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California’s drought could last 50 years, experts say

California’s drought

California’s droughtA new study on climate change shows that California’s drought-like conditions could last another 50 years, and possibly for thousands of years, a result which in either case would have dramatic repercussions for agricultural production and food prices across North America.

The 21st century has brought with it a period of extended drought in the state of California, with 10 of the past 14 years registering as drier than normal and the last three years recorded as the hottest and driest since 1895. As a result, the state’s agricultural output has decreased, affecting fruit and vegetable prices across the continent and leaving both producers and consumers wondering how long the downturn will last.

The news on that front may now be a little clearer -and more dismal- as an international team of scientists including researchers from Western University in London, Ontario, have released a new study of California’s geological history which confirms that during past periods of drought, dry conditions in the region normally lasted anywhere between 50 years to thousands of years at a time.

Researchers analyzed sediment core samples from the bottom of Kirman Lake, a small freshwater lake in the Sierra Nevada mountains about 280 km east of Sacramento and found that from 6,000 to 1,000 BCE and again between 950 and 1250 CE the region was caught in severe drought.

“When you have arid periods that persist for 60 years, as we did in the 12th century, or for millennia, as we did from 6,000 to 1,000 BCE, that’s not really a ‘drought.’ That aridity is the new normal,” says Glen MacDonald, professor of Geography at UCLA and lead author of the study.

The authors say the markers in the lake’s sediment composition, including charcoal deposits from wildfires and fossils from sagebrush, mollusk shells and algae, told the tale of local climate conditions throughout the years and indicated when the lake had dried up and become marshland and when it had filled in again.

The results match other geological accounts which also describe a general aridity both during the period known as the mid-Holocene between 6,000 and 1,000 BCE, commonly attributed to a slight shift in the Earth’s orbit that affected the amount of sun received in the Northern Hemisphere, as well as during the period known as the medieval climate anomaly between 950 and 1250 CE, explained by a decrease in planetary volcanic activity and an increase in sunspot occurrences.

“We suspected we would see the millennia of aridity during the mid-Holocene at Kirman Lake, but we were surprised to see a very clear record of the medieval climate anomaly as well,” says MacDonald.

The problem, says MacDonald, is that whether the cause is the planet’s orbit, volcanic activity or, as is the case in the current scenario, the greenhouse effect, the consequences for California, its croplands and farmers is likely to be the same: drought which persists for decades at a time.

“We can’t save our huge expanses of oak woodlands, or our pine and fir forests, or high-elevation alpine ecosystems with irrigation projects like we might our orchards and gardens,” says MacDonald. “I worry that we will see very different wildlands by the end of this century.”

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About The Author /

Jayson is a writer, researcher and educator with a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Ottawa. His interests range from bioethics and innovations in the health sciences to governance, social justice and the history of ideas.
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  1. I think comments are over. Ruined by scared corporations and idiot adults. To bad…..they were a great addition to the news of the day. It’s all over now…..back to being ostriches…..just like the Corporocracy wants ….

  2. A Maine climatologist who has done research on drought conditions made similar observations and said that migrations to northern states will begin to take place in the not too distant future (ie a decade or two).

  3. How about some serious considerations for desalination technology and plants to provide the much needed water for various purposes.including plant growth . God knows there’s enough water in the oceans. Would also help combat the rising sea levels . Just to name another benefit . Also, money well spent !

  4. Myron, the problem with your solution is that it costs way more energy to desalinize sea water than just to protect, consume less, and recycle fresh water. To implement your project on the scale required would drive our current problems of fossil fuel and energy generation into over drive. We cannot solve the problems we’ve created with technology only through the use of more technology, that is crazy. We are trapped by an ethics of more, more, more, when what we need are an ethics of less, less, less. We will chose the pain of living simpler lives with way less pointless consumption or it will be forced on us under much less pleasant circumstances.

  5. If we don’t make a conscious and immediate decision to consume less of everything we don’t actually need or could not possibly really use (think of storage lockers full of crap all over North America), the worship of unlimited profit notwithstanding, we may find that seeking further technological solutions will only make the problems worse. We appear to be acting according to Einstein’s definition of insanity; doing the same thing over and over but expecting different result. LESS is MORE. Our unchained economic system (underwritten by greed, greed, greed, and ignorance, ignorance, ignorance, and elitism, elitism, elitism) which irrationally bares none of the cost of externalities, IS the real problem. Let me be clear here, I am not anti-capitalist, but we need new models that don’t rely on the expectation of unbounded profit, and the assumption that infinite growth is possible. The evidence that the planet is truly a finite resource and that we are close to scraping to the bottom of these resources beyond their finite capacities to be regenerated must be dawning on people by now?

  6. Green energy should be sufficient . Some individual countries are now beginning to experience a total supply of green Energy . That is only the beginning. The present technology deserves and needs to be improved upon via a concerted and serious effort for desalination . Desalination is already happening in other parts of the world .

  7. Yeah, we’ll have to talk to Trudeau about building a wall along the northern U.S./Canada border and have the Americans pay for it.

  8. Green energy alone cannot solve the problems of unchained growth, but it is a big part. I have doubts about its limits. If we consume less then our need even for green energy is also lessened. No technology, regardless as to the adjective that is used to endorse it is benign. This is my concern here. Less is more, even for Green.

  9. My concern is about quantity more than quality. People seem incapable of acknowledging that how we consume might be as or more important than what “fuels” this consumption. I am attempting to expose our deepest collective denial: we are addicted to stuff (and pointless change for changes sake) to no real purpose and way beyond any reasonable need. It is greed pure and simple that will be our undoing. Think deeper for hidden premise about value. Less is more.

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