A megadrought predicted for the western United States could be the worst seen in 1,000 years, according to a new study. Researchers believe this widespread disaster could take place sometime later this century, driven by global climate change.
Cornell University researchers, working with NASA investigators, believe that hotter and direr conditions across the western United States are likely to result in severe droughts.
"The results were striking. As a society, we've weighted the dice toward megadrought. Data clearly point to a high risk in the Southwest and Great Plains, as we continue to add carbon dioxide into our atmosphere," Toby Ault, associate professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell University, said.
Community and state leaders throughout the western United States are constantly faced with delivering water to towns and cities. Investigators believe that climate actions taken over the next decade could help avoid some of the damage which could result from such a megadrought.
The Medieval Climate Anomaly, which lasted from the years C.E. 1100 to 1300, was a period when megadroughts were more common than they are in our modern age. Researchers examined tree rings and other physical clues to measure climatic conditions of that era. These conclusions were then measured against 17 climate models predicting environmental changes through the rest of the century. The team found that climate change over the next 85 years could result in droughts even more severe than those seen during that time.
Climate change can result in record precipitation, heat waves, and other potentially hazardous conditions. Megadroughts are one of the least-explored of the changes, despite the obvious threats to agriculture.
"Hurricanes and tornadoes are natural hazards and they strike fast. A megadrought is a natural hazard, but it unfolds slowly - over a period of decades. It's just another natural hazard and one we can manage," Ault said.
The ancient Pueblo people lived 1,000 years ago, in areas which now make up parts of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. Archaeologists know that the demise of this culture coincided with a megadrought that began around C.E. 1150 and continued for 300 years.
Ault and his team predict an 85 percent chance that a coming megadrought could last for 35 years or longer. The research predicts that a megadrought in the coming decades could be at least as dry as the one that took place ten centuries ago, but that temperatures could be higher this time around, increasing the severity of the event.
Examination of the Medieval Climate Anomaly, and how that event could compare to a megadrought in the 21st Century was published in the journal Science Advances.