The crippling drought that has much of California and parts of Nevada and Oregon at a crisis point is only being exacerbated by the realities of climate change.
The drought, which climate scientists predict will be the worst in 500 years, is exhibiting firsthand a state of emergency that may very well become the new normal for the American West if global warming is not contained to manageable levels.
About two-thirds of California is plagued by “severe” or “exceptional” drought, while snowpack in the Sierra Nevada measures at 12% of the average for this time of year—a record low. At the same time, nearly 40% of Nevada is gripped by severe drought, while in Oregon that figure climbs to a staggering 75%.
In practical terms, the three-year long drought is cutting hydroelectric power output, igniting wildfires in historically safe counties, ravaging West Coast fisheries, and sending farmers into an economic panic.
Life in the West is undeniably being worsened by climate change, but the fact that California accounts for nearly half of the U.S.’s fruit, vegetable, and nut production makes this as much a national issue as a regional crisis. As farmers leave fields unplanted, the drought’s effects could even reverberate around the globe in the form of increased food prices.
Without a serious and ambitious shift in climate policy, extreme weather events such as this historic drought will only become more common in the United States and around the world. One of the hallmarks of climate change is that, on average, wet regions are going to get wetter and dry regions are going to get drier. Such shifts will necessitate dramatic changes to daily life in arid and coastal regions if runaway warming is not contained.
The gravity of the American West’s problems is such that the drought is even beginning to penetrate the lethargy in Washington, D.C. On Monday, Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) submitted a letter signed by over a dozen Democratic members of the House Committee on Natural Resources requesting a bipartisan hearing on drought impacts across the nation.
Meanwhile, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack drew the connection between the historic drought and global warming, calling the crisis a “deep concern” and a reason “to take climate change seriously.” The Obama administration on Wednesday announced the creation of seven regional “climate hubs” and three “sub-hubs” aimed at helping rural communities cope with the extreme weather conditions exacerbated by climate change, including invasive species, flooding, forest fires, and— of course—drought.