And Now: The Megadrought In The American West

The human species has got a lot going on these days, as the list of global warming challenges ticks up in an alarming curve that, if not technically exponential, is rising very rapidly. As is the case with most specific climate events, humans don’t fully engage with these hyperobjects until it affects them personally. The situation in the West will do that.

Even as the Covid pandemic appears to ease, the extended drought in the American West is showing every sign of expanding into a multi century slo mo catastrophe. While periods of drought are naturally cyclical, the evolving scenario in the West plots far outside of any geological variation graph. Furthermore, this disaster in progress is amplified by escalating global warming and humankind’s ever expanding footprint of foolishness. Climate scientists estimate that one third to one half of the effects of this dry period are due to anthropogenic warming.

According to recent research from Columbia University’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory (published in Science Magazine), the Western US is already two decades into a long=term drought that shows every sign of being historically unprecedented. The region’s average temperature has risen by 2.2 F (1.2C) over the past two decades, accelerating evaporation and reducing soil moisture.

As summer 2021 looms, about 77% of the 10 state region is in severe drought or worse, with California at 90%.  Last year in 2020, Utah and Nevada experienced their driest years of all time, while every other state in the watershed was in the top five. Even if rains come, dry soils soak up snow when it melts, preventing it from reaching rivers and reservoirs

Lake Powell and Lake Mead are at less than half capacity after 20 years of drought, with both projected to reach their lowest level since initial filling.  Meanwhile, memories of water rationing in California are still fresh.

Til The Rivers Run Dry…

Lake Powel low water levels

The region’s key water shed and source of water for 40,000,000 people, the Colorado River has been drying up for a long time. The basin has endured three D4 category droughts this century. Since the summer of 2020 things have gotten worse. The monsoon rains didn’t come. Record high heat continued into fall. Biologists have noted that even some desert plants – normally well adapted to the conditions – are showing signs of stress. Yet even as rainfall has decreased, the exhausted Colorado is drained by cities, agriculture and species that are slipping away for good.

NOAA predicts the Spring 2021 dry to affect 75 million citizens.

The long haul effects.

In terms of civilization, ongoing migration to the region and its water starved cities has been exacerbating the disaster.

The opening stage of the imminent drought lines up perfectly with the new century, extending from 2000 and 2018. This period ranks second in the past 1200 years in terms of dryness. As 2021 moves into spring, there are numerous signs that the past two years have been a pause rather than an end.

A 2016 study published in Science Advances magazine predicted a 90% chance of a megadrought of at least 35 years. However, megadroughts in the Southwest have sometimes lasted up to 90 years. Although the current situation is the fifth megadrought of the past 1200 years, its immediate and long term impact will be manifested in the context of a high tech mechanized culture. While we have a rudimentary understanding of how droughts destroyed ancient civilizations such as the Chaco Canyon,  Mesa Verde Pueblo and Anasazi peoples, the North American iteration of white European Western Civilization has not yet been tested to this degree (although we have certainly had glimpses of what to expect after a couple of hundred years of water wars).

There is already plenty of upheaval and more is on the way. Will our technology be up to the task? Probably. Will our wisdom? Not so far.