California’s Megadrought

ENVIRONMENT

California is experiencing its worst drought since record-keeping began in the mid 19th century, and scientists say this may be just the beginning. (National Geographic News)

Use our resources to better understand droughts.

Cracked soil is a standard symbol of drought. Clay-based soils that are usually held together by moisture grow dry and brittle without it. Cracked soil is more vulnerable to erosion by wind, and so hard and dry that agriculture is nearly impossible. Photograph by James L. Stanfield, National Geographic

Cracked soil is a standard symbol of drought. Clay-based soils that are usually held together by moisture grow dry and brittle without it. Cracked soil is more vulnerable to erosion by wind, and so hard and dry that plants cannot take root, making agriculture is nearly impossible.
Photograph by James L. Stanfield, National Geographic

Discussion Ideas

  • Read through our activity “Extreme Natural Events.” In what ways is drought different from every other extreme natural event listed in that activity—earthquakes, avalanches, wildfires, etc.? Read through the short section “Defining Drought” in our encyclopedic entry for some help.
    • Most extreme natural events have easily defined “start” and “stop” times. According to the “Defining Drought” section, however, “[t]he start and end of a drought are often only clear in hindsight.” Recognizing a drought can dependent on a region’s geography and climate—the symptoms of a drought in snowy Lake Tahoe, for instance, are very different from the symptoms in the deserts of Bakersfield.
    • In most developed regions, drought can be mitigated and even masked by infrastructure. In California, enormous aqueducts have supplied parched Southern California with water from the Sierra Nevada snowpack for decades. The impacts of drought in the state’s southern deserts have been mitigated by imports from the snowy north.
  • California is experiencing either a “megadrought” or, in the words of one expert interviewed in the Nat Geo News article, “California is acting like California, and most of California is arid.” Why does this matter to people outside California?
    • California has an enormous economy, the largest in the U.S. In fact, by some estimates, California supports a larger economy than many developed nations—Canada, Australia, Italy. Many people and institutions outside California have invested in that economy, through real estate, corporations (Silicon Valley!) and infrastructure such as bonds for roads or high-speed rail. These individuals and companies (mostly banks where we all keep our money) would lose millions of dollars if the California economy crumbled.
    • California has a huge population, the largest in the U.S. If jobs dry up, the U.S. could experience a reverse Dust Bowl migration. If water shortages make the cost of living too high in California, of people may migrate toward communities with more abundant water resources—where residents could maintain inexpensive green lawns, golf courses, pools, and water parks. Water shortages could also drive businesses out of California with skyrocketing water costs for sanitation, hygiene, and health. Never mind the farmers, agricultural engineers, and farmworkers that could be out of work. Could communities in the tech-savvy, snowy South absorb all those California immigrants? (I’m looking at you, Atlanta and Raleigh.) How would their own water, roads, schools, and other infrastructure be strained by these immigrants?
    • California is the “salad bowl of the nation,” exporting more agricultural produce than any other state. According to the Nat Geo News article, “[a]bout 80 percent of California’s freshwater supply is used for agriculture. The cost of fruits and vegetables could soar.” This could impact the economy and health of individual households, as well as institutions such as schools, hospitals, and even sporting venues.

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