email a friend iconprinter friendly iconChanging Rains
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"I worry," says Cyprus's environment commissioner, Charalambos Theopemptou. "The IPCC is talking about a 20 or 30 percent reduction of rainfall in this area, which means that the problem is here to stay. And this combined with higher temperatures—I think it is going to make life very hard in the whole of the Mediterranean."

Other problems could follow from changes not so much in the amount of precipitation as in the type. It is estimated that more than a billion people—about a sixth of the world's population—live in regions whose water supply depends, at least in part, on runoff from glaciers or seasonal snowmelt. As the world warms, more precipitation will fall as rain and less as snow, so this storage system may break down. The Peruvian city of Cusco, for instance, relies in part on runoff from the glaciers of the Quelccaya ice cap to provide water in summer. In recent years, as the glaciers have receded owing to rising temperatures, Cusco has periodically had to resort to water rationing.

Several recent reports, including a National Intelligence Assessment prepared for American policymakers in 2008, predict that over the next few decades, climate change will emerge as a significant source of political instability. (It was no coincidence, perhaps, that the drought-parched Akkad empire was governed in the end by a flurry of teetering monarchies.) Water shortages in particular are likely to create or exacerbate international tensions. "In some areas of the Middle East, tensions over water already exist," notes a study prepared by a panel of retired U.S. military officials. Rising temperatures may already be swelling the ranks of international refugees—"Climate change is today one of the main drivers of forced displacement," the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, has said—and contributing to armed clashes. Some experts see a connection between the fighting in Darfur, which has claimed an estimated 300,000 lives, and changes in rainfall in the region, bringing nomadic herders into conflict with farmers.

Will the rainfall changes of the future affect societies as severely as some of the changes of the past? The American Southwest, to look at one example, has historically been prone to droughts severe enough to wipe out—or at least disperse—local populations. (It is believed that one such megadrought at the end of the 13th century contributed to the demise of the Anasazi civilization, centered in what currently is the Four Corners.) Nowadays, of course, water-management techniques are a good deal more sophisticated than they once were, and the Southwest is supported by what Richard Seager, an expert on the climatic history of the region, calls "plumbing on a continental scale." Just how vulnerable is it to the aridity likely to result from global warming?

"We do not know, because we have not been at this point before," Seager observes. "But as man changes the climate, we may be about to find out." 

Elizabeth Kolbert is a staff writer for the New Yorker and author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change.
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