The Entire American Southwest Is at Extreme Risk for the Next Several Decades

Worried about the California drought? Turns out it's no big deal, at least not compared to what's coming.

The news: According to new research published this week, the entire American Southwest is poised to face a three-to-four decade dry spell that would threaten its water supply and make it nearly impossible to sustain its growing population. 


Image Credit: Journal of Climate

While the report put the chances of a megadrought — one lasting 35 years or longer — at between 20% and 50%, the scientists said a ten-year drought was nearly unavoidable. Overall, the scientists pegged the chances of a dry spell rivaling the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, the intense period of dust storms that forced tens of thousands of Americans to abandon their farms, at 80 to 90%.

"I am not trying to say this is imminent," lead study author and Cornell professor of earth sciences Toby Ault told the Chicago Tribune, "but the risk is high."


The Dust Bowl, 1935. Image Credit: Getty

The role of global warming: It's been long known that climate change has gradually dried out the American Southwest. With higher temperatures comes less rainfall and drier soil. The point of the new research was to assess how those factors, when incorporated in climate change models, would affect the chances of a 30-40 year drought taking place.

"Because of climate change and drying predicted from climate change, that weights the dice toward making these things more likely," Ault told Climate Central.

The research: To make their predictions, scientists compared the changes in rain and snowfall under different global warming scenarios with data from previous droughts. Since this historical data was missing in other climate models, the new research painted a more complete picture of how likely a future dry spell would be.

Why it matters: The drought currently plaguing the American West Coast drought will likely cost the state of California $2.2 billion by year's end. The dry spell has ravaged crops, devastated farmers and threatened the health of thousands ... and it's not over yet. If we don't begin taking the necessary precautions to prevent the onslaught of another, far more severe drought, we will be endangering the lives of millions.

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Erin Brodwin

Erin is a science and health writer whose work has appeared in Newsweek, Popular Science, Scientific American and Psychology Today.

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