The University of Arizona

Tsunami in the Desert?

April 2, 2011
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“TOKYO – In the country that gave the world the word tsunami, the Japanese nuclear establishment has largely ignored the potential destruction that the waves could unleash on their power plants. The word did not even appear in government guidelines until 2006, decades after plants – including the Fukushima Daiichi facility that firefighters are still struggling to get under control – began dotting the Japanese coastline.” Front-page of the New York Times, March 27, 2011.

There is no way to ignore the terrible impacts of the recent earthquake and tsunami on the Japanese people – focusing on these people and their losses is of immediate importance. But it is also crucial that we learn from what happened in Japan, and act to prevent similar tragedies. Here in the American Southwest, we should pause to consider the lessons of a tsunami in Japan.

Of course, the desert Southwest isn’t going to get hit with such a large earthquake, and certainly not a tsunami. What then can we learn from this catastrophe?

One lesson is that a major earthquake and tsunami could hit the western U.S. coast, and the impacts could be unprecedented. Imagine what such a disaster would mean for our country, our psyche, and our economy – what if the West Coast was slammed with a natural disaster as big or bigger than just happened in Japan, or that happened in New Orleans just a few years ago?

Another more general lesson is that unlikely events deserve greater attention than we currently afford them. I believe it is critical to take seriously climatic events that have a real possibility of happening. It is essential that collectively, we work to identify our biggest risks and our options for improving resilience in the face of these risks.

One thing we know could happen is a much more substantial drought than has occurred since Europeans came to the Southwest – a “megadrought” that would persist unbroken for a decade or more. Another threat that emerges from credible science is the loss of our reservoir storage due to drought and warming. We could avoid the worst consequences of such climate disasters if we manage our reservoirs carefully and make short-term sacrifices in our water use. Good planning would buffer us against megadrought, assuming water demand in the Southwest doesn’t grow too great.

What if water demand expands unchecked, megadrought strikes, and a serious water shortage arises? And then, something else hits – a heat wave, statistically improbable but growing more likely. Thanks to the European heat waves of 2003 (about 70,000 heat-related deaths in western and central Europe), and 2010 (a death toll of over 50,000 people, plus huge wildfires and economic losses), we know that really unusual heat waves are increasingly likely as global warming continues.

What does “really unusual” mean? A recent study in Science shows that the European “mega-heatwaves” of 2003 and 2010 exceeded 500-year records. Last summer’s average temperature in Europe topped the average by about 4 standard deviations. In Phoenix, this would translate to a summer the likes of which would amaze us, including (as during the European heat waves) weeks with extreme warmth that is even more unusual. Imagining Phoenix far hotter than you’ve ever dreamed, or Tucson hotter than the hottest days in Phoenix. The likelihood of this happening increases each year we fail to act to curb global climate change.

So what? Everyone just stays inside and we let the AC roar. But, what if the impact of the heat wave was over most of the Southwest? Everywhere, energy and water demand skyrocket. In the hot summer of 2003, France was forced to idle some of their famous array of nuclear reactors due to an inability to cool them. What if we had the same problem with our nuclear reactor (Palo Verde, the largest nuclear electric generating plant in the U.S., serving millions of people). What if we’re in a megadrought? Would we have enough water to meet all our needs, for drinking, industry, agriculture and energy (20 billion US gallons per year just for Palo Verde cooling, and more for our coal-fired power plants)? Could we keep the reactors and spent fuel rods cool? Would we have to shut down our reactors? Could we keep the AC roaring?

Sure, we have lots of groundwater now, but what if we deplete it to meet water demands during long droughts as regional population continues to grow? But 70% or more of our current water use goes to agriculture. Couldn’t we just pay the farmers to give us the water we need for urban uses, industry and energy? Yes… unless we convert too much agricultural water use into more “hardened” urban and industrial water uses, for example, to meet the demands of a growing population. What if excess water gets tight just as we get our megadrought and heat wave? When energy demand spikes, could the demand for water by power stations, including Palo Verde, exceed what’s available? What then?

My climate scenario is based on solid climate science. Of course the probabilities of megadroughts and heat waves are not high, but heat and drought often go together (as in the past decade), and continued climate change makes both more likely. My worst-case scenario also assumes we continue to avoid responsible planning for climatic extremes. A record heat wave and insufficient water or power could spell real trouble, especially for the elderly and poor. Could we collectively summon the resources to deal with such problems – particularly in a time of economic stress? Could climatic extremes turn into the straw that breaks the camel’s back and creates a major disaster in the Southwest? Like a tsunami that just wasn’t on the radar screen…

History shows that to ignore science is to invite disaster. The science of climate change is very well established, and the Southwest is warming and drying faster than much of the rest of the world. Yet many politicians in our country, and even in our Southwest, still want to ignore, or even worse, deny the reality of climate change. As the tsunami in Japan has shown very clearly, to ignore risks that are grounded in sound science is to invite disaster.