On Parched American West, a Dire 'Wake-Up Call'

Study says megadrought is worst in 1.2K years, a 'worst-case scenario' due to climate change
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Feb 15, 2022 11:02 AM CST
US Megadrought Is Worst We've Seen in 12 Centuries
A buoy once used to warn of a submerged rock rests on the ground along the waterline near a closed boat ramp on Lake Mead at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area on Aug. 13, 2021, near Boulder City, Nev.   (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

The American West's megadrought deepened so much last year that it's now the driest in at least 1,200 years and is a worst-case climate change scenario playing out live, a new study finds. A dramatic drying in 2021—about as dry as 2002 and one of the driest years ever recorded for the region—pushed the 22-year drought past the previous record-holder for megadroughts in the late 1500s and shows no signs of easing in the near future, according to a study Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change. The study calculated that 42% of this megadrought can be attributed to human-caused climate change, per the AP.

"This is right in line with what people were thinking of in the 1900s as a worst-case scenario," said study lead author Park Williams, a climate hydrologist at UCLA. "But today I think we need to be even preparing for conditions in the future that are far worse than this." Williams studied soil moisture levels in the West—a box that includes California, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, most of Oregon and Idaho, much of New Mexico, western Colorado, northern Mexico, and the southwest corners of Montana and Texas—using modern measurements and tree rings for estimates that go back to the year 800.

Williams used 29 models to create a hypothetical world with no human-caused warming, then compared it to what really happened. He found 42% of the drought conditions are directly from human-caused warming. Without climate change, he said, the megadrought in the US West would have ended early on, as 2005 and 2006 would've been wet enough to break it. This drought is now 5% drier than the old record from the 1500s, he said. The study "is an important wake-up call," said Jonathan Overpeck, dean of environment at the University of Michigan, who wasn't part of the study. "Climate change is literally baking the water supply and forests of the Southwest."

(More drought stories.)

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