City of Lakes: Victim of Global Warming?


Last week the Vancouver Observer published an article  describing the impacts of climate change on various parts of Asia. The full article is available here.

Prominently featured in the article is a description of Udaipur, the so-called “City of Lakes”, located in the Rajasthan state of India. The author of the piece has the following to say about the current state of Udaipur and its lakes:

One telling example of the drought is occurring in Udaipur, a beautiful, historical city that lies amongst centuries-old man-made lakes created by various maharajas. Udaipur has been called the City of Lakes. It’s a misnomer now.

If you’ve ever seen the movie Octopussy, you’ll remember James Bond speeding across a gorgeous blue lake with a wedding cake palace in the background. That was Lake Pichola in Udaipur. Shockingly, the lake is now almost dry and has been for a few years. The rains don’t come anymore, and under the searing sun and growing population, the demand for water is too great.

About the Rajasthan state in general it is said:

Throughout Rajasthan, the state southwest of Delhi, water issues are at critical levels. It’s not just a recent phenomenon either – drought has ravaged the state for the past 10 years, withering crops, drying up wells and virtually roasting cattle before they are even butchered.

While mention is given to the role of population pressures on water supply in the region, it is clear from the article that the author is primarily attributing the decline of Udaipur’s lakes to anthropogenic global warming (the end of the article makes the link to CO2 explicit).

The problem is that while it is easy to make attributions like this, it requires more effort to justify them – and the effort was clearly not made here. Like many articles about climate change in the media today, this article provides scant data to buttress its claims and does little to put the data that it does provide into the historical context necessary to give readers a sense of how the current conditions compare to similar periods in the past. Indeed, instead of providing hard data, the link between CO2-induced global warming and the observed changes is largely asserted.

Of course none of this means that the claims in the article are false, and I understand that there are many real challenges being faced by this region right now – but it would be helpful to see the current temperature and precipitation data for this area over, say, the last 10 years compared to the same data during earlier periods. Precipitation and temperature data are easily available online at the NCDC (National Climatic Data Center) web site and it would have been easy to supplement the article with the extra information.

At NCDC, I see that Udaipur actually had a temperature station that was part of the Global Historical Climatology Network (GHCN), but it appears that that particular station stopped reporting data in 1973. Still, there are active stations from some relatively nearby locations (still in the Rajasthan state), such as one in Jodhpur. So what do they have to say about the temperature and precipitation conditions in this area over the last 60 years?

Here is a graph of temperatures in Jodhpur since 1943 (from the NCDC “Global Summary of the Day” data):

The temperature looks pretty flat to me.

What about precipitation in this area?

Perhaps somewhat less precipitation over the last few years but, overall, the record between 1999 and 2009 does not appear to be markedly different from what is shown from 1979-1989.

Alternative explanations

Could there be other explanations for what is going on in Udaipur, besides CO2-driven climate change? In November of 2009 the Huffington Post (no friend to climate change skepticism)  reported on Udaipur, describing a one day conference in the summer of that year to discuss “approaches to integrated lake basin management.”

Here’s what the article had to say about the lakes of Udaipur:

For once, global warming and climate change were not to blame (my emphasis), said keynote speaker Masahisa Nakamura, director of the Center for Sustainability and Environment at Shiga University in Otsu, Japan, and chairman of the International Lake Environment Committee Foundation’s scientific committee.

Rather, he ticked off a number of human factors, among them deforestation and silting, construction along lakeshore, human and other waste dumping, poor governance and bribes.

He was particularly critical of regional marble cutting industries that dump white sludge, a contaminant waste that penetrates soil and water systems. Adding to the negative impact, large tracts of the white powder act as sun reflectors, creating their own micro-climatic warming effect.

All these have contributed to the scarcity and degradation of the lake waters, he said.

So climate change seems not to be the real problem in Udaipur after all.

And in terms of the general issue of drought in this region, what about the role of El Nino Southern Oscillation events (ENSO)?   My understanding has always been that Indian droughts have historically been related to El Nino events, but I do not know much more than that. Unfortunately, this article missed an opportunity to educate readers about this phenomenon.

More weak arguments

One of the things that caught my attention while reading this article is that the author repeatedly indicates that he knows climate change is affecting the region because, well, apparently he asked some people he met on his travels if the climate was different from the recent past and no-one, except western tourists, disagreed with him.

After interviewing dozens locals in Vietnam, Laos, India, Bhutan and Indonesia, I’ve found no one who has refuted the fact that the climate is different than it was 20 short years ago. And none of them are disputing that humans are causing it.

And again here:

In dozens of conversations about changes in that region’s climate, the only suggestion that climate change is either imagined, trumped up or a hoax is voiced by European and American tourists.

And finally here:

The future impacts of climate change globally remain uncertain but each new piece of data confirms that it’s not likely to be pretty. That prognosis is all too evident to many Asians already. Just ask them.

As proof that climate change is real in this region, don’t readers deserve better than an argument that basically says “well, everyone I asked says it’s true”?

Conclusions

When I read an article on climate change, I want to see hard data. If we are told that a drought is the worst in 100 years, then show us the data for the last 100 years and let us see how bad it really is so that we can compare. If we are told that a particular situation is directly related to CO2-induced climate change then show us the facts that produced that conclusion, and if there is uncertainty in it, then state the uncertainty – and quantify it, if possible –  and consider alternative explanations.

I understand that the drought in India is real, but I have not seen any conclusive proof yet that it is related to CO2 emissions. And in the case of Udaipur the factors involved in its decline seem to be completely unrelated to climate change.  Blaming climate change when it isn’t the cause simply diverts attention from the real problems – which are admittedly still related to human activity.

Finally, I admit that nothing I’ve said in this post constitutes proof that CO2-driven climate change is not happening in Asia.  However, reporting on climate change is not my full-time job, and with very few resources (including time), I was still able to find reliable information that does call into question at least some of the article’s conclusions, and I was able to uncover at least some related issues (such as the effects of El Nino) that warranted attention but did not receive it.

I really think editors need to wake up and start enforcing stricter standards on these types of articles.  Requiring writers to avoid automatically attributing all observed climate change to CO2 emissions when there are often other, accepted explanations would be a start.

– Dave

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3 responses to “City of Lakes: Victim of Global Warming?

  1. Pingback: When did “Global Warming” become “Climate Change”? « web-of-belief

  2. Pingback: When did “Global Warming” become “Climate Change”? | orthogonal-minds

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