Civilization Lost? California’s 500-Year Drought Potential

Image: NOAA

Image: NOAA

As a California resident for 18 years after college, I got to know dry weather pretty well. Right from the start, having arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area in the middle of the 1987  – 1992 drought, I came to see cloudless skies, brown grass and the occasional dryness-induced nosebleed as normal — so much so that the the incessant winter rains that returned years later seemed, briefly, to be freakish.

Now the state is in an even worse dry period — 2013 was the driest year since record-keeping began in the 1840s — and predictable doom-saying has ensued. It’s pretty hard to resist. After all, we know from the geological record that droughts in the area hundreds and thousands of years ago sometimes lasted decades, or even a century. Droughts of that magnitude have ended civilizations. See the Anasazi, wiped out in the Southwest about 800 years ago.

“Driest year since the 1840s” doesn’t sound good, but the reality is, indeed, probably worse. UC Berkeley paleoclimatologist B. Lynn Graham says old tree rings indicate the area hasn’t been so desiccated since 1580, 434 years ago. She points out that the past 150 years of modern development have been comparatively wetter years than some previous, longer, drier, and, arguably, “normal” periods, as noted above. Those long, dry periods could return.

An interesting characteristic of the drought is the proximate cause pointed out by meteorologists: a ridge of high pressure off the coast is “feeding off itself,” refusing to move or dissipate as it blocks wet weather from reaching land.  The timing is especially bad because California needs winter storms to replace its freshwater, in the form of rains and especially snow melt from the mountains. Sounds like an effect of climate change, something that’s easy to believe but hard to prove.

In addition to Herculean conservation efforts, what could be next for California if the drought persists? Greater Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area are already projected to run out of water by 2050. Perhaps the state will pursue expensive seawater desalination projects on a massive scale, follow China’s lead on sea ice desalination, or go after fresh and brackish water recently found to be in aquifers under oceans.

Read more:

UPDATE: California drought prompts first-ever “zero water allocation” – Los Angeles Times

Why California’s water woes could be just beginning – University of California, Berkeley

California drought: Scientists puzzled by persistence of weather-blocking “ridge” – Christian Science Monitor

The worst drought in the history of California is happening right now – Right Side News

California drought: Water officials look to rules of the ’70s – SFGate

Gov. Brown declares California drought emergencySan Jose Mercury News

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Filed under Climate Change, Conservation, Desalination, Drought, North America, Sustainability, Water Shortage

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