Disasters by their nature are enormously loud, chaotic, disruptive events. Think the scream of hurricane winds, the crashing of boulders in floods, the phenomenal roar of a huge wildfire.
Drought is different. Drought stays quiet. Its powers cannot be seen directly, save in the unblinking glare of the sun. Drought lacks drama.
Yet — as one publication after another brings out a story about the megadrought stalking the West – I cannot avoid the sense that we in California and the West face this new (to us) kind of disaster.
Countless stories have been written and will be written about it, but perhaps the best I've seen in the last six months or so came from Doyle Rice for USA Today under the head California's 100-year drought:
The dryness in California is only part of a longer-term, 15-year drought across most of the Western USA, one that bioclimatologist Park Williams said is notable because "more area in the West has persistently been in drought during the past 15 years than in any other 15-year period since the 1150s and 1160s" — that's more than 850 years ago.
We've all seen similar figures: the point is that USA Today and scientist Park Williams clearly put the question to us: if we are in megadrought, what is to be done?
The paper ran a fascinating interactive graphic available here, for the visually minded:
USA Today quoted a leading southwestern climate scientist on the question:
Rising temperatures would tend to favor more droughts, University of Arizona scientist Jonathan Overpeck said.
"It's been anomalously hot recently, which was not likely to have occurred without global warming," Overpeck said. "The odds are only going up that we could have a megadrought as the Earth warms."
So again — what is to be done?
"If California suffered something like a multi-decade drought," University of Arizona climate scientist Gregg Garfin said, "the best-case scenario would be some combination of conservation, technological improvements (such as desalinization plants), multi-state cooperation on the drought, economic-based water transfers from agriculture to urban areas and other things like that to get humans through the drought.
"But there would be consequences for ecosystems and agriculture," he said.
That's what I'm interested in exploring and reporting, if I ever get the chance: the consequences not just to us humans, but for our landscape. What change is coming, and how do we prepare.
The USA Today story does inevitably turn to the question of climate change causing megadrought, and suggests that the jury is still out on that. That story was written last fall: six months later, the jury seems to be coming in with a "guilty" verdict for climate change and drought in California.
How do I know? The title of the last paper from a team of highly respected climate scientists at Stanford: Anthropogenic Warming has increased drought risk in California
Note that this measure of drought shows ours this century is not long…but very deep.