Mirosław Miętus – Director of the Research and Development Center, Deputy Director of IMGW-PIB: The apocalypse will unfold in the next 2-3 decades
How big a threat to our existence and food production are agricultural droughts and can we somehow prevent them?
Agricultural droughts are undoubtedly a threat to food production, both plant and animal, which will translate into the amount of agricultural production intended for consumption. Of course, agricultural drought is a consequence of, above all, meteorological drought, but not only that. First, from our perspective, the nature of winters has changed in the last few decades. This time of year has become much warmer and less snowy. As a result, the supplementation with melt water that occurs in the early spring decreased sharply. It was largely a water resource that could be used by agricultural crops in the initial stage of development. It was largely a water resource that could be used by agricultural crops in the initial stage of development. Meanwhile, today’s winters are not snowy and there is no thaw phase as common and rich in water as it used to be. Of course, today’s winters are characterized by more rainfall than snowfall. Climate change in terms of pluvial conditions in the winter season in Poland is already the first factor causing agricultural droughts. The second obvious cause of agricultural drought or soil drought is the reduction of rainfall, the occurrence of long-term rainless periods, lasting several weeks. Then, the agricultural drought will also start to develop and threaten crops, meadows, and thus will also affect the amount of feed that we can produce for animal production. As a result, this translates into a decrease in the production volume or deterioration of food quality also for us. However, how can we prevent it: in Poland, agriculture primarily uses surface water resources, does not reach deep water resources and we do not have sprinklers based on deep water resources. This, of course, requires some farm changes and requires some investment. It is possible to remove those deficiencies caused by the deficit and the lack of rainfall. Of course, this may pose a different threat, as it may be a robbery management of water resources accumulated in the ground located quite deep. As a result, we can exhaust them. Another problem may be the construction of retention reservoirs in which we would store water that appears during the period of excess occurrence. We could collect it and use it. Of course, a little farm review will not solve this problem. The area of roofs that collect water is again not so large that it would be enough to supplement crops. Naturally occurring water reservoirs or natural swamps have been quite limited, in some places even devastated. These areas naturally held water that the surrounding meadows could use. Additionally, there was natural moisture in these areas. The way the soil is cultivated is also important in agriculture. The cultivation method is of particular importance for the moisture content of the soil.
Extreme weather phenomena with catastrophic consequences are more and more frequent in the world and in Europe, such as a whirlwind in June 2021 that razed a village in the Czech Republic to the ground, great floods in Germany, Belgium, Austria, storms in Poland, hurricane winds, tornadoes , squalls, floods. Should we expect an increase in such phenomena?
The modern global warming theory, which identifies one specific cause of global warming, actually gives a clear answer. Along with global warming, the probability of some violent phenomena increases, which will be especially visible in the phase of the so-called climate migration from one equilibrium state to another equilibrium state. So for the future state where the temperature stabilizes. We know from the basic laws of physics that there is more moisture in a warmer atmosphere. There are areas where there is excess rainfall, such as in equatorial forests, or other areas where monsoons form, for example. There are also warm regions with rain-free areas, such as the desert, the Sahara and the Arabian Peninsula. These two areas have high temperatures and no rainfall. Research has shown that there is a close relationship between the occurrence of floods and temperature changes. The more the temperature rises, the more likely floods will occur. In addition, the dynamics of atmospheric processes related to the circulation of moisture in the atmosphere is also increasing, which may cause more frequent or more intense rainfall. Of course, this does not mean that all of Poland will be covered by such precipitation zones. This is not unusual in the summer season. It is rather a natural feature of the Polish climate and the atmospheric processes taking place in Central Europe. The situation is different, for example, with changes in land use, which are the result of anthropogenic activity and also affect the occurrence of precipitation or its intensity. We have a mosaic of arable fields, industrial areas and communal areas. All this makes the evaporation from these areas completely different and the accumulation of solar radiation energy is completely different. All these substrates have different characteristics and some of them lose moisture, which makes evaporation more intense in these regions. In some places there may be sudden, intense, short-term rainfall and local flooding. In recent years, we have managed not to be affected by large-scale floods. The last large flood in Poland was in 2010. Possibly, there were local flooding, e.g. the occurrence of watercourses of different dynamics and risk scale. Fortunately, there are no hurricanes in Poland yet, although there are low pressure systems in which the wind speed is very high. Also in Europe, we do not yet deal with such forces as occur in tropical cyclones, which in the Atlantic region pose a threat mainly in the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea and the adjacent land areas, i.e. the coasts of the northern part of South America, Central America and the coasts of the United States. United. Tropical cyclones in many cases turn into cyclones of moderate extratropical latitudes, which, however, will not reach the strength of hurricanes for many years, such as Kathrina, Irma or Harvey, which devastated the Caribbean or part of the United States. Extratropical cyclones are characterized by a different, weaker, pressure gradient, but the very deep ones begin to appear more often. They are moving across the Atlantic towards Europe and have begun to penetrate deeper into the area of Europe, even reaching our country. We can expect that they will cause damage and losses, sometimes comparable to the existing ones, sometimes more, which unfortunately seems inevitable. So far, tornadoes are not common in Europe, including Poland. In the case of our country, we are talking about whirlwinds, which are much smaller and definitely weaker. If they occur in Poland, then the route of a single whirlwind is up to approx. 100 km long, and the width of the runway on which this phenomenon occurred is of the order of 100-200m. When we look at the European database of natural disasters, we will notice a record about one whirlwind in Poland from 1990, later this number started to increase gradually, reaching a value of several dozen per year. However, in the vast majority of cases, this information does not come from the National Meteorological Service. And not because we are not able to register or observe the passage of a tornado near the weather station. Normally, this phenomenon occurs very randomly and usually bypasses stations. Thus, information about the occurrence of a proboscis usually comes from the media, from researchers or from victims. Probably the trumpets have always occurred in Poland. Instrumental data, however, are not a good source of information about this phenomenon, as, for example, anemometers are too rarely spread across the country to make it possible. There are other devices that allow such objects to be ‘seen’, but their use has only been widespread for two decades. Whirlwinds cause various losses in Poland, often the contact of the whirlwind with the ground is short-lived and takes place over a distance of several or several kilometers. Losses are usually material, but unfortunately there are also fatalities. This is a phenomenon that requires monitoring. There have been several whirlwinds this year. Trumpets usually occur in the warm season. You could say that until 2019 we were talking about their occurrence from May to early October. However, in the first half of March 2019, the first whirlwind appeared north of Warsaw. This means that the conditions for the appearance of the trumpets are earlier.
The clock counting down to the climate catastrophe shows less and less time to the apocalypse. Are we really going to doom? What actions can an ordinary citizen take to support the environment?
First of all, an explanation should be given here: as soon as this clock shows 00:00, which is the beginning of the apocalypse, there will be no apocalypse. We will not be submerged by a wall of water, nor will there be any biblical apocalypse. The apocalypse will unfold in the next 2-3 decades, but it will begin at this very moment. The time of 00:00 means the moment when the paths of greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere begin to diverge decisively and irreversibly. Therefore, if the world moves along the RCP8.5 path, processes will inevitably occur in a relatively short time in the climate system that will lead to the disappearance of couplings occurring in it, such as, for example, Arctic interactions on the northern hemisphere, e.g. through the polar vortex, Sea ice with the intensity of ocean water circulation, etc. Meanwhile, if the world moved along the RCP2.6 path, mitigating measures could slow down contemporary climate change and stabilize the climate system by the end of this century at a level where the adaptation of our civilization would be possible.
And can we do anything? It is said: from individual to collective action. We can say “I am not buying energy from a coal-fired power plant, I want to have other energy, from other sources. Now with what?
Wind energy has a problem with the instability of production. In addition, analyzes show that if it is not blowing almost everywhere in Europe, and therefore it is not possible to transfer the generated energy to, for example, another country. Therefore, wind power may not be a sufficient solution. Solar energy is the same, you can install photovoltaic panels in the form of large photovoltaic farms or on the roofs of your own buildings. However, the efficiency of energy production in Poland is strongly dependent on the cloud cover. Cloudy weather significantly weakens the energy flow, the systems only work with diffused radiation. And you have to remember that there are months of the year when the number of hours with the Sun does not exceed 10. Of course, with large installations they are able to make up for the shortage of energy from conventional power plants, and this essentially contributes to reducing CO2 emissions. It is an element of global warming mitigation and a pro-climatic effect, especially when excess energy from renewable energy sources, e.g. for the production of hydrogen, is used. Electric cars are becoming more ecological. The first cars needed more energy to charge the battery for a distance of 100 km, and the emissions from producing this energy exceeded the emissions of the combustion car engine during the same distance. Current batteries provide more independence to electric cars and the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production of electricity needed to charge the battery per 100 km of mileage are lower than the greenhouse gas emissions of gasoline combustion in an internal combustion engine over the same distance. Talking about electromobility in Europe as an element of pro-climate and pro-health policy in many European countries has made sense. Obviously, it is most evident in those countries where the production of a unit of electricity to date has been associated with low greenhouse gas emissions, such as Norway. However, also in Poland, the use of the latest electric cars is already beginning to act as a measure to mitigate contemporary climate change.
There are rumors that in a few years we can expect the climate in Poland as in the Mediterranean countries. What do you think about it?
We observe the progressive warming of the climate, we see how the areas further north are getting warmer. If the scenario outlined by the RCP8.5 path is implemented, then by the end of the century the average air temperature over the southern Baltic Sea will probably be similar to the one that currently characterizes the northern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The Mediterranean Sea, however, is quite a different reservoir from the Baltic Sea. About completely different natural and environmental conditions. The Baltic Sea is a relatively shallow reservoir, very polluted, full of industrial and military waste. Even if the Baltic Sea was as warm as the Mediterranean Sea, changes in the marine environment will make the Baltic Sea unattractive for tourists.
Every year, winters in Poland are getting warmer or will the next generations still have the opportunity to make a snowman for Christmas?
In the perspective of the end of this century, the classic winter may certainly be completely forgotten (except for high-altitude areas). However, for the next 2-3 decades, winters will occur regularly throughout the country and the probability of a severe winter will not change significantly. Of course, the cold episodes during winter will not be long and lasting, but snowfall will still be possible. But the occurrence of permanent snow cover will be much less (except in mountainous areas).
How did the pandemic contribute to global warming? What damage has lockdown and remote working caused?
2020 was also a very warm year, and the pandemic did not contribute to it. We had a lockdown and some industries that were largely responsible for the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations were either temporarily out of service or reduced production. The warming, however, did not stop. Taking the example of China in 2019, where production was stopped, there was a significant reduction in the concentration of some greenhouse gases. However, a short cut in emissions will not be able to stop global warming or even reverse the trend. The emission of greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide and methane, nitrogen oxides and carbonates to the atmosphere is so high that the amount of carbon we emit to the atmosphere per year is 85% -88% higher than the amount that in the natural cycle is in the environment able to develop. There have always been greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere, the concentration of which has fluctuated around a certain value. It was a consequence of the fact that carbon enters the atmosphere naturally, later part of it is dissolved in the oceans and captured by plants, and then goes to the soil. Thus, a one-year or several-month reduction in emissions is not able to change trends. It cannot be treated as evidence that even if we changed the economy overnight and if it turned out to be climate neutral, the situation would change significantly within a year. It takes many years of active and systematic action to stop the upward trend.
In the summer period, our country almost every year struggles with severe droughts and problems in water supply, as a result of which the operation of coal-fired power plants becomes more difficult. Would subsidizing photovoltaics help to solve this problem?
Photovoltaics alone will not solve energy problems and will not replace coal power plants so as to provide us with a satisfactory standard of living and the value of industrial production. Unfortunately, the amount of energy produced by cells is limited, among others over cloudy, and this is changeable. Conventional energy, which is dominant in Poland, needs water, and high temperatures and long periods without rainfall combined with a decrease in rainfall in some regions of Poland contribute to the reduction of the amount of water resources. This may pose a threat to classic energy in our country.
Professor dr hab. Mirosław Miętus
Graduate of Theoretical Physics, University of Gdańsk (1984), Doctor of Technical Sciences – Environmental Engineering, Marine Meteorology (IMGW, 1995), Post-doctoral degree of Earth Science – Physical Oceanography, Marine Meteorology (University of Gdańsk, 2000), Professor of Earth Science (2013). In the years 1985-2011 employee of Institute of Meteorology and Water Management in Gdynia and Warsaw. Since 2021 Associate Director of Institute, Director of the Research and Development Center. Polish representative in the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). In the years 2002-2020 Professor at the University of Gdańsk on the faculty of Oceanography and Geography. In the period 2021-2020 Director of Institute of Geography at the University of Gdańsk.
Last Updated on August 10, 2021 by Karolina Ampulska