The West without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts, and Other Climatic Clues Tell Us about Tomorrow

The West without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts, and Other Climatic Clues Tell Us about Tomorrow

The West without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts, and Other Climatic Clues Tell Us about Tomorrow

The West without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts, and Other Climatic Clues Tell Us about Tomorrow

Synopsis

The West without Water documents the tumultuous climate of the American West over twenty millennia, with tales of past droughts and deluges and predictions about the impacts of future climate change on water resources. Looking at the region's current water crisis from the perspective of its climate history, the authors ask the central question of what is "normal" climate for the West, and whether the relatively benign climate of the past century will continue into the future.

The West without Water merges climate and paleoclimate research from a wide variety of sources as it introduces readers to key discoveries in cracking the secrets of the region's climatic past. It demonstrates that extended droughts and catastrophic floods have plagued the West with regularity over the past two millennia and recounts the most disastrous flood in the history of California and the West, which occurred in 1861-62. The authors show that, while the West may have temporarily buffered itself from such harsh climatic swings by creating artificial environments and human landscapes, our modern civilization may be ill-prepared for the future climate changes that are predicted to beset the region. They warn that it is time to face the realities of the past and prepare for a future in which fresh water may be less reliable.

Excerpt

There is little doubt that humanity is in for turbulent times when it comes to water. Rising human demands against a finite supply are draining rivers, shrinking lakes, and depleting aquifers. In a world of seven billion people and growing, competition for water is intensifying to quench our thirst, grow our food, generate electricity, and manufacture all manner of consumer goods from cars to computers to cotton shirts.

On top of these demand-driven trends, the last century and a half of greenhouse-gas emissions and the concomitant rise in global temperatures are fundamentally altering the cycling of water between the sea, the atmosphere, and the land. Climate scientists warn of more extreme floods and droughts and of changing precipitation patterns that will generally make dry areas drier and wet areas wetter. In terms of water, the natural variability of the recent past will not be a reliable guide to the future. We have moved outside the bounds of “normal” to some new normal yet to be understood.

The recent decade of drought in the southwestern United States has thrown a spotlight on this region’s vulnerability to the changes that lie ahead. From 2000 to 2009, the Colorado River exhibited the lowest tenyear-running-average flow of any ten-year period in the past century. During that time, the capacity of giant Lake Mead—which stores water for nearly 30 million people and vast areas of farmland—fell from 96 percent to 43 percent. Climate scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography have estimated that, within a decade, there is a 50 percent chance that Lake Mead will drop below the reservoir’s outlets.

It is sobering to realize that this current southwestern drought pales (at least so far) in comparison to the “mega droughts” that have occurred multiple times in the past—and that could occur again in the future. The . . .

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