A Megadrought Has Started in the United States That Will Have Disastrous Global Consequences

Why didn’t every American newspaper report this news? It should have made the front-page headlines. This is an enormous American and global — now unavoidable — climate catastrophe in the making.

In April 2020, the journal Science published “Large contribution from anthropogenic warming to an emerging North American megadrought (by A. Park Williams and colleagues). 

As usual for momentously bad research news on climate disruption, although it was reported, it would not have seen by the average reader as it did not feature under general science news.

For those looking for climate news, Andrew Freedman and Darryl Fears wrote the best article on the research for the April 16th Washington Post: “The western U.S. is locked in the grips of the first human-caused megadrought, study finds.” It begins:

“A vast region of the western United States, extending from California, Arizona and New Mexico north to Oregon and Idaho, is in the grips of the first climate change-induced megadrought observed in the past 1,200 years, a study shows. The finding means the phenomenon is no longer a threat for millions to worry about in the future, but is already here.”

That’s front-page headline news that every American needs to know, along with every government in the world, because of world insecurity under global climate disruption.

I don’t have to say that California and Idaho are famous top world agricultural regions. Recent droughts in California have made headline news, and the state has had many multiyear droughts over the past 150 years.

New Mexico is up there, too, with over 5,500 farms covering 44 million acres of farmland that includes the production of fifty edible crops.

Today the US Drought Monitor shows all California in drought, despite welcome rains, with northern California in severe drought. There is drought in Idaho, and much of northern New Mexico is in moderate or severe drought. Forecasters with the federal government's Natural Resources Conservation Service say river and stream flows across New Mexico have dropped noticeably following a somewhat dry March.

The western US megadrought article was particularly good because of a take-home message from Jonathan Overpeck, a climate researcher at the University of Michigan (who did not participate in the new study), a leading world scientist on the issue, contacted by the writers. “The real take home,” Overpeck said, “is that the Southwest is being baked by the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities, and the future implications are dire if we don’t stop climate change.” It is very unusual for climate researchers and reporters to say the future is “dire” and we must stop changing the climate.

The article does not say what needs to happen — which is that world governments must put global fossil fuel emissions into immediate, rapid and sustained decline, which translates into the immediate, rapid and sustained decline of fossil fuel combustion.

Drought obviously should be a top concern amongst the many adverse food production impacts predicted due to climate-disrupting greenhouse gas emissions — mainly CO2 emissions, and mainly from burning fossil fuels for energy. Connecting the dots in this case leads to the conclusion that our governments who still support burning fossil fuels are burning our future food. 

Droughts lasting years can be devastating, but megadrought lasts DECADES. It has happened before, but not driven by global surface heating. Climate disruption megadrought will be permanent, because today’s global surface temperature increase, which has brought on this megadrought, is locked in to be 50% higher over the next few decades and double beyond 2100.

The reality is that all energy and climate plans have the world fixed on a temperature increase triple today’s. That’s right, the fossil-fuel-mad government of the United States has written off the southwestern (and some Midwest) states to a state of permanent drought. To the US government, more oil now is much more important than enough food in the future. 

Research has warned of severe American drought under global warming for years. In 2010 the National Center for Atmospheric Research put out a warning via research by A. Dai, headlined “Climate change: Drought may threaten much of globe within decades.” Dai’s study indicated that most of the western two-thirds of the United States will be significantly drier by the 2030s, and large parts of the nation may face an increasing risk of extreme drought during the century.

Phys.org published an article on the issue in 2011: “The American Southwest has seen naturally induced dry spells throughout the past, but now human-induced global warming could push the region into a permanent drought in the coming decades,” according to Lamont-Doherty scientists studying the area’s climate. In 2015, NASA published: “Study finds carbon emissions could dramatically increase risk of U.S. megadroughts.” The computer models projected drought in the American Southwest becoming more severe and extending north to involve the Great Plains and most of the US. The study projected a very high likelihood of multi-decadal megadrought affecting the Southwest and central Great Plains. That would be the end of the great food production of the US.

The 2014 IPCC 5th assessment agreed with the same scenario, which it assessed by soil moisture projections. Reduced soil moisture shows up in the American Southwest by a global warming of 1.5ºC, intensifying and spreading to the Great Plains as temperature increases. At 2.4ºC, practically all of the United States is affected by reduced soil moisture, most intense in the Southwest. As all governments review the IPCC assessments, the US government knows that ignoring global climate disruption will disrupt US agriculture to its destruction.

A 2014 paper published by T. Ault et al. (“Assessing the risk of persistent drought …”) showed decadal drought affecting a vast area of the entire Southwest spreading up to the Great Plains, and this occurred at a global warming of 1.6°C, which is absolutely now unavoidable. On risk for the U.S. Southwest, the analysis suggested that the risk of decadal drought is at least 80%, and may be higher than 90% in certain areas. The likelihood of longer-lived events (35-year megadrought) affecting the same regions was between 20% and 50%. In 2016, Ault and his colleagues stated: “Business-as-usual emissions of greenhouse gases will drive regional warming and drying. We find regional temperature increases alone push megadrought risk above 70%, even up to 99%.” At 2ºC, more than 50% of the US Southwest land is at megadrought risk of over 80%.

The US is the largest exporter of food products in the world, so a large reduction of American food output for one year will raise world food prices by a large amount.

Even though the global temperature is now above the historical range for agriculture, today’s global warming of just over 1ºC is not hurting food production in America. US agriculture today is doing well, with exports increasing over the past ten years.

But bear in mind that this shocking projection is for drought alone, and does not include the other great climate change impact to agriculture: extreme heat waves.

While drought starts in the Southwest and extends to the central US, extreme heat under global surface temperature increase is projected to start in the central US and expand to affect the rest of America. Nothing is more certain, of course, than the fact that global surface warming will increase heat waves, and the IPCC says they will become more frequent, more severe and longer lasting. The northern hemisphere is being warmed up faster that the south, with central continents taking the brunt of the heat. This includes the great American best food-producing regions of the world.

This extreme heat and its impacts on US crops was seen by the research a decade ago. In 2009, US scientists Wolfram Schlenkera and Michael Roberts published their paper of model projections showing effects of US crop yields under increasing global warming heat waves. Nonlinear temperature effects indicate severe damages to US crop yields under climate change. At a global temperature increase of 2.4°C, crop yields crash 30-46%. The extreme heat is higher than the 30°C that crops can tolerate at a global warming over 1.5°C.

The 2018 Canadian government climate change assessment shows the heat extends north, far into the Canadian part of the central grain belt.

The great American breadbasket of the world is being ruined by the American government in collusion with multinational investment banks and fossil fuel corporations. They are burning up agriculture by continuing to burn fossil fuels — wantonly and needlessly. There is no worse crime or greater evil than this, the knowing wanton destruction of a nation’s agriculture, for financial gain.

The imperative now is to try to limit the extent and duration of American decadal and megadrought. That has to start with the immediate rapid decline in global emissions. Decades of massive CO2 emissions by burning fossil fuels have condemned American agriculture to decades of drought turning to permanent drought and decades of summertime crop-destroying heat waves. For American kids to be able to put food on the table for their future families, Americans must force their federal and state governments to respond to the climate emergency. Climate emergency mobilization has to be helped by a citizen force of fossil fuel resistance — patriots of the (food-growing) land.  

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