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Global warming’s role in the drought

POSTED February 18, 2014 12:41 p.m.

During his recent visit to the drought-stricken region of Fresno, President Barack Obama brought attention to global warming and human-caused climate change, warning of the dire consequences the state will continue to see in regards to extreme weather conditions.

Although the President was correct in saying that the state’s deteriorating water system and impacts of the drought will be a “very challenging situation for some time to come,” there has been controversy surrounding the suggestion that the current drought was brought about by human-caused climate change directly.

Leading scientists and experts have predicted that climate change should have made California wetter, not drier, during winter months. Such predictions have led many scientists, such as Richard Seager, a climate scientist studying water issues at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, to deem the actual cause of California’s current drought as natural variability. Even though the drought might not have been caused by climate change, the severity of its impacts may be seemingly worse this time around due to the increase in human activity and greenhouse gas emissions.

While scientists and water agencies have cited the current drought plaguing California as the driest on record over the past 100 years, they have also drawn similarities between the current drought and the one that hit California in the late 1970s, even though human activity and greenhouse gas emissions have greatly increased since then (for instance, Thomas C. Peterson of the National Climatic Data Center reported in the State of the Climate in 2008 that the 20 warmest years on record have occurred since 1981.) As these dramatic increases in human-caused emissions lead to rising global temperatures, the resulting climate change is making this current drought appear worse than past ones as higher temperatures are intensifying the severity of the drought’s impacts. The point then is that the current drought might have not been caused by climate change, but the changes in human activity and increased emissions are certainly making the impacts of the drought much worse.

As President Obama pointed out while visiting Fresno, the warmer temperatures that California is experiencing, which can be attributed to human-caused climate change, are causing water in the reservoirs to evaporate more rapidly than ever before. This increase in evaporation is just one of the many factors making this drought seem worse than previous ones, as the entire state’s agricultural industry is heavily dependent on our reservoirs. Farming and ag-based communities across the state have classified this drought as “the worst they have ever experienced,” and rightly so. The intensity of the drought may very well be the worst in the state’s history, but that is due to the conditions it is taking place in. Currently, temperatures in California are 10 to 15 degrees above average normal for this time of year, significantly increasing the drought's effects. The drought might be a natural pattern the state has seen before, but as climatologists have noted, we’re doing it in a warmer environment.

But does the coupling of higher temperatures and changes in climate mean that the increase in human-activity and global warming directly caused the drought? No, at least not in any way that scientists have been able to prove.

However, we should still keep climate change on the table as we address current and future droughts in California, as it will continue to have implications for our water system. As human-caused greenhouse gas emissions lead to the increasingly fast melting of arctic ice, scientists have found that heat will continually escape from the Arctic Ocean into the atmosphere in the fall and early winter, creating disturbances in weather patterns over vast distances – making extreme weather events more likely in the Northern Hemisphere, as we’re currently witnessing with California’s drought, and others are experiencing with the East Coast’s cruel winter.

Many scientists have warned of harsher droughts in California’s future which, when tied to an increasing population and the growing strain from global warming, creates an immediate need for the state and federal government to take action.

The current drought may have painted a more precise picture for Californians as to just how fragile and valuable our water system is. California might have only been able to become the “food and fruit basket of the world” because of the vast man-made irrigation and water delivery systems that our state is now reliant on – systems that are falling apart. If the state had not creatively found the means to construct the current water system, then California would have never been capable of sustaining the immense ag-production that we have now.  The equation of an exploding growth in population, increased climate change and the pressure from rising sea levels has resulted in our current water system becoming ever more stressed, and much of the old levees on the Delta could soon become completely deteriorated. Not only has California become reliant on our irrigation and water supply systems for agriculture and our state economy, but so has the entire nation, who heavily depends on our state’s food supply and production.

The current drought might not have been caused by global warming, but it is certainly being severely impacted by it. Regardless of the cause, the state needs to put politics aside and work together to immediately make the much-needed changes and improvements to our water systems. Because ultimately, the consequences of not doing so would be significantly more costly than the cost needed to improve our infrastructure.

 

 

 

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