The American Southwest: A Disaster in Ultra Slo-Mo

Desertification is a disaster in ultra slo-mo, which is why the drying up of the American Southwest has gotten perhaps 1/25th the coverage of Katrina.

The New York Times features the issue in the Sunday magazine, with a superb cover picture by Simon Norfolk. Writer Dan Gertner appears to have spent most of his time researching the long piece talking with water managers, which may explain his calm, even placid tone. Water managers by occupation are imperturbable: if Gertner had spent more time talking to scientists (such as one he mentions in passing, Martin Hoerling) I venture to say his tone would be more ominous, perhaps even apocalyptic.

But the writer does open the piece with an alarming point from Nobel Laureate Steven Chu, of the Lawrence Livermore lab:

Chu noted that even the most optimistic climate models for the second
half of this century suggest that 30 to 70 percent of the [Sierra Nevada] snowpack will
disappear. “There’s a two-thirds chance there will be a disaster,” Chu
said, “and that’s in the best scenario.”

In fact in speeches, Chu has said that at twice the historical percentage of CO2 (about 560 ppm) "soil moisture [nationally] will be down by a factor of 20-30%, which means serious desertification…and the agricultural capacity of the U.S. will be threatened." In another speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, which I can’t seem to locate, Chu mentioned the possibility of mass migrations.

When will this start to show up in real estate pricing? I guess that’s the next question. The likely place to watch: Las Vegas, which the Times story targets as the U.S. city most desperate for water.

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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