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Climate Change and Droughts in the Western US

Climate change can be seen to have profound effects on the environment, as seen most recently in the western states of the US. Most of the western states are experiencing a drought, one that has been unrelenting and the worst in the region in at least 20 years. The drought and extreme temperatures have exacerbated the problem of wildfires, and the reduction of snowpack and precipitation are worsening water demands for many people, agriculture, ecosystems, and infrastructure. Despite mandatory water restrictions having been implemented, further cuts are predicted as water levels continue to drop in lakes, rivers, and reservoirs.

Drought and heat are causes and effects of each other: the prolonged drought is causing temperatures to rise, which in turn causes more drought. One large heat wave has already hit the West, and many more are expected in the upcoming months. These factors, along with carbon emissions, which have been linked to the increase in wildfires, as greenhouse gases trap heat within the earth’s atmosphere, have increased wildfires as vegetation dries out.

The West has also received little precipitation the past year. As climate change increases temperatures, snowfall will decrease. Snowpack serves as a natural reservoir, slowly releasing water as temperatures rise in the spring. A reduction in the amount of snowpack prevents adequate amounts of water from being stored for the warmer months, and rising temperatures exacerbate this.

Hundreds of streams and rivers are experiencing below-average stream flow, the measure of how much water is carried by streams and rivers. Over half of the monitoring stations have reported lighter flows. This has been affecting the water supply for many people, crop irrigation, and power generation. Lakes and reservoirs have decreased water levels, exposing much of the land that was once underwater. This has rendered dams, boat ramps, and power plants useless, and islands have become peninsulas or isthmuses.

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