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200 Years Of Scorchitude: Professor Warns California To Brace For A “Mega-Drought”

200 Years Of Scorchitude: Professor Warns California To Brace For A “Mega-Drought” thumbnail

Two years into California’s drought and locals are repeating (mantra-like) “we’ve never seen anything like it.” They are right, of course, since this is the worst period of rainlessness since records began… but if Cal Berkeley professor Lynn Ingram is correct, they ain’t seen nothing yet. The paleoclimatologist fears, if very long-run history repeats, California should brace itself for a mega drought, as National Geographic reports, a drought that could last for 200 years or more.


Via National Geographic,

California is experiencing its worst drought since record-keeping began in the mid 19th century, and scientists say this may be just the beginning. B. Lynn Ingram, a paleoclimatologist at the University of California at Berkeley, thinks that California needs to brace itself for a megadrought—one that could last for 200 years or more.


As a paleoclimatologist, Ingram takes the long view, examining tree rings and microorganisms in ocean sediment to identify temperatures and dry periods of the past millennium. Her work suggests that droughts are nothing new to California.



“During the medieval period, there was over a century of drought in the Southwest and California. The past repeats itself,” says Ingram, who is co-author of The West Without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts, and Other Climate Clues Tell Us About Tomorrow. Indeed, Ingram believes the 20th century may have been a wet anomaly.


Unfortunately, she notes, most of the state’s infrastructure was designed and built during the 20th century, when the climate was unusually wet compared to previous centuries. That hasn’t set water management on the right course to deal with long periods of dryness in the future.


Given that California is one of the largest agricultural regions in the world, the effects of any drought, never mind one that could last for centuries, are huge. About 80 percent of California’s freshwater supply is used for agriculture. The cost of fruits and vegetables could soar, says Cantu. “There will be cataclysmic impacts.”


So what is causing the current drought?

Ingram and other paleoclimatologists have correlated several historic megadroughts with a shift in the surface temperature of the Pacific Ocean that occurs every 20 to 30 years—something called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). The PDO is similar to an El Nino event except it lasts for decades—as its name implies—whereas an El Nino event lasts 6 to 18 months. Cool phases of the PDO result in less precipitation because cooler sea temperatures bump the jet stream north, which in turn pushes off storms that would otherwise provide rain and snow to California. Ingram says entire lakes dried up in California following a cool phase of the PDO several thousand years ago. Warm phases have been linked to numerous storms along the California coast.

“We have been in a fairly cold phase of PDO since the early 2000s,” says Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center, “so the drought we are seeing now makes sense.”

That said, scientists caution against pinning the current drought on the PDO alone. Certainly ocean temperatures, wind, and the weather pattern in the Pacific have contributed to the drought, says Nate Mantua, a professor in the department of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, where the PDO pattern was first discovered and named. “But it’s more nuanced than saying the PDO did this.” After all, as its name suggests, the PDO is decades in the making.


11 Comments on "200 Years Of Scorchitude: Professor Warns California To Brace For A “Mega-Drought”"

  1. Davy, Hermann, MO on Wed, 19th Feb 2014 12:33 pm 

    I am on the fence with the Western drought. We have to consider the effects of AGW and the instability created. It may not shake out as just a clear drought situation because of the Pacific Ocean changes. We have changes occurring all over. I am wondering about the instability. We are in a new climate regime and we need to accept that historic records will be difficult to infer. I am not sure the historical evidence will account for our forcing the system with so much greenhouse gases in such a short time. Now, with that said, what we could have is a general drought punctuated with horrible floods. You know, the type that take out Sacramento. I have seen the levees there and they are shit. So drought then damaging floods. We may see the worst of both worlds. I am not an expert but I am following this climate instability and I am seeing it here in Missouri. We are having severe rain, drought, heat, and cold. It is playing havoc on farming.

  2. dsula on Wed, 19th Feb 2014 2:14 pm 

    >> I have seen the levees there and they are shit
    hahaha. Another armchair engineer analyzing structural integrity of large projects while driving by on the freeway.

    I’m wondering what happened to BillT. He was also a guy who knew everything better than everybody else, yet he had to move to the 3rd world in order to make his retirement check stretch a bit further.

  3. ghung on Wed, 19th Feb 2014 3:16 pm 

    @dsula- It doesn’t take an “armchair engineer” to ascertain the levee situation in the Sacramento Delta. There have been plenty of studies and articles on the subject in recent years.

    NY Times, July 1, 2011 – California’s Next Nightmare

    “….Starting in the 1870s, farmers began building 1,100 miles of levees around the delta to control floodwaters and create farmland out of tule marshes. Today many of those levees are old, decrepit and leaking. Jeffrey Mount, a geologist at the University of California, Davis, predicts that there is a 64 percent chance of a catastrophic levee failure in the delta in the next 50 years….

  4. Kenz300 on Wed, 19th Feb 2014 3:22 pm 

    Water conservation and sustainability need to become part of people daily lives.

    People tend not to react to a problem until it becomes critical. That is too bad because these problems need long term solutions that take years of planning and implementation.

    One problem that no one wants to address is the unsustainable population growth that adds to the demand for more resources every year.

  5. Northwest Resident on Wed, 19th Feb 2014 3:37 pm 

    dsula — You win the most obnoxious post of the day award. Congrats.

  6. Davy, Hermann, MO on Wed, 19th Feb 2014 6:16 pm 

    @dsula – ok, guys you are going to think I am full of shit because I have told allot of stories doing this thing or that here or there. Take it for what is worth. I am not here to brag or act better than anyone of you. My shit stinks I can assure you. With that said:

    I had a 1000 acre corn and soybean operation where the Missouri River meets the Osage in the Missouri River Bottoms. It kicked my ass. Not only were my drawers not big enough to handle the stress of farming with leveraged land it was horrible to slowly ruin land. I got in to do it different. I was an early believer in reforming AG. Well I got my butt kicked good. Didn’t lose money just my sanity. I farmed 4 years I had 2 floods and 1 drought and 1 other year good weather and low prices. I also made the mistake of playing the grain commodity market. I got to where I could not listen to the weather it was never good enough. It didn’t matter rain, sun, cold, warmth. It all sucked!

    Now LSS @dsula This was leveed bottom ground. I know levees thanks for your understanding.

  7. GregT on Wed, 19th Feb 2014 7:19 pm 

    “We may see the worst of both worlds. I am not an expert but I am following this climate instability and I am seeing it here in Missouri. We are having severe rain, drought, heat, and cold. It is playing havoc on farming.”

    Pretty much the same as what’s been occurring in southwestern BC. The weather ‘patterns’ are changing. Hot when normally cool, cold when normally warm, rain when usually dry, and dry when usually snowing. Overall, less precipitation, but when it does rain, it pours. Constantly breaking all time record high temperatures though, year round.

  8. andya on Wed, 19th Feb 2014 7:33 pm 

    Smart people have already left California.

  9. Davy, Hermann, MO on Wed, 19th Feb 2014 8:24 pm 

    @andya – brain drain in reverse of what once was

  10. Makati1 on Thu, 20th Feb 2014 2:00 am 

    @dsula, glad you missed me. ^_^

    Yes, I made the intelligent decision to leave the sinking ship, USSA, after 14 generations to ‘make my income stretch’ among other reasons. I also avoided the polar vortex that is freezing my sister and parents in PA. I also am avoiding the coming riots in the cities and the coming much higher cost of food there. I am also more able to help my kids, when they need it, with the money I save living here. Should I go on?

    BTW: It is sunny, 84F and a slight breeze today. But then, that is what most days are here. Never below 60F and rarely over 90F. It is the dry season meaning that we have mostly dry, sunny days. The rainy season means we have thunderstorms most every evening but the temperatures still remain in the 70s and 80s. ^_^

  11. rollin on Thu, 20th Feb 2014 5:29 am 

    No matter how I go at it, I simply cannot store two hundred years worth of drinking water. How do preppers prepare for such phenomena?

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