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Droughtastic

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The West right now is just…ugh.

Just about every indicator of drought is flashing red across the Western U.S. after a dry winter and warm early spring. The snowpack is at less than half of normal in much of the region. Reservoirs are being drawn down, river levels are dropping and soils are drying out.

It’s only May, and states are already considering water use restrictions to make the supply last longer. California’s governor declared a drought emergency in 41 of 58 counties. In Utah, irrigation water providers are increasing fines for overuse. Some Idaho ranchers are talking about selling off livestock because rivers and reservoirs they rely on are dangerously low and irrigation demand for farms is only just beginning.

Scientists are also closely watching the impact that the rapid warming and drying is having on trees, worried that water stress could lead to widespread tree deaths. Dead and drying vegetation means more fuel for what is already expected to be another dangerous fire season.

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters on May 13, 2021, that federal fire officials had warned them to prepare for an extremely active fire year. “We used to call it fire season, but wildland fires now extend throughout the entire year, burning hotter and growing more catastrophic in drier conditions due to climate change,” Vilsack said.

As climate scientists, we track these changes. Right now, about 84% of the Western U.S. is under some level of drought, and there is no sign of relief.

It’s going to be another very long and very bad summer in the American West, which is becoming far too common. The differences in Oregon between when I grew up (or even 10 years ago) and the last 5 years is stark, with unprecedented wildfires (at least unprecedented within living memory) now turning it into California. Meanwhile, California becomes northern Mexico, British Columbia becomes Oregon, etc. Wine industry investments in BC for the future is a sign that financial interests know what is happening and are making rational decisions based on that knowledge. It’s so bad that I (long obsessed by climate and weather even outside of climate change) am following the recent downpours on the western Plains into Colorado and eastern New Mexico to make myself feel better to see improvement somewhere in the West, which now includes the Front Range of Colorado. So, you know, enjoy that one part of the mountains that’s not completely screwed this year.

Meanwhile, most of the fires will probably be started not by lightning, but by idiots living in increasingly vulnerable areas of the forests, or in many cases irresponsible power companies servicing them.

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