Millions of Americans are facing “severe to extreme drought” conditions, made worse by “dangerous heat” that pummeled much of the West over the weekend and into Tuesday, federal officials are warning. It’s the latest sign that climate change is exacerbating a megadrought that has gripped nearly half of the country for two decades and continues to take a toll on the economic and public health of residents.
As of May 31, around 90 million Americans were experiencing drought, federal forecasters announced last week, with more than 65 million facing “severe to extreme drought.” A map of the United States released last week as a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s June report shows an alarmingly large part of the country in dryer than average conditions. More than a dozen states all across the West, making up nearly half of the Lower 48, have at least some areas in severe, extreme and even “exceptional drought”—the agency’s highest rating for severity.
The news has officials on high alert in states already struggling to maintain water supplies for residents and businesses while battling early season wildfires. Federal forecasters warned over the weekend that “dangerous heat” was contributing to a slew of wildfires in California, New Mexico and Arizona. And many officials worry it’s a sign of another intense summer fire season ahead.
“We’re getting hotter, drier, faster,” Dustin Gardner, a California fire official, told the Guardian, adding that the last few years have intensified into an alarming trend.
Phoenix, Las Vegas, Denver and California’s Death Valley all posted record temperatures on Saturday, according to forecasters. Phoenix hit 114 degrees Fahrenheit, tying a record high set in 1918. Las Vegas tied its 1956 record of 109 degrees. And Denver, Colorado, tied its 2013 record of 100 degrees.
That prompted some officials in some states to send out safety alerts. “Remember, heat is the #1 weather-related killer in the U.S. and AZ, so take the proper actions to protect yourself from the heat,” the Weather Service in Phoenix wrote in a weekend tweet.
Each year, more than 600 people die from excessive heat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and climate scientists have warned that will only get worse as the average global temperature continues to rise.
The region’s drought has also pitted farmers, city leaders and private industries against each other over a dwindling water supply in the Colorado River Basin. In May, federal officials took unprecedented steps to protect the already record-low levels in the river, which supplies more than 40 million people and about 5 million acres of farmland with fresh water. The water level at one reservoir has dropped so low that, if it falls any further, it will no longer be able to produce electricity for some 6 million people across seven states.
The river’s flow has declined at least 20 percent since 2000 and is expected to decline more than 9 percent for every degree Celsius of warming, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
The weekend heat and the ongoing wildfires also point to a trend that climate scientists have long been warning about—namely that the reality of climate change continues to outpace researchers’ understanding of it.
In February, scientists published a study that found that global warming has exacerbated the region’s dry conditions so much that the last two decades are now the driest the region has seen in 1,200 years.
Researchers have touted that figure before, when they pointed out that between 2012 and 2016, Western states experienced their worst dry spell in more than a millenia. But since the beginning of the 21st century, when the drought conditions began, the situation has worsened far more quickly than previous models anticipated, according to a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change.
Those findings are the latest evidence that the baseline researchers use to help understand the world’s complex weather systems continues to change faster than their understanding of it, said Liza Gross, the West Coast reporter for Inside Climate News, where she has covered how heat and drought have affected one of the world’s most profitable agriculture industries.
“This study supports what scientists keep telling me: We’ve moved past any semblance of a ‘new normal,’” Gross said. “Things are changing so rapidly that it’s hard to establish the kind of baseline scientists need to predict future events. Each event seems to shatter past records.”
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That’s how many Olympic-size swimming pools the Penuelas reservoir in central Chile could fill with water just 20 years ago. Now, as the region battles a historic 13-year drought, the reservoir holds enough water for just two pools.