Scientists have bad news for West Coasters in the grips of the worst drought in decades: The worst is yet to come.
The record-shattering drought currently gripping California is a light crudité compared to the "mega-drought" that's expected to envelop the Southwest and Great Plains over the next 35 years, NASA revealed Thursday. The full study, ominously named "Unprecedented 21st century drought risk in the American Southwest and Central Plains," was published in Science Advances.
The study, compiled by scientists from the space agency, Cornell University and Columbia University, predicts an 80% chance that the Great Plains and the American Southwest will endure a major weather shift beginning in 2050, which could spark massive wildfires and water shortages if the current pace of climate change continues.
Most alarming: The forecasted drought accompanying the weather shift could be of a severity not seen within the past 1,000 years.
"We really need to start thinking in longer-term horizons about how we're going to manage it," said study coauthor Toby R. Ault, per the Washington Post. "This is a slow-moving natural hazard that humans are used to dealing with and used to managing."
A mega-drought, which is a drought that lasts for several decades instead of the usual three years, causes ecological and agricultural damage on a planetary scale. "I was honestly surprised at just how dry the future is likely to be," Ault said at a press conference, according to Business Insider. "I look at these future mega-droughts like a slow-moving natural disaster. We have to put mega-droughts into the same category as other natural disasters that can be dealt with through risk management."How did they figure this out? Scientists studied past droughts using tree rings to determine how much rain fell hundreds (and thousands) of years ago. They then ran that data through 17 computer models of potential future temperatures across North America, which then predicted this bleak outlook.