo-engineering proposals designed to forestall global warming

But if we take this line of reasoning, we encounter yet another a paradox. Indoor marijuana farming is the kind of activity that would seemingly generate a degree of moral repugnance on the part of those who sanctify nature. One would expect organic marijuana cultivation to be celebrated and high-tech cultivation to be reviled. And indeed, that is precisely what I find when I interview small-scale, outdoor marijuana growers. Some of them are particularly repulsed by the increasingly popular butane-extracted cannabis products such as “shatter” and “earwax,” the production of which they liken to meth-cooking. Yet when it comes to the broader environmental community, we oddly find no similar concerns, as demonstrated by the previous post.


Haidt's Moral FoundationsConsidering such issues, I still find the environmental movement’s nonchalance toward indoor marijuana cultivation perplexing. One possible additional explanation is the fact that growing under artificial light is hidden away from public view. Concealment is indeed crucial to the entire endeavor, as marijuana is still illicit in most U.S. states and remains highly illegal as far as the federal government is concerned. Carbon-intensive cannabis cultivation is easy to ignore, in other worlds, because it is difficult to see. More important, different moral modules—in Haidt’s sense—come into play, such as that of liberty (versus oppression). When those on the left think about marijuana, they often focus on its very illegality, which many view as a basic assault on personal freedom**. As a result, how the drug is actually produced becomes insignificant. Marijuana moved indoors in the first place because of police surveillance, which is seen by many as a deep threat to civil society. Those with a more anarchic bent, moreover, tend to valorize a degree of subversion, and thus support all methods of marijuana growing as a way to tweak the noses of authority-oriented conservatives. (“Authority/subversion” is another one of Haidt’s moral foundations, and he regards respect for authority as being more pronounced on the political right than the left; again, I am not convinced about this political distinction, as it seems to depend mostly on whether the authority in question is viewed as legitimate.)


As a result of such complex human predilections, I would not expect rank-and-file environmentalists to grapple deeply with such contradictions as those inherent in indoor marijuana cultivation. I would expect much more, however, from the movement’s intellectual leaders. Unfortunately, I don’t find it there either. When I read the most celebrated climate warriors, writers such as Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, and Naomi Oreskes, I see few inklings of critical self-reflection. Instead, I find almost pure Manichean politics based on a world-view in which the “good guys”—those selfless greens devoted to saving Mother Earth—are all but incapable of doing anything bad, while the “bad guys”—those evil energy companies and their paid-off minions—are all but incapable of doing anything good.


Does the environmental movement as a whole have the capacity to honestly address such issues and engage in the self-reflection necessary to break free from rampant hypocrisy? Perhaps. Here’s one small way to put it to the test. In a few years, California, one of the most environmentally oriented states in the union, will almost certainly fully legalize marijuana. When it does so, will it take into account the environmental damage generated by indoor production? Or will it follow the lead of Washington state and focus instead on taxation maximization and regulatory oversight while ignoring environmental consequences? If California takes the former route, my faith in the environmental movement will be partially restored. But I will not be holding my breath.

Most environmentalists want to institute an over-arching carbon tax in order to internalizes negative atmospheric externalities. Such a proposal is of course highly controversial, as environmental skeptics claim that it would unduly damage the economy. Regardless of such dissenting voices, I would suggest that a steep carbon tax on soon-to-be-legal cannabis cultivation in California would be a fitting place to start. Such a tax would certainly benefit the small-scale, environmentally responsible marijuana growers in the Emerald Triangle. The final post on this series will examine what they are doing to minimize both their carbon footprints and their environmental impacts more generally.


*Libertarians, who generally lean somewhat more to the right than the left as far as the conventional (if exhausted) political spectrum is concerned, tend to more strongly support cannabis legalization.


**Ironically, many of these same people would like to ban tobacco. Here a different moral module, that of “care vs. harm,” comes into play, which of course was invoked as well when marijuana was initially outlawed.

Ultimate Hypocrisy?: Indoor Marijuana Growing and the Environmental Movement

Indoor MarijuanaImagine if you will an alternative world in which the leaders of one of our most reviled industries – say tobacco – had just figured out a new way to marginally enhance the quality of their product while significantly boosting their profits, but at a gargantuan cost to the environment. In this hypothetical universe, tobacco researchers discovered that they could produce slightly more refined smoking material in high-tech growing factories than they could in outdoor fields buffeted by unpredictable weather events. This new production system proved additionally profitable by abolishing the traditional cropping cycle in favor of monthly harvests, eliminating the headaches associated with long-term storage and annual planning. But the key issue was that of leaf quality and aesthetics, as in this universe the social stigma against tobacco use was rapidly declining, and well-heeled, trendy smokers and tobacco retailers had become obsessed with excellence, wanting to deal only with the most premium grades. As it turned out, the tobacco harvested in the new antiseptic grow-ops was slightly smoother, slightly more potent, slightly less contaminated by organic impurities, and significantly more uniform than that grown under the sun. In this parallel world, even the finest Dominican cigars were now occasionally reviled as dirt-grown trash, scorned by the most posh smoke shops.

Imagine as well that a number of U.S. state governments were encouraging this development, in part to bolster their own coffers. Indoor tobacco could be grown in states that were climatically marginal or inappropriate for outdoor cultivation, and it could be overseen and taxed at every stage of the operation, from the cloning of tobacco plants, to the processing of cigarettes and other nicotine products, to the final retail sale in a limited number of closely regulated, state-sanctioned shops. And to protect their revenue streams, such states were even able to ban the importation of outdoor tobacco from both other parts of the country and foreign lands.

Carbon Footprint Indoor Marijuana1In this alternative world, as in ours, the environmental consequences of such a tobacco transformation would be huge. The growing facilities would have to replace sunlight with high-intensity artificial illumination, sucking energy with abandon and generating in the process a mammoth carbon footprint. And lighting would be only one of several energy demands in this brave new world of high tech farming. Extensive ventilation and dehumidification systems would be needed as well, as would air conditioning in the summer months. Many tobacco growers would even artificially ramp-up carbon dioxide concentrations to Indoor Marijuana Carbon Footprint 2enhance plant growth, with much of the added gas leaking into the atmosphere. These agro-factories would be as far removed from organic faming as possible, with virtually all plant nutrients supplied through chemical means. And although clean-room status would be the goal, insects and other pests would sometimes get through the defenses and would then multiply geometrically, given the absence of predators. As a result, heavy applications of biocides would be periodically necessary.

The resulting production system would of course produce expensive tobacco, unaffordable by the financially disadvantaged. As result, a market for a lower-grade product would persist. But recall that in this imagined scenario, a number of states had essentially outlawed cheaper tobacco grades through regulations, prohibitions, and rigorous taxation regimes. Illegal production would therefore spring up to meet the low-end demand. Mexican drug cartels, noted for their brutality and environmental disregard, would step into the resulting gap. Some low-quality tobacco would be smuggled across the southern border of the U.S., in operations that went hand-in-hand with heroin and cocaine trafficking as well as with 1144423_ME_marijuana-enviro_GEMextortion, kidnapping, and mass-murder. The same cartels would also establish clandestine tobacco farms in the U.S., tucked away in national forests, private timberlands, and other remote locales. Here they would be joined by a number of local, renegade mass-producers. Worked in part by exploited, undocumented immigrants, these outdoor tobacco “grows” would pollute streams with agricultural chemicals and human waste, and litter the landscape with plastic tubing, growing containers, and the basic garbage of human existence. As a result of these growers’ paranoia and vigilance, merely hiking through these areas would become a dangerous and potentially deadly activity. More troubling still, these farms would use copious amounts of rodenticide to extirpate tobacco-gnawing wood rats, which would in turn devastate the populations of small carnivores, pushing some, such as the fisher (Martes pennanti), to the brink of local extinction.

Indoor Marijuana FootprintThe environmental consequences of this tobacco transformation would be fairly obvious, but not to their full extent. Imagine, however, investigative journalists from publications such as Mother Jones running damning exposés (see here and here as well) that outlined in some detail the damage imparted by both indoor and large-scale, illicit, outdoor tobacco growing. One report demonstrated that in California alone, the factory-farming of tobacco accounted for nine percent of the state’s household electricity consumption in early 2014, and that nationwide the industry used the output equivalent to that of seven large coal-burning or nuclear power plants. Imagine as well that this industry was steadily expanding not just in California but in other states as well, many of which were climatically unsuitable for outdoor tobacco cultivation. As a result, state energy planners were beginning to wonder where all of the extra electricity would come from, and were therefore contemplating the construction of new power facilities.

In such a world, one could well image the resulting outrage of not just the environmental community, but also that of all advocates of responsible government and rational public policy. 4,600 pounds of carbon dioxide released for every pound of tobacco produced, and for what end? So that tobacco connoisseurs could enjoy a slightly more refined smoking experience? So that tobacco companies could avoid the need for annual planning? For this we would be willing to devote the entire output of seven—and counting—major power plants?

This entire scenario is, of course, ludicrous beyond all measure. As a result, indoor tobacco cultivation would be a non-starter, and even if it were somehow able to gain traction, it would arouse the immediate and overwhelming opposition of every green organization in existence, as well as that of a great many other powerful pressure groups. The alternative reality that I have sketched out above, in short, makes no sense, and thus would thus seem to be unimaginable.

Or is it? As my title indicates, all that one has to do is substitute “marijuana” for “tobacco,” and the bulk of this post describes the actual situation currently existing in California, Washington, and several other U.S. states that have partially or fully legalized the consumption and sale of cannabis. There are, of course, limits to this comparison. The legal environments of tobacco and marijuana remain distinctive across the country, and I do not intend to imply that the two products are in any way equivalent. The existing evidence, for example, indicates that cannabis does indeed have a variety of legitimate medical uses, whereas the idea of “medical tobacco” is hard to take seriously. (To be sure, tobacco can have therapeutic and perhaps even prophylactic effects for such diseases as Parkinson’s, but almost all medical authorities insist that the product’s harm greatly outweighs any of its potential benefits.) I could have constructed my hypothetical alternative around any other highly valued crop, particularly those that have a major snob-appeal factor. I picked tobacco largely for its shock value; where I live, there is a significantly greater social stigma attached to tobacco smoking than there is to cannabis consumption, and as result the absurdity of my little thought experiment is duly intensified.

The widespread antipathy to tobacco in U.S. environmental circles and among the political left more generally would ensure that any major expansion of its carbon footprint would generate massive opposition. But when it comes to marijuana, the situation could hardly be more different. Over the past several years, I have noticed no evidence of any concerted resistance among major environmental groups to the burgeoning indoor marijuana industry, and very little to environmentally destructive, large-scale cultivation carried out on remote lands.

Greenpeace Indoor MarijuanaTo see if such seeming lack of concern is indeed the case, I examined the websites of a number of well-known environmental groups, searching under such terms as “indoor marijuana,” and “cannabis.” Some of my findings are available in the screenshot images posted here. As can be seen, no results were returned from theNRDC Indoor Marijuana Audubon or the Greenpeace sites. The Natural Resources Defense Council highlighted an article about eco-friendly hemp clothing, as well as several warning about the dangers of indoor pollution stemming from marijuana Audubon Indoor Marijuanasmoking at home. 350.org, an 350.org indoor marijuanaorganization wholly devoted to fighting greenhouse gas emissions, would almost appear to advocate indoor cannabis cultivation; although its website contains no articles on the subject, it does run a number of search-linked advertisements for “grow lights” and “professional grow rooms.” The Sierra Club website, on the other hand, does bring up a significant number of articles. But as can be seen from the screenshot posted here, most of them concern weeds and pots rather than weed or pot, and indoor toilets rather Sierra Club Indoor Marijuanathan indoor grow-ops. The one result that does appear pertinent on first glance, marked with a red arrow on the image, turns out to be a red herring, as the article in question is actually about Massey Energy in West Virginia, a much more conventional Sierra Club target. When it comes to the massive energy consumption and colossal carbon footprint of indoor marijuana growing, an article in the Seattle Times sums up the situation nicely: “Leaders at other environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and Conservation Northwest say they have other priorities.”

CBD Indoor MarijuanaThe one prominent environmental organization that does appear to be concerned about the negative effects of certain forms of cannabis cultivation is the Center for Biological Diversity, as can be seen in another screenshot posted here. It appears that the Center worries only about those problems associated with outdoor cultivation, but that focus seems appropriate, given its mandate. Some local branches of the Sierra Club have also taken up this issue, with the Redwood Chapter describing large-scale illegal cultivation as “an Environmental Plague on the North Coast.” The Humboldt branch of Earth First!, on the other hand, appears to be completely unconcerned, despite the fact that it is situated at the epicenter of environmentally destructive, large-scale, outdoor grows, and despite the fact that the organization as a whole claims to brook “no compromise in the defense of Mother Earth.”

None of this, it is essential to note, should be taken as an indictment of marijuana growing per se. Cannabis is a hardy plant that thrives in a wide array of climatic conditions, although the most premium grades do require relatively low humidity levels during the crucial September-October maturation period. Most importantly, almost all the power that is needed for marijuana growing flows naturally from the sun. The small-scale growers whom I have interviewed never use insecticides, rodenticides, or any other toxic chemicals, and they strive to keep their footprints, carbon and otherwise, as small as possible (more on that in a later post). But they get no credit whatsoever for any of these efforts, either from the marijuana market itself or from the environmental community and its political allies. Here the paradoxes run deep indeed.

Indoor Marijuana Growing GuideThe burning question, of course, is that of why: why would green organizations turn a blind eye to this huge, rapidly expanding, and entirely unnecessary source of environmental degradation? Anti-environmentalists would likely respond by claiming that this is yet more evidence that the environmental movement is not what it claims to be, as its true goal is the dismantling of global capitalism rather than the protection of the atmosphere or of nature more generally. I do not, however, think that this is the case, as will be explained in the next GeoCurrents post.

Notes: In Washington, one of the first U.S. states to legalize recreational marijuana, legal growing can be done outdoors, but all sources that I have found maintain that the vast bulk of the legal crop is cultivated indoors. For the source of the garbage photo posted above, see this LA Times article.  Note also that the statistics cited by Mother Jones and other sources are debated, but whatever the actual numbers are, it is clear that they are far from trivial.


Simultaneous Flooding and Drought in California: Human-Caused Climate Change?

California Early December 2014 Rain MapAlthough droughts and floods are generally thought of as opposites, they can occur simultaneously, as droughts tend to be long and cumulative while floods are generally short-lived and episodic. Much of the U.S. state of California currently finds itself in this paradoxical situation. Several storms have hit the state since the beginning of December 2014, and that of December 11-12 has been, according to preliminary reports, the strongest in at least six years. Minor flooding has resulted in many locations, with several rivers overrunning their banks. As the map posted here shows, several US West Drought Map 2014portions of the state have received more than 20 inches (508 mm) of liquid precipitation over the past two weeks. But as experts are quick to point out, the state remains locked in a historic drought. According to the Stanford Report of December 10, the rains experienced thus far have brought only “short-term respite” to the on-going water crisis. As explained by Stanford University’s Daniel Swain:

During the past three years of drought, most of California has accumulated a precipitation deficit equivalent to one to two years of rain. Those are very large numbers, and it’s hard to make that back quickly. Even if you do get a particularly wet winter, you’d need to have record rainfall to break the drought, which would bring its own problems, such as flooding.

California 2013 Rainfall TableCalifornia’s hydrological predicament brings up a number of interesting issues regarding mapping, possible global warming, climate and weather prediction, and so on. Major debates have swirled over the magnitude and cause of the current drought. Certainly the year 2013 was characterized by an unprecedented lack of precipitation. In that year, San Francisco received only 3.38 inches (86 mm) of rain, whereas its average annual total is well over 20 inches (508 mm). But as California has California Rain Totals 2011-2014a Mediterranean climate, with almost no summer rainfall, the state’s “water year” runs from the beginning of July to the end of June. Looked at in these terms, the current drought is extreme but not quite so exceptional. Owing to a series of strong storms in November and December 2012, San Francisco received 70 of its average rainfall in 2012-2013. But as it measured only 66 percent in 2011-2012 and only 53 percent in 2013-2014, the cumulative California Tw-Year Droughts Tabledrought is indeed pronounced. In Los Angeles, the two-year period of 2012-2014 was the driest in recorded history, with only 40 percent of average precipitation recorded.

California Historical DroughtsAs California’s precipitation records extend only to the mid-1800s, it remains uncertain exactly how unusual this dry spell has been. Some researchers think that it has been truly epic. A recent publication by the American Geophysical Union (AGU) claims that, “a combination of record high temperatures and sparse rainfall during California’s three-year drought have produced the worst conditions in 1,200 years.” Other climatologists, however, argue that the recorded droughts of the 19th, 20th, and early 21st centuries were “minor compared to the ancient droughts of 850 to 1090 and 1140 to 1320,” which have obviously occurred within the last 1,200 years; they also claim that the past 100 years have been, overall, abnormally wet. Much of this controversy hinges on the time-scale employed, as things can look quite different if one examines three-year temporal segments as opposed to thirty-year segments.

Equally controversial is the cause of the current drought. Many observers have blamed it on human-caused climate change. The authors of the California Water-Blog, for example, argued in June 2013 that increased evaporation and decreased precipitation are generating a much-reduced “new ‘normal’ water year.” A recently released report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, however, concludes that the drought “is a result of natural climate variability over the past three years and that climate change caused by humans has played little role.” Not surprisingly, the controversial climatologist Michael Mann quickly objected to this report, concluding that “[t]he methodology used in the current article, in my view, is deeply flawed because it doesn’t properly account for a number of potentially important factors behind the record California drought.” Other climate scientists agree, claiming that global warming will probably generate gargantuan droughts over not just California but also a much larger swath of the U.S. Southwest. As was reported in the Los Angeles Times:

The chance of a “megadrought” gripping the Southwest for more than 30 years has increased to 50%, scientists say, which means bad news for California’s already parched landscape. The odds of a 10-year drought afflicting the southwestern U.S. have increased to 80%, according to a new study by Cornell University, the University of Arizona and the U.S. Geological Survey.

One complicating factor in regard to such predictions, however, is the fact that global warming, to the extent that it occurs, is expected to generate greater precipitation at the global scale. At more localized frames of analysis, to be sure, some regions are expected to see pronounced rainfall reduction. For California, different climate-forecast models produce different results, with nothing approaching a consensus having been reached. Intriguingly, one 2013 study foresees “increasing annual precipitation in the central and northern regions of the state” but not in the south, contending as well that that rainfall in the future will be increasingly concentrated in the winter months.

Partly as a result of such investigations, some climatologists warn that possible mega-floods rather than mega-droughts are the real cause for concern. A recent report in Climate Nexus even links California’s most recent storm to global warming, focusing on the fact that “[sea-water] temperatures off the California coast are currently 5 to 6°F warmer than historic averages for this time of year—among the warmest autumn conditions of any time in the past 30 years.” This article generated derision at the climate-skeptical blog WUWT, its headline reading “The Eye-Roller That You Knew Was Going To Happen”; according to WUWT, “The storm impacting California today is just like hundreds of previous storms in recorded weather history, the only thing that is new is the desire to link it to climate change for political purposes.”

ARkStorm Flood MapIronically, concerns about possible devastating floods were widely expressed in the California media after the heavy rains of November 2012—just before the current drought began to intensify. At this time, the public was introduced to the concept of the “ARkStorm,” a super-storm hypothesized by the U.S. Geological Survey (the “AR” in ARkStorm refers to the “Atmospheric River,” a phenomenon that occurs when subtropical moisture is pulled into the state by a low-pressure center; the “k,” on the other hand, merely references Noah’s Ark). A possible ARkStorm is sometimes called “the other big one,” as the damage that it could cause could well exceed that of a major earthquake, the more commonly feared natural disaster in California. An ARkStorm-like event certainly occurred in the water-year 1861-1862, and “geologic studies of deposits offshore of California’s big rivers suggest that storms even bigger than 1861-62 have happened six times in the last 1800 years.” According to the Wikipedia, damage from such an event could exceed $725 billion. As the article describes a possible ARkStorm event:

The Central Valley experiences hypothetical flooding 300 miles long and 20 or more miles wide. Serious flooding also occurs in Orange County, Los Angeles County, San Diego, the San Francisco Bay area, and other coastal communities. Windspeeds in some places reach 125 miles per hour, hurricane-force winds. Across wider areas of the state, winds reach 60 miles per hour. Hundreds of landslides damage roads, highways, and homes. Property damage exceeds $300 billion, most from flooding. Demand surge (an increase in labor rates and other repair costs after major natural disasters) could increase property losses by 20 percent. Agricultural losses and other costs to repair lifelines, dewater (drain) flooded islands, and repair damage from landslides, brings the total direct property loss to nearly $400 billion, of which $20 to $30 billion would be recoverable through public and commercial insurance. Power, water, sewer, and other lifelines experience damage that takes weeks or months to restore.

San Francisco Rainfall RecordsAs existing climatological records show, California is characterized by pronounced precipitation variability. Both devastating droughts and calamitous floods have been a feature of the local climate for millennia, and will almost certainly continue to occur in the future. It remains to be seen whether the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses will significantly change the intensity and frequency of both phenomena.



Does the Boko Haram Insurgency Stem from Environmental Degradation and Climate Change?

Several attempts to explain the extreme violence of Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria focus on resource scarcity, overpopulation, environmental degradation, and especially climate change. A recent article in The Guardian, for example, claims that:

Instability in Nigeria … has been growing steadily over the last decade — and one reason is climate change. In 2009, a UK Department for International Development (Dfid) study warned that climate change could contribute to increasing resource shortages in the country due to land scarcity from desertification, water shortages, and mounting crop failures.

Other examples of Nigerian inter-ethnic conflict have also been attributed to climate change, particularly the attacks by Fulani herders on Christian and animist cultivators. A United States Institute of Peace Special Report, for example, argues that:

Again, links to climate change can be more or less strong. A case in point is Nigeria’s frequent farmer-herder conflicts. In a pattern seen across the Sahel since the thirty-year drought, feed and water shortages caused partly by desertification and drought have sent nomadic pastoralists, most of them ethnic Fulanis, wandering south, outside their normal grazing routes. At the same time, a mix of weather-related factors has pushed farmers to cultivate more land each year, leaving wanderers fewer places to water and graze their stock. The resulting contests may have been responsible for the deaths of several hundred Nigerians since the return of democracy in 1999.

Such claims have been criticized, and indeed mocked, by conservative media outlets. As a post in The American Thinker framed it, “Climate change – is there anything it can’t do?”  The level of ridicule was more pronounced in Rightwing News: “Obviously, Nigeria was a hotbed of peace, love, and kumbaya prior to fossil fuels. There were never droughts or changes in the climate. People never suffered. It’s all Mankind’s fault.”

Shrinking Lake Chad MapRegardless of such dismissive rhetoric, climatic fluctuations have likely played a significant role in producing political instability not only in northeastern Nigeria but across much of the rest of the Sahel belt (the area south of the Sahara). Most of this region experienced a series of devastating droughts during the late 20th century and into the early years of the new millennium. The desiccation of Lake Chad has been an environmental disaster of almost the same magnitude as that of the Aral Sea, although it has received far less media attention. Lake Chad, not coincidently, sits at the core of the Kanuri area, the ethnic group most closely associated with the Boko Haram insurgency.

But it is one thing to claim that climatic fluctuations and environmental degradation have been factors in the rise of Boko Haram and another to attribute the resulting violence to human-caused climate change. Extreme droughts have long been a recurring feature of the Sahel. As noted in the Wikipedia:  “As disruptive as the droughts of the late 20th century were, evidence of past droughts recorded in Ghanaian lake sediments suggest that multi-decadal megadroughts were common in West Africa over the past 3,000 years and that several droughts lasted far longer and were far more severe.”

Sahel Rainfall TrendsEqually important, if anthropogenic climate change is indeed changing the environment of the Sahel, it is far from certain that such a transformation will lead to increasingly severe droughts. Some global climate forecast models depict the Intertropical Convergence Zone as shifting northward in the summer, which would increase precipitation in the region. Indeed, several of the past few years have seen higher than average rainfall across most of the Sahel, including northern Nigeria. A Climate Matters blog-post from 2013 is guardedly optimistic on this topic:

The Sahel remains one of the poorest and least developed regions in the world. It’s also one of the most vulnerable to climate change and variability. One bright spot for the region is that since the mid-1980s, average rainfall has increased steadily [see this animation]. People engaged in sustainable land management techniques such as agroforestry have been able to take advantage of it, rebuilding their livelihoods.

Greening Sahel MapThe Climate Matters post rests on climatological studies that link the late-20th century mega-drought to cooler-than-usual water temperatures in the North Atlantic, which in turn stemmed from air pollution (sulfate aerosols, primarily) generated in Europe and North America. As such pollution has been reduced, the article claims, the ocean has warmed and precipitation in the Sahel has correspondingly rebounded.  Anthropogenic global warming would be expected to further propel this process: “Climate change scenarios for the region indicate that average annual rainfall will increase throughout this century if the North Atlantic continues to warm.”

Increased rainfall, however, can have a downside. Quoting again from Climate Matters:

Not only has rainfall been increasing, but interestingly, the increase is better explained by increased intensity of rain events, rather than by more rainy days…

This is markedly different than the wetter Sahel of the 1940s and 1950s, before the droughts. Back then, the higher rainfall came from more frequent rain events. But it is consistent with the general expectation from climate change that a warmer, moister atmosphere may lead to more intense downpours.

The increase in rainfall doesn’t necessarily bring only good news for the people of the region, however. The more intense downpours have led to recurrent flooding in recent years, causing loss of life, crops and infrastructure.

But regardless of problematic changes in rainfall intensity, it is clear than much of the Sahel has experienced significant “greening” since 1990, marked by the emergence of more luxuriant vegetation. To some extent, this improvement represents merely recovery (or partial recovery) from the previous drought, but other factors may be at play as well.  According to an article in The Encyclopedia of the Earth:

Several studies [have focused on] on long-term environmental and agricultural change in the Sahel (in Niger, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Senegal). These studies have found evidence of significant transitions from degradational land use trajectories to more sustainable and productive production systems. These include increases in cereal yields, higher densities of trees, improved soil fertility management, locally higher groundwater tables, reductions in rural poverty, and decreased outmigration.

The overall situation is of course quite complex, with tremendous local variability. But that said, it does seem that arguments blaming political violence in northeastern Nigeria on human-caused climate change and its associated environmental degradation should be regarded with some skepticism.

Nigeria Population Density MapThe idea that resource scarcity is the ultimate font of Boko Haram is equally problematic. On first glance, this linkage seems reasonable. In poor countries and especially under regimes of subsistence economics, resource scarcity is often closely linked to population pressure, and Nigeria has a very large population indeed. Much of northern Nigeria is densely settled, much more so that the rest of the Sahel belt. But at the more localized level, the connection breaks down. As we can see on the map posted here, central-northern Nigeria is very crowded, but the northeast is not. The Nigerian states that have suffered the highest levels of violence from Boko Haram are actually sparsely populated by Nigerian standards.