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California and much of the American West face mega-drought brought on by climate change

3 min read

Thanks in part to rising temperatures due to climate change, “extreme” or “exceptional” drought conditions are now occurring in 74 percent of the state of California, while 72 percent of the Western U.S. is classified as experiencing “severe” drought, according to data from the U.S. Drought Monitor

With the risk of wildfires growing with every passing day in states like California, which receives only minimal precipitation during the summer months, temperatures last week continued to trend 3 to 6 degrees above normal, the Drought Monitor said on its website. 

In May, California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency in 41 of the state’s 58 counties, putting in place water conservation restrictions. 

“We’re working with local officials and other partners to protect public health and safety and the environment, and call on all Californians to help meet this challenge by stepping up their efforts to save water,” Newsom said. 

A map provided by the U.S. Drought Monitor shows the extent of severe drought now gripping the Western portion of the country. (U.S. Drought Monitor)

Back-to-back dry years in conjunction with above-average temperatures have exacerbated drought conditions across the American West, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said on its website. The extent of the drought is unprecedented in recorded history, with 100 percent of both California and Nevada now classified as experiencing “moderate to exceptional drought.” 

“Snowpack since April 1 has rapidly decreased earlier than normal to near zero, with run-off going into parched soils,” the NOAA said. “Reservoir levels are low throughout the region.”

Lake Oroville

Low water levels at Lake Oroville in California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In fact, California’s reservoirs, more than 1,500 in all, now contain 50 percent less water than they normally do at this time of year, according to Jay Lund, co-director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis. With water levels falling precipitously, the dry, exposed shorelines and boat slips attest to the severity of mounting water shortages. 

But water shortages are just one consequence of the ongoing drought. An even more palpable risk hanging over the region due to bone-dry conditions is that of wildfires. 

According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), climate change has helped extend the duration of so-called fire season in the state by 75 days. 

“While wildfires are a natural part of California’s landscape, the fire season in California and across the West is starting earlier and ending later each year,” Cal Fire said on its website. Climate change is considered a key driver of this trend. “Warmer spring and summer temperatures, reduced snowpack and earlier spring snowmelt create longer and more intense dry seasons that increase moisture stress on vegetation and make forests more susceptible to severe wildfire.”

While the 2018 fire season in California remains the deadliest and most destructive on record, with 97 civilians and six firefighters killed and over 24,000 buildings destroyed, the trend line for the number of acres burned by wildfires in the state continues to rise. 

“Since 2015, the term ‘unprecedented’ has been used year over year as conditions have worsened, and the operational reality of a changing climate sets in,” a Cal Fire report on the 2020 fire season stated. “In California, the 2020 Fire Siege claimed the lives of 28 civilians and three firefighters, destroyed 9,248 structures and consumed 4.2 million acres.” 

In April, Newsom signed a $536 million wildfire package that will allow the state to implement wildfire-suppression efforts.

“This crucial funding will go toward efforts including fuel breaks, forest health projects and home hardening,” Newsom said when he signed the bill into law.

A month later, he signed a proclamation declaring May 2 to May 8 as “Wildfire Preparedness Week.”

“Hotter, drier conditions driven by climate change are contributing to unparalleled risk of catastrophic wildfire across landscapes,” the proclamation stated. “With continued dry conditions and ever-present climate change, California is facing another difficult and dangerous wildfire year.”

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