Warmer, drier seasons like the winters many states in the American west experienced this past year are exactly what you would expect from climate change. But this presents an unexpected challenge to many western communities that are accustomed to heavy mountain snowfall — the lack of snow in the winter means lack of water in the summer.
In other words, the populated areas that live by mountain ranges rely on the snow generated during the cold seasons to provide water storage during the hotter months and now that the climate patterns are shifting, both human beings and animal ecosystems are scrambling to find other water sources.
In a study published earlier this month, the researchers found that over the past 100 years, more than 90 percent of snow monitoring sites throughout the West have seen a decline in snowpack. To put that into terms we would understand, that means a loss of water storage roughly the size of Lake Mead.
“It is a bigger decline than we had expected,” said Philip Mote, a climate scientist at Oregon State University and lead author on the study, in a statement. “In many lower-elevation sites, what used to fall as snow is now rain.”
The evidence of dwindling snowpack is nearly everywhere you look. According to the latest information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the period between Nov. 1 and Feb. 28 was at or near the warmest and driest on record for nearly every corner of the Southwest. In Arizona, the Navajo Nation has declared a drought emergency, and farmers across the West are preparing for a dry summer, contemplating killing livestock for fear they won’t be able to feed them later this year. Last week, a 23,000-acre wildfire popped up near the Colorado-New Mexico border, a striking example of just how dry things are right now.
In California, statewide snowpack on March 1 rivaled the lowest ever measured, just 19 percent of normal. A series of big storms have since nudged that value to about 37 percent of normal — a major win in a state where every drop counts. One problem, though: New data from the California’s Water Resources Control Board show that people are using more water after last year’s relatively good rains, as usage rates are back near where they were before the state’s five-year drought. It seems that many Californians have already forgotten what they learned about how to save water.
It’s clear that the West’s steady and transformative slide into a drier future has already begun. This is just the start.
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