Megadrought plaguing Southwest is worst the region has seen in 1,200 years, researchers say

The megadrought that has been devastating the southwestern United States and parts of Mexico over the last two decades is the worst the region has seen in at least 1,200 years, according to a study released Monday. 

Researchers with Nature Climate Change analyzed tree ring patterns, which delineate soil moisture levels over periods of time, to conclude that the current megadrought is worse than one that hit the region in the late 1500s and is the most severe since one in 800 AD. 

The study, which analyzed a region stretching from southern Montana to northern Mexico and from the Pacific Ocean to the Rocky Mountains, found that human-caused global heating accounts for more than 40% of the severity of the dry spell.

“The turn-of-the-21st-century drought would not be on a megadrought trajectory without anthropogenic climate change,” reads the study, led by Park Williams, an associate professor at the University of California in Los Angeles

The megadrought devastating the southwestern U.S. and parts of Mexico is the worst the region has seen in at least 1,200 years, researchers said Monday 

The above map shows the drought's intensity across the western United States

The above map shows the drought’s intensity across the western United States

Over the last decade, California and other western states have experienced severe water shortages, triggering periodic restrictions on water usage and forcing some communities to import bottled water for drinking.  

Occasional heavy snow or rainfall have not been enough to compensate. 

The past year was especially dry. As of February 10, 95 percent of western US had drought conditions, according to the US government’s Drought Monitor.

Last summer, two of North America’s largest reservoirs – Lake Mead and Lake Powell – reached their lowest recorded level in more than a century.

The odds are high that the current dry spell will continue for at least a couple of years, probably longer, according to the findings.

Running simulations based on soil moisture records stretching back 1,200 years, the researchers calculated a 94% chance that the drought would extend through 2022.

There’s a three-in-four chance it will run until the end of decade.

Tree-ring analysis shows that the area west of the Rocky Mountains from southern Montana to northern Mexico was hit repeatedly by so-called megadroughts — lasting at least 19 years, between the years 800 and 1600. 

Earlier research had established that the period 2000-2018 was likely the second worst drought since the year 800, topped by one in the late 1500s.

The above chart shows changes in the global land area affected by severe drought per month since 1950

The above chart shows changes in the global land area affected by severe drought per month since 1950

Data from 2019-2021, backed by new climate models released last year, have revealed the current drought to be worse than any from the Middle Ages.

But without climate change it “wouldn’t hold a candle to the megadroughts of the 1500s, 1200s or 1100s,” Williams said in a statement.

“Essentially, half of the severity of the ongoing megadrought has been attributed to warming temperatures alone, and without that warming, the drought would arguably not be a megadrought at all,” UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain told ABC News in June. 

Western North America is not the only region hit by increasingly severe dry periods. 

Climate change worsened the El Nino-driven droughts of 2015-2016, leading to widespread crop failures, loss of livestock, Rift Valley fever outbreaks, and increased rates of malnutrition.

Globally, 800 million to three billion people are projected to experience chronic water scarcity due to drought caused by two degrees Celsius warming above preindustrial levels, according to a draft 4,000-page Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on climate impacts seen by AFP.

In a 4C world, that figure is up to four billion people.

Earth’s surface has already warmed 1.1C on average, and is almost certain to breach the 1.5C cap called for in the Paris Agreement within two decades.

Other natural extreme weather events enhanced by global warming include deadly heatwaves, flood-causing rainfall and superstorms.

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