Infographic: Megadrought in America, a climate disaster unseen in 1,200 years
The temperature in Washington, DC, reached a record 100 degrees Fahrenheit when NASA climatologist James Hansen spoke before Congress in June 1988 regarding a warming world. Unprecedented heat waves plagued the summer, while drought affected 40 states.
His warning was seen as a historic wake-up call, but the US replaced the batteries and continued to cook instead of paying attention to the existential smoke alarm.
Nearly 40 years later, states from California to Colorado in the US southwest and mountain west are seeing the effects of a hotter planet firsthand. Extreme heat and declining moisture levels have combined over the previous two decades to produce a "megadrought" that is thought to be the driest time in 1,200 years.
The current period of aridity, which started in the year 2000, is unprecedented since AD800, despite the fact that dryness is a natural feature of the southwest's climate. This was discovered by examining the relationship between tree rings and soil moisture. 42 per cent of the hot and dry weather over the previous two decades was attributed to global warming by the 2022 study, which was published in the journal Nature Climate Change.
The difficulties brought on by climate change also offer fresh opportunities in the southwest. Environmental organisations have suggested storing whatever water is left in Lake Powell in Lake Mead to conserve water since both Lake Mead and Lake Powell are at record-low levels of capacity. By taking this action, Lake Powell's canyons would be restored to their pre-reservoir condition, resulting in the creation of carbon-sink landscapes and perhaps even a new national park.
The west is currently in new territory as formerly exceptional circumstances become the norm. Lake Mead and Lake Powell, two of its most powerful reservoirs, are at record low levels and are shrivelling steadily. Cities like Phoenix, Arizona, and Las Vegas, Nevada, are becoming nearly uninhabitable throughout the summer due to protracted triple-digit heatwaves. And since dry forests and grasslands are more ready to ignite than ever, wildfires increasingly occur throughout the year.
In some areas of the southwest, average annual temperatures have risen by more than 1.5C, which is commonly regarded as the tipping point at which terrible repercussions for people and the environment start to materialise, according to a recent analysis by the Washington Post.
In a report released in February of last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) described how the ponderosa pine forests of the southwest are being destroyed by wildfires that are causing a hazardous "positive feedback cycle." According to Camille Parmesan, an ecologist who participated to the paper, some woods can actually generate greenhouse gases as they burn, leading to increased warmth rather than acting as a "carbon sink" that absorbs CO2.