Forget the polar vortex, the record snowfalls in the East, and the abandoned cars on Atlanta’s iced-over freeways. The real news is the drought in the West, by far. Yet unless you live in the middle of it, you’re probably only tangentially aware of the crisis because it doesn’t fit snugly into the 24-hour news cycle. The drought took three years to come to fruition in 2013; it’s a silent, slow-rolling tragedy rather than blink-of-an-eye disaster, and it’s got California in its crosshairs:
This is the March 18, 2014 map from the USDA: See that brick-red splotch over central California? That’s “exceptional drought,” which is as high as the scale goes. The surrounding fire-engine red is “extreme drought.” All told, 38 million people live in California, and their access to water is at risk. Moreover, that brick-red region produces the lion’s share of milk, fruits, vegetables, and nuts consumed in the United States. California’s almond crop alone requires 100 billion gallons of water each year.
Here’s the national picture from the National Climatic Data Center, which, oddly, doesn’t seem to reflect the magnitude of the massive snowstorms in the Northeast this winter:
California, when you’re done with the moisturizer, pass it on to Arizona, New Mexico, and Nebraska (Texas, I’m assuming you have your own).
But how do we evaluate this picture in historical terms? According to the Guardian’s climate change reporter Andrew Freedman:
Longer-running records indicate the 13-month drought, which is part of a 3-year dry period, is equal to or worse than any other short-term drought and is among the top 10 worst droughts to hit California in the past 500 years, based on tree-ring records and instrument data. The drought is part of a broader Western drought that has lasted for roughly 13 years, raising the specter of a modern-day “megadrought” akin to events that doomed some ancient civilizations.
A megadrought is one that lasts two or more decades or one that inflicts a level of economic damage that leads to mass migration. Most megadroughts are associated with La Niña conditions on the Pacific Ocean. They are rare events: Even the Dust Bowl of the 1930s is not considered a megadrought. However, some scientists, including Lynn Ingram, have uncovered evidence that the 20th century was California’s wettest century in 1,300 years. During this time, dams were constructed to divert water, and population and industry developed in accordance with a quantity of water that was far above the geographical norm—to say nothing of launching an unprecedentedly massive agriculture industry smack dab in the middle of a desert. Ingram, the author of The West Without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts, and Other Climatic Clues Tell Us about Tomorrow, believes that this current drought could be the start of a trend that could last as long as a century.
Blame It on La Niña
Most climatologists blame La Niña for this current drought. Although anthropogenic climate change may exacerbate the situation and make summer heat waves worse, overall the drought seems to have a more natural explanation. La Niña has coincided with all the major droughts of the past 100 years, some of which lasted up to 10 years, and this one is no exception. La Niña and its counterpart El Niño together form the Southern Oscillation climate pattern in which the surface temperature of the Eastern Central Pacific Ocean varies by several degrees. A lower-than-normal ocean temperature results in La Niña; a higher-than-normal temperature results in El Niño. Typically, La Niña results in droughts in the West and cool, rainy summers in the Midwest. El Niño has the opposite effect: Wet winters in the Southwest, including California, and warm, dry winters in most other places in the contiguous United States. This begs the question: Can we count on El Niño to end the drought?
Answer: Maybe. Some signs indicate that an El Niño may be triggered by the late summer of 2014 and last through next winter; the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center gives this a 49 percent chance of happening. However, a strong El Niño will provide more relief than a mild El Niño, and there is no way to predict its strength even if it does appear.
Until Then. . . .
California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency on January 17, 2014. This requires enacting emergency plans in the event of drinking water shortages, hiring more firefighters, and launching a campaign urging citizens to reduce their water usage by 20 percent. In February, President Obama pledged $183 million in federal funds ease the state’s water woes, with the majority earmarked for livestock disaster assistance and some $60 million dedicated to food banks.
Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.