California drought is “exceptional” and getting worse
While many places in the U.S. suffer from drought, no state is suffering more than California. For three years, the nation’s most populous state has been enduring one of the worst droughts since record-keeping started in 1885.
The long stretch of subnormal precipitation dates back to 2011. In 2012, the drought had already reached historic proportions throughout the U.S. In 2013, California experienced the driest year on record. As of the start of 2014, nearly two thirds of the American West was suffering and most of California was in a state of extreme drought.
The period from December to March is supposed to be the region’s wet season, but with the exception of some rain and snow in northern and central California early in February, there was virtually no precipitation this year. Since the start of the year, the situation has grown progressively worse. As of April, drought plagued the entire state and in May the situation deteriorated further still. Midway through 2014, the state is well on its way to recording the driest year in about a century.
According to data released by the U.S. Drought Monitor at the end of July, all of California was experiencing drought with 58 percent of the state suffering from “exceptional drought.” As climatologist Mark Svoboda of the National Drought Mitigation Center told the Los Angeles Times, “[California keeps] beating the records, which are still all from this year.” He went on to explain that this is the first time such dryness has ever been recorded in California since the federal government started releasing drought reports in the 1990s. To make matters worse, the absence of precipitation is being compounded by record breaking heat.
Currently, California’s rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and snow packs are well below normal. Cities are having to enact water restrictions or water rationing and farmers are struggling to find ways to cope with less water.
The extreme drought conditions prompted California Governor Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency in January. In August, wildfires associated with the drought have forced the governor to declare yet another state of emergency.
Food supplies and drought
California’s drought has implications for the nation’s food supply as the state supplies half of America’s fruits, nuts and vegetables and nearly a quarter of the nation’s milk and cream. Much of the nation’s agricultural produce is grown in California, including produce like tomatoes, carrots, broccoli, almonds, walnuts, grapes, olives and figs. Even the state’s wine and beer producers are suffering.
With 80 percent of California’s water resources being used by agriculture, the state is having trouble meeting the demand. In February, California’s municipal water system announced that it would not be able to supply water to some farmers. The situation has forced the state’s farmers to leave about 800,000 acres idle this year.
Drought is also having repercussions for meat supplies. Starting in 2011, drought forced huge numbers of ranchers to sell their animals because they could not afford feedstock. This led to a glut of meat in late 2012, which then led to a relative shortage in 2013.
Costs of California drought
Extreme weather events like drought increase the costs of commodities. Losses attributable to the drought combined with increasing consumer prices have negative economic implications for the state and the nation’s economy.
This spring, Mike Wade, the executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition, said that he expects on-farm production losses to double from $1.7 billion to an estimated $3.56 billion. He cited the predictions of some market watchers who said that they expect a 10 percent to 15 percent increase in consumer prices this spring and summer.
According to a July report from the University of California, Davis, the 2014 drought has cost California’s economy $2.2 billion and resulted in the loss of 17,100 seasonal and part-time jobs related to agriculture. The study found that the drought is responsible for the greatest water loss ever seen in California agriculture. The report further indicated that the overdraft of groundwater is expected to cause additional wells in the Tulare Basin to run dry.
The California Farm Water Coalition estimates that thus far, the cumulative economic cost of the drought is $7.48 billion. The negative economic impacts are far from over as the drought is expected to worsen as we go forward.
While it is widely understood that climate change causes droughts, scientists are reluctant to make a link to individual extreme weather events. However, recent research conducted by climate scientist Simon Wang at Utah State University points to a causal link between climate change and the ongoing drought in California. As explained by Wang, “we found a good link and the link is becoming stronger and stronger.”
Wang’s research confirms the findings in earlier studies that relate droughts and climate change. Researchers like climatologist James Hansen co-authored one of the earliest studies on this subject back in 1990 and a 2009 NOAA led paper came to the same conclusions. Many others have added to the growing body of evidence. One of the more interesting hypotheses involves the link between declining Arctic sea ice and western drought.
Climatologist Jonathan Overpeck, a leading drought expert at the University of Arizona, said that what’s going on in the Southwest is what anthropogenic global warming looks like. Like Overpeck, most climate scientists agree that the entire Southwest and California in particular will continue to get hotter and drier.
Get used to it
The evidence suggests that climate change is making droughts more intense and the research further predicts that this will only get worse. The situation in California is unlikely to improve in the foreseeable future. The University of California, Davis report predicts that drought is likely to continue through 2015. According to Lynn Ingram, a geography professor at the University of California, Berkeley, the drought could persist for a decade or more.
Another study warned that the drought could last for 60 years. This study predicts that the Southwest could see “an unprecedented combination” of multi-decade droughts with even warmer temperatures. In a 2012 NCAR news release, drought researcher Aiguo Dai, said, “The U.S. may never again return to the relatively wet conditions experienced from 1977 to 1999.”
Not only is this drought likely to last it may get worse quicker that we think. As Overpeck warned, “climate change seldom occurs gradually.”
Drought is not only a problem in California and the Southwestern U.S. In the spring of this year about 38 percent of the United States were suffering from some form of drought. As of July 31, almost all of the West, Southwest and central parts of the U.S. were suffering from varying degrees of drought. In the middle of 2014, drought conditions could be seen in many places around the world, but they were particularly pronounced in Asia and Africa. In South America, persistent drought was evident around the equator and in areas of Brazil.
Drought is a global problem that is destined to intensify as the planet warms. In the past century, we have warmed 1.5°F, if we continue with business as usual, we may gain as much as 10°F over the next century. As explained in a Climate Central article, one third of the planet could soon be plagued by drought.
Increasing incidence of drought makes it less likely that we will be able to provide enough food to feed the world. We can stop growing water-intensive crops like cotton and rice, and we can adopt other solutions to address the world water crisis. However, these efforts will not be enough to offset the impacts of a world ravaged by runaway climate change.
The only way we can meaningfully reduce the severity of droughts in the long term is by radically reducing the emissions that cause climate change.
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.
Image credit: U.S. Drought Monitor