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How Does Climate Change Impact Drinking Water?

Emily Driehaus @ Thursday, August 19, 2021 at 2:57 pm -0400

Emily Driehaus | Science Communication Intern

The newest IPCC report provided a look into how climate change has altered global temperatures and weather patterns over the past few decades. The International Panel on Climate Change publishes a "state of climate change" every few years that provides update on how today’s emissions and activities will affect weather patterns in the future, and the effects these changes will have on our lives. The report highlighted how climate change has and will continue to impact the accessibility of clean drinking water.

Why This IPCC Report is Different From Previous Years:

The recent IPCC findings are notable because scientists have determined that it is “unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.” The term “unequivocal” is not used lightly in this instance, as scientists do not use absolutes unless the evidence is unquestionable. 

Scientists also used paleoclimate data to provide more context for our current period of warming. Our planet goes through glacial and interglacial periods, where a glacial event is followed by a period of time where the climate is warmer. We are currently in an interglacial period after the last glacial period ended about 11,000 years ago. The last interglacial period before our current interglacial occurred about 125,000 years ago. The IPCC report found that “the last decade was more likely than not warmer than any multi-centennial period after the Last Interglacial.” To put this in perspective, Homo sapiens were still mostly living on the African continent 125,000 years ago. The past decade has likely been warmer than any multi-centennial period since Homo sapiens migrated out of Africa and dispersed across the globe. 

The IPCC report also included new advances in a branch of climate science known as attribution science. Scientists can now attribute specific weather events to human-induced climate change. In other words, the frequency of extreme weather events, like droughts and hurricanes, is a direct result of human-driven climate change. 

The authors of the report included a glimpse of what the future might look like under five different climate scenarios with greenhouse gas emissions ranging from “very low” levels to “very high” levels. Some effects of climate change are now unavoidable and are present in all scenarios, but the intensity of these events is increased as greenhouse gas emissions climb. For example, global surface temperatures will continue to increase in all the presented scenarios, but the degree of warming increases with each climate scenario. Global warming of 2° Celsius is very likely to occur under the “very high” emissions scenario, but is extremely unlikely to be exceeded under the “very low” emissions scenario. These scenarios provide important perspectives on what the future of our planet could look like under different emissions scenarios, as changes in weather patterns will become more extreme with each increment of warming.

What Does All This Have To Do With Drinking Water?

Extreme weather events already have an impact on our drinking water. Droughts reduce the amount of drinking water available due to the lack of precipitation to replace water supplies. Water contamination is also more likely to occur in areas with drought conditions. Hurricanes and tropical storms can also contaminate drinking water supplies with floodwater and leave communities without clean drinking water for long periods of time. Even cold weather events can affect access to clean drinking water, especially in areas that are not equipped with the infrastructure to deal with extremely cold temperatures. For example, the recent round of winter storms that brought freezing temperatures to Texas limited access to drinking water due to frozen pipes, power outages, and boil water advisories.

As global temperatures increase, these extreme weather events will increase not only in frequency but in intensity as well. Drinking water supplies will be threatened by these events more often and the intensity of these events risks damaging water infrastructure that was not built to withstand the extreme weather conditions created by climate change. 

The IPCC report also included specifics on how global warming will directly impact the global water cycle. Like weather patterns, the rise of global temperatures will intensify the water cycle, making wet seasons wetter and dry seasons drier. This will have direct implications for areas of the world that depend on seasonal precipitation. Intensified dry seasons will impact agriculture and those who depend on rainy seasons to water their crops. Intensified wet seasons bring the risk of flooding that could potentially damage communities and infrastructure. These intensified seasons will also bring problems with drinking water quality, either due to lack of rainfall to replenish water supplies or too much precipitation that contaminates drinking water supplies with dirty floodwater.

How Can We Stop The Worst From Happening?

It is easy to fall into a downward spiral of negative thinking after reading about how our planet is being irreversibly damaged. However, this report makes it clear that there is still time to change course. While it is too late to stop some warming from occurring, there is still time to cut greenhouse gas emissions and prevent the worst from happening. Now is the time to call on world leaders and governments to implement policies that will lower emissions and protect future generations and ensure a livable planet with access to clean drinking water for all. 

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Hidden Effects of Drought on Drinking Water

Emily Driehaus @ Monday, August 9, 2021 at 3:49 pm -0400

 

Emily Driehaus | Science Communication Intern

As the drought in the western United States continues to impact water supplies, the risk for long-term damage to drinking water systems increases daily. Although they are not always readily apparent, prolonged drought brings the potential for issues that can be costly to manage and cause problems for years to come. 

Seawater Intrusion

Seawater or saltwater intrusion occurs near coastal areas when groundwater supplies become too low to keep seawater from flowing into groundwater aquifers. Groundwater meets seawater near coastal areas in transition zones, where the water pressure of groundwater keeps seawater from getting into aquifers. During a drought, these groundwater levels may not be replenished quickly enough to maintain enough water pressure to keep seawater out. Continued pumping of groundwater through groundwater wells can exacerbate this, as this further reduces groundwater pressure. When seawater does make its way into groundwater aquifers, the damage can be costly to manage. If the affected aquifer is used for drinking water, public water systems have to effectively treat the water to make it safe for drinking. Seawater intrusion may leave some water sources unusable, resulting in the need to find new sources in an already limited area.

Land Subsidence

Depleted groundwater can also cause land to sink, also known as land subsidence. When groundwater stores are not replenished, soil becomes compacted due to the lack of water pressure and the loss of volume groundwater takes up below the surface. Land subsidence can permanently damage groundwater aquifers, resulting in a decreased capacity even after groundwater stores are replenished. Continued pumping of groundwater wells can make land subsidence even worse, especially during a prolonged drought such as what is currently being seen in the western U.S. 

Infrastructure Damage

Both seawater intrusion and land subsidence can damage critical infrastructure, specifically drinking water systems. Contamination from seawater intrusion can render some water sources unusable, which can be costly to fix. This can also result in the need for new pipes and systems to be built to use a different water source. Because drought also leads to water stagnation, bacteria and other microorganisms are able to grow in stagnant water and can contaminate drinking water supplies. Land subsidence can result in damage to groundwater aquifers and other equipment used in water systems, such as pumps. Underground pipes can also sustain damage when the soil gets compacted and sinks, resulting in pipe breaks and potentially damaging other parts of the system.

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Why Does My Tap Water Taste Like Dirt? 

Christina Liu @ Thursday, June 24, 2021 at 7:45 pm -0400
Reports that drinking water tastes "earthy" or like "dirt" has become more frequent, especially in areas affected by drought and with significantly reduced surface water levels. This is most commonly caused by geosmin, a chemical that's not toxic or harmful at levels in drinking water, but causing an unpleasant taste. Click to learn more.

How Do Droughts Affect Your Drinking Water?

Emily Driehaus @ Tuesday, June 22, 2021 at 10:20 am -0400

Emily Driehaus  |  Science Communication Intern

The ongoing drought in the western United States has severely depleted water supplies and left many states with water shortages. Water restrictions have been implemented in parts of California with more on the way. The lack of water can have an impact on both drinking water quality and water infrastructure. 

Droughts and Water Supplies

The most apparent impact of a drought is the loss of water resources due to the lack of precipitation. An increase in temperature can also speed up the rate of evaporation of water from water supplies. This combination of factors can lead to drought conditions like what is currently being seen in the western U.S. Both natural bodies of water and human-made reservoirs are being depleted at alarming rates, leading to water shortages and restrictions. 

How Can Droughts Impact Water Quality?

A lack of rainfall can lead to reduced flow of rivers and streams, causing stagnation. Rainfall and other precipitation helps to keep rivers and streams flowing, but this stagnation from a reduced flow can lead to a buildup of pollutants. Microorganisms and viruses can contaminate stagnant water and can be transmitted through both drinking water and water used for watering crops. People who use private wells for drinking water are also more susceptible to these contaminants, as there is little flow during a drought.  

Impacts on Water Infrastructure:

The low water supply caused by droughts can have an impact on water systems, especially smaller systems. Poor water quality can affect a treatment facility’s ability to meet acceptable drinking water standards. This loss in water pressure can lead to boil-water advisories, which can add to the heat that often accompanies drought. Older pipes can also exacerbate water loss during a drought due to leaks.  

Future Considerations

With climate change increasing the frequency and severity of droughts, the EPA is looking to help communities with drought resiliency. These efforts include installing water-efficient plumbing, such as low-flow toilets and showerheads that conserve water. Encouraging water reuse is also part of these efforts. For example, using water from a shower to water plants could be part of these efforts. As climate change exacerbates the impacts of droughts, these water conservation efforts will become increasingly important.

How Do I Prepare for Water Shortages in a Drought?

According to the USGS, preparation before a drought should focus on water conservation. Replacing leaky plumbing and installing low-flow fixtures can conserve water in the long run, especially during a drought. During a drought, the Red Cross recommends not pouring water down the drain when it could be used for another purpose, such as watering plants. Conserving as much water as possible will allow for more water from faucets to be used for drinking during a drought.

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