The northward wind speed (negative values, blue on the map, indicate southward flow) at an altitude of 300 mb in the mid-latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere during July 2011 and July 1980. July of 2011 featured an unusually intense and long-lasting heat wave in the U.S., and the normally weak and irregular waves (like observed during the relatively normal July of 1980) were replaced by a strong and regular wave pattern. A similar extreme jet stream pattern was observed during the summer of 2010, when catastrophic drought in Russia led to a huge spike in global food prices. Photo: Vladimir Petoukhov

By Jeff Masters
29 April 2016 

( – The greatest threat of climate change to civilization over the next 40 years is likely to be climate change-amplified extreme droughts and floods hitting multiple major global grain-producing "breadbaskets" simultaneously. A "Food System Shock" report issued in 2015 by insurance giant Lloyd’s of London outlined a plausible extreme shock to global food production that could cause rioting, terrorist attacks, civil war, mass starvation and severe losses to the global economy. Their scenario, which Lloyd's gave uncomfortably high odds of occurring--significantly higher than 0.5% per year, which works out to at least an 18% chance of occurrence in the next 40 years--goes like this:

A strong El Niño event develops in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. Severe drought typical of El Niño hits India, eastern and southeastern Australia and Southeast Asia, causing the following crop losses (note that wheat, rice and corn make up over 50% of all agricultural production world-wide):

  • India (world's #1 rice and #7 wheat exporter): wheat -11%, rice -18%
  • Vietnam (world's #2 rice exporter): rice -20%
  • Australia (world's #3 wheat exporter): wheat -50%
  • Bangladesh, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines: rice -6% to -10%

Historic flooding hits Mississippi and Missouri rivers, reducing production of corn in the U.S. by 27%, soybeans by 19% and wheat by 7%. Nepal, Bangladesh, northeastern India and Pakistan see large crop losses due to torrential rainfall, flooding and landslides, with Pakistan losing 10% of their wheat crop.

On top of the adverse weather, global crops are attacked by two major diseases: Asian soybean rust and Ug99 wheat stem rust, which cause additional 5 - 15% crop losses in Argentina, Brazil, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Pakistan, and India. The extreme weather/plant disease double whammy causes global corn production to drop by 10 percent, soybeans by 11% and rice by 7%. Wheat, corn and soybean prices spike to quadruple the levels seen around 2000. Rice prices quintuple as India buys from smaller exporters following restrictions imposed by Thailand. Food riots break out in urban areas across the Middle East, North Africa, and Latin America. The euro weakens and the main European stock markets lose 10% of their value; the U.S. stock markets lose 5% of their value. The scenario mentions the possibility of civil war in Nigeria, famine threading to kill one million people in Bangladesh and Mali becoming a failed state. Terrorist attacks in the U.S., in combination with concerns over heightened military tensions between Russia and NATO, plus conflict between India and Pakistan, cause major stock market losses.

A historical analogue: the extreme weather of 2010

The extreme weather of the year 2010 – which I speculated was Earth’s most extreme weather year since the famed “Year Without a Summer” in 1816 – showed us that multiple extreme weather events in major grain-producing areas can indeed cause dangerous shocks to the global food system. This was unexpected at the beginning of 2010, when in its January World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicted higher global wheat production and lower prices for 2010 - 2011. But extreme weather began an dramatic assault on the world's grain-producing nations in the spring of 2010, when record rainfall in Canada, the world’s second-largest wheat exporter after the United States, cut Canada’s wheat harvest by 14%. As spring turned to summer, the jet stream got "stuck" in an unusual loop that kept cool air and rain-bearing low pressure systems to the north and east of Russia, bringing Pakistan their costliest floods in history and a 12% decline in their wheat production. The "stuck" jet stream pattern allowed a titanic heat wave and extraordinary drought to envelop Russia and Ukraine; Moscow's all-time heat record was equaled or exceeded five times in a two-week period. Over a thousand Russians seeking to escape the heat drowned in swimming accidents, and thousands more died from the heat and from inhaling smoke and toxic fumes from massive wild fires. In all, 55,736 people died in the heat wave--the second deadliest in recorded human history, behind the European heat wave of 2003 (77,000+ deaths). Wildfires in Russia in 2010 scorched more than 1 million hectares, 25% of crop production was lost, and economic losses reached $15 billion--1% of Russian GDP. The drought slashed the wheat harvest by 33% and damaged soils to such an extent that 10% of Russian wheat fields could not be planted in 2011. Russia--the world’s fourth-largest wheat exporter accounting for roughly 14% of the global wheat trade--responded by imposing an export ban on wheat, barley, and rye, as fears of domestic price spikes or shortages increased. Neighboring Ukraine, the world's 6th largest exporter of wheat, saw a 18% decline in their wheat harvest due to extreme drought, heat, and wildfires, and cut wheat exports by 54%. [more]

Food System Shock: Climate Change's Greatest Threat to Civilization



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