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Drying of the West
February 2008
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Drying of the West
By Robert Kunzig
Photographs by Vincent Laforet

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Unfortunately, global warming could make things even uglier. Last April, a month before Meko and Woodhouse published their latest results, a comprehensive study of climate models reported in Science predicted the Southwest's gradual descent into persistent Dust Bowl conditions by mid-century. Researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), meanwhile, have used some of the same models to project Colorado streamflow. In their simulations, which have been confirmed by others, the river never emerges from the current drought. Before mid-century, its flow falls to seven million acre-feet—around half the amount consumed today.

The wet 20th century, the wettest of the past millennium, the century when Americans built an incredible civilization in the desert, is over. Trees in the West are adjusting to the change, and not just in the width of their annual rings: In the recent drought they have been dying off and burning in wildfires at an unprecedented rate. For most people in the region, the news hasn't quite sunk in. Between 2000 and 2006 the seven states of the Colorado basin added five million people, a 10 percent population increase. Subdivisions continue to sprout in the desert, farther and farther from the cities whose own water supply is uncertain. Water managers are facing up to hard times ahead. "I look at the turn of the century as the defining moment when the New West began," says Pat Mulroy, head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. "It's like the impact of global warming fell on us overnight."

In July 2007 a few dozen climate specialists gathered at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory to discuss the past and future of the world's drylands, especially the Southwest. Between sessions they took coffee and lunch outside, on a large sloping lawn above the Hudson River, which gathers as much water as the Colorado from a drainage area just over a twentieth the size. It was overcast and pleasantly cool for summer in New York. Phoenix was on its way to setting a record of 32 days in a single year with temperatures above 110°F. A scientist who had flown in from the West Coast reported that he had seen wildfires burning all over Nevada from his airplane window.

On the first morning, much of the talk was about medieval megadroughts. Scott Stine of California State University, East Bay, presented vivid evidence that they had extended beyond the Colorado River basin, well into California. Stine works in and around the Sierra Nevada, whose snows are the largest source of water for that heavily populated state. Some of the runoff drains into Mono Lake on the eastern flank of the Sierra. After Los Angeles began diverting the streams that feed Mono Lake in the 1940s, the lake's water level dropped 45 vertical feet.

In the late 1970s, tramping across the newly exposed shorelines, Stine found dozens of tree stumps, mostly cottonwood and Jeffrey pine, rooted in place. They were gnarled and ancient looking and encased in tufa—a whitish gray calcium carbonate crust that precipitates from the briny water of the lake. Clearly the trees had grown when a severe and long-lasting drought had lowered the lake and exposed the land where they had taken root; they had died when a return to a wetter climate in the Sierra Nevada caused the lake to drown them. Their rooted remains were now exposed because Los Angeles had drawn the lake down.

Stine found drowned stumps in many other places in the Sierra Nevada. They all fell into two distinct generations, corresponding to two distinct droughts. The first had begun sometime before 900 and lasted over two centuries. There followed several extremely wet decades, not unlike those of the early 20th century. Then the next epic drought kicked in for 150 years, ending around 1350. Stine estimates that the runoff into Sierran lakes during the droughts must have been less than 60 percent of the modern average, and it may have been as low as 25 percent, for decades at a time. "What we have come to consider normal is profoundly wet," Stine said. "We're kidding ourselves if we think that's going to continue, with or without global warming."

No one is sure what caused the medieval megadroughts. Today Southwestern droughts follow the rhythm of La Niña, a periodic cooling of the eastern equatorial Pacific. La Niña alternates every few years with its warm twin, El Niño, and both make weather waves around the globe. A La Niña cooling of less than a degree Celsius was enough to trigger the recent drought, in part because it shifted the jet stream and the track of the winter storms northward, out of the Southwest. Richard Seager, of Lamont, and his colleagues have shown that all the western droughts in the historical record, including the Dust Bowl, can be explained by small but unusually persistent La Niñas. Though the evidence is slimmer, Seager thinks the medieval megadroughts too may have been caused by the tropical Pacific seesaw getting stuck in something like a perpetual La Niña.

The future, though, won't be governed by that kind of natural fluctuation alone. Thanks to our emissions of greenhouse gases, it will be subject as well to a global one-way trend toward higher temperatures. In one talk at Lamont, climate theorist Isaac Held, from NOAA's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, gave two reasons why global warming seems almost certain to make the drylands drier. Both have to do with an atmospheric circulation pattern called Hadley cells. At the Equator, warm, moist air rises, cools, sheds its moisture in tropical downpours, then spreads toward both Poles. In the subtropics, at latitudes of about 30 degrees, the dry air descends to the surface, where it sucks up moisture, creating the world's deserts—the Sahara, the deserts of Australia, and the arid lands of the Southwest. Surface winds export the moisture out of the dry subtropics to temperate and tropical latitudes. Global warming will intensify the whole process. The upshot is, the dry regions will get drier, and the wet regions will get wetter. "That's it," said Held. "There's nothing subtle here. Why do we need climate models to tell us that? Well, we really don't."

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