Warming Makes US West Megadrought Worst In Modern Age

Megadrought comparison

Megadrought comparison

"The first two decades of this drought look just like the first two decades of all of the megadroughts", lead author Dr Park Williams, from Columbia University in NY, said.

Climate change has caused temperatures in this part of the West to rise 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 20 years. Their conclusion: as measured against the worst 19-year increments within the previous episodes, the current drought is already outdoing the three earliest ones.

"What matters is that it has been made much worse than it would have been because of climate change".

Researchers focused on a nine-state area from OR and Wyoming down through California and New Mexico, plus a sliver of southwestern Montana and parts of northern Mexico. The most severe megadrought on recorrd began in 1575, though researchers said the difference between that Medieval one and the current was slight. All of the ancient droughts lasted longer than 19 years-the one that started in the 1200s ran almost a century-but all began on a similar path to to what is showing up now, they say.

"We know from, from many lines of evidence that when you have La Niña type conditions in the tropical Pacific Ocean, then the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico get dry".

What separates this drought from past mega-routes is that the natural dry cycle is amplified by global warming. As warmer air retains more moisture, more moisture is drawn from the soil, intensifying drying soils. But past megadroughts had been caused by natural weather fluctuations. Because the last century was not representative of the typical availability of water and climate change is draining water at an ever increasing rate, policy makers and managers have been forced to face the new climate reality.

Because temperatures are expected to continue rising for the foreseeable future - and until humans dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions - Cook suggests the current drought is likely to persist.

"Because the background is getting warmer, the dice are increasingly loaded toward longer and more severe droughts", added Williams.

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"Whether or not the western US has crossed a threshold into an event that goes by any specific label, what's been clear this century is that water is an essential resource in the western US, and it's a precarious one, because the region can have long spells with little precipitation", Dr Angeline Pendergrass, a scientist with the US National Centre for Atmospheric Research, said.

The U.S. Drought Monitor puts much of Oregon, California, Colorado, Utah and Nevada and good chunks of New Mexico, Arizona and Idaho in abnormally dry, moderate or severe drought conditions.

Using data from the ring, Williams and his team detected dozens of droughts across the region, from 800 AD.

The big picture: This is the first megadrought of the climate change era, and it comes at a time when expanding cities and farms in the region are demanding more and more water.

A 2016 study coauthored by several Lamont scientist reinforced those findings. "It's already happening", he said. In addition, insect epidemics ravage dry forests, making them more vulnerable and generating fuel for forest fires.

And California was plagued by deadly wildfires in 2019. A study published past year in "Nature" also found that humans were to blame for droughts and that they will continue to worsen.

"The 20th century has given us an overly optimistic view of the amount of water potentially available", said co-author Benjamin Cook. "It goes to show that studies like this are not just about ancient history". They took apart calculations already in the record and modified them where needed.

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