California’s Drought, Climate Change, and Brake Failure

Climate Change reduces factors that normally put the brakes on drought.

Looks like there’s another car crash on the highway. You feel bad, but you can’t help but rubberneck. As you drive (crawl) by the scene, your mind races with possible explanations for the wreck. Was he going too fast for conditions and hydroplaned? Was he following too close and didn’t have time to break? Was he texting and didn’t notice? Brake failure? Intentional ramming for some sort of insurance fraud?

The media looks to be going through the same process when talking about the drought in California. What can we blame this record drought on? Climate change? A ridiculously resilient ridge of warm air in the Pacific? God? Water management practices? A melted Arctic? All of the above?

Of course, given that this is post is on Climate Access, and I work for Climate Nexus, you can (correctly) assume that I’ll be focusing on climate change as a culprit. Just like a car wreck can have multiple small influences that combine into an accident, any given weather phenomenon will have a number of influencing factors.

So what can we say about climate change and the drought? Well at a minimum, this drought can be said to be foreshadowing of an even warmer world. But it is more than just symbolic. Dr. Valerie Trouet recently explained that “now, thanks to higher temperatures driven by climate change, droughts are increasingly temperature-driven.” 

To use our car metaphor, climate change is like brake failure: it’s causing us to get into more crashes (frequency of extreme weather) while also making those crashes worse, because we can’t slow down (intensity of extreme weather).

California’s record high temperatures are evaporating snow pack and drying the soil, greatly exacerbating the drought. These two sources of water would normally prevent a drought. And that “ridiculously resilient ridge?” It might be so ridiculously resilient because of climate change.

The warmer/drier connection is pretty straightforward, but what about that ridge? Well it seems that this could be a result of a warming Arctic. Arctic warming may be causing the jet stream to slow down and fall down from the Arctic, pushing storms away from California and diverting them to the central and eastern USA. So the fact that California’s snowpack in late January was at an all-time low of just 12% of normal while the Eastern US was buried in snow is not likely to be just a coincidence!

While some are hesitant to say that climate change caused this drought, just like others claim it’d be impossible to say if speeding or texting caused an accident, what we do know is that climate change, like brake failure, makes a drought like this more likely to happen, and more devastating when it does happen.

The question then, of course, is whether we’ll take our ‘car’ into the shop to get the problem fixed, or if we’ll continue on, deliberately oblivious to our failing brakes, careening from one wreck to the next.

Philip Newell is a communications associate with Climate Nexus.

In light of the ongoing drought in California, Climate Nexus has put together a backgrounder, full of facts and figures on the climate and drought connection in addition to listing some of the agricultural and economic impacts. 

image via (cc) John Carney, flickr