The western and southwestern U.S. is wilting under the biggest drought in 1,200 years — a megadrought. As of writing this, most of the country is experiencing drier-than-normal conditions, but things remain particularly severe from Texas to Washington state.
Scientists have identified climate change as a significant contributing factor to the extent and severity of droughts in general. And one study pegged about 40% of the current dry conditions in the Southwest on human-caused climate shifts.
We’re seeing the usual consequences of drought: water restrictions pop up, reservoirs hit record lows, wildfires spin out of control, and crops suffer. But the longer the West’s dry spell goes on, the more bizarre the drought-related stories get. Here are some of the oddest impacts happening or likely to happen so far.
It seems like less water should be bad news for fish all around. But in the drought-stricken, record-low Colorado River, at least one species is counterintuitively getting a boost. Smallmouth bass, considered locally invasive, are starting to expand their range.
Prior to this year, the bass were confined to the upper portion of the Colorado River, held back by Glen Canyon Dam that forms Lake Powell. But now water levels in Lake Powell are so low that the invasive fish are being spotted below the dam in the lower river. Worse that that, they’ve started spawning there, too, indicating the entire Colorado River could soon contain a breeding population of the fish, according to a report from the Associated Press.
Smallmouth bass prefer to stay in the warm waters closer to the surface of the reservoir. Up there, the dam is an effective barrier. But as water levels have dropped, the surface has gotten closer to the turbines and intake tubes that move water from the reservoir to the lower river, and the fish are following.
The bass are voracious predators of the many other species, including the threatened humpback chub. The chub was previously federally listed as endangered, but thanks to conservation efforts in the lower Colorado, the species’ numbers had started to bounce back. It was just downgraded from “endangered” to “threatened” last year.
While sriracha is widely regarded as a gift direct from the gods, it’s actually made from plants — plants that are failing amid so little water.
Production of the wildly popular spicy condiment is on hold because of a lack of red jalapeño chilli peppers, its main ingredient. In April, Huy Fong Foods sent out an email announcing a pause on new orders until after September.
“Currently, due to weather conditions affecting the quality of chilli peppers, we now face a more severe shortage of chilli. Unfortunately, this is out of our control and without this essential ingredient we are unable to produce any of our products,” wrote the company.
Drought and climate change are largely to blame for the pepper shortage, reports NPR. (Although, Huy Fong also set itself up for a higher risk of shortages when it narrowed its pepper sourcing in 2017.) The specific type of chilli used in Sriracha only grows in the southwest U.S. and northern Mexico, which are both experiencing the same regional megadrought because national borders are irrelevant when it comes to climate.
In Mexico, the consequences of the drought have been even worse than for parts of the U.S.. The country declared a national emergency on Tuesday, and more than 1 million people are under water rationing orders. Understandably, the region’s chilli pepper harvest this year was “almost nonexistent,” according to NPR. But, though quirky, that pepper problem pales in comparison with the wider, human implications of northern Mexico’s water crisis.
Dammed reservoirs like Lake Powell and Lake Mead dropping to record lows means that the regional water stores, the hydroelectric power supply, and entire energy grid are entering an unsettling ??? zone.
Long-sunken history and even evidence of past crimes are emerging from the receding waters. First, a barrel containing a body showed up in Lake Mead. Less than a week later, separate skeletal remains surfaced. Elsewhere where droughts are occurring, similar stories are popping up.
As the drought progresses, police forecast that more human remains and other lost items are likely to continue to show up.
Climate change is aiding the spread of multiple diseases. This includes well-known and widespread terrors like Lyme disease and malaria. One of the more regionally specific illnesses, though, is Valley fever, or coccidiodomycosis (Cocci for short).
Valley fever is a potentially deadly fungal infection contracted by inhaling spores from soil and dirt. Currently in the U.S., the disease is found in parts of California and the Southwest. The fungus thrives in warm, wet conditions. But the spores are believed to be most easily spread around via dust, when the ground is dry. The most dangerous combination for Cocci are wet conditions followed by drought.
The present drought has put some experts on alert. Valley fever cases have risen in recent years. The number of diagnoses climbed about 800%, according to one study, between 2000 and 2018 — one of California’s driest periods on record. The exact cause of the rise isn’t known, but there are lots of overlapping hypotheses. For instance, increasing development and construction put people in direct contact with soil, and there’s more diagnostic awareness of the illness.
Climate change and drought are also thought to play a role. Wildfires put more people, particularly firefighters, at risk. Plus, researchers are warning that the disease could become more prevalent over a wider range in a warmer, drier world coupled with erratic and more extreme rainfall events.
Colorado Cloud Seeding
Colorado has been actively modifying its local weather through cloud seeding since the 1970s. The process involves shooting silver iodide particles into the atmosphere to trigger rain or snowfall.
In 2020, the state’s cloud-seeding program contributed an estimated 326,000 gallons of water to Colorado’s snowpack. That may sound like a lot, but it’s a small percentage of what’s lacking. As drought conditions linger, though, Colorado and its western neighbours have been considering leaning even more on weather modification tech.
Experts warn that cloud seeding can’t be a solution to dry conditions on its own. Cloud seeding or not, if we don’t tackle climate change head-on, Colorado will soon be headed toward a future with half as much snow, according to an April study.
Floods on the Other Side of the World
Direct climate change impacts aside, another contributing factor to this year’s Southwest drought is La Niña. The weather oscillation is the opposite of El Niño, and one half of the ENSO cycle of warm/cool ocean temperature changes.
While parts of North America are made extra hot and dry because of shifts in sea surface temperature, La Niña causes areas of the South Pacific become cool and very, very wet. Basically — all of the moisture the U.S. isn’t getting goes elsewhere.
Australia, in particular, has been hammered by severe floods for the past few months, while the U.S. Southwest stayed parched. Most recently, Sydney was hit by an early July wave of devastating rainfall. About 50,000 people were evacuated, according Reuters reported.
Climate change and ENSO interact. Because climate change gives extreme weather a boost, the effects of La Niña become amplified. And more intense ENSO events could become more common under the worst greenhouse gas emissions scenarios.
The Air Gets Gross
Wildfires obviously worsen air quality, and drought increases the risk and severity of fires. But drought harms air quality in other ways, too. Dust (like the kind that can carry Valley fever) gets kicked up. Plus, dry conditions might also contribute to ozone pollution because of how they hamper plants’ ability to absorb harmful particles.
All in all, drought is bad for our lungs. And the combo of hot weather and drought that’s currently sweeping the country is even worse. A study found that risk of death is 21% higher on days when both air pollution and temperatures are high.
If the western drought continues unabated, there could soon be new air quality concerns as Utah’s Great Salt Lake dries out, exposing a toxic lake bed.
Lawmakers Make Wild Proposals
Speaking of the Great Salt Lake, the drought and record-low water levels have legislators considering a truly wacky idea to keep the body of water going. Utah lawmakers floated the idea of a pipeline from the Pacific Ocean to the landlocked state during a meeting in May.
“There’s a lot of water in the ocean, and we have very little in the Great Salt Lake,” Sen. David Hinkins (R), the commission’s co-chair, said during the meeting.
The Pacific Ocean is, at minimum, about 966 km and a mountain range away from the Great Salt Lake. Though, experts previously told Gizmodo that the idea of a pipeline wasn’t totally surprising or out of the question.
The saline lake supports lots of Utah industries, including tourism, brine shrimp harvesting, and mineral extraction. So there are strong financial incentives for the state to try to preserve the lake.
As drought reduces surface water reserves, people and farms are forced to shift over to groundwater to meet their needs. And as more water is pumped out of the ground, the land itself starts to sink, in a process known as land subsidence. More than 80% of land subsidence in the U.S. is the result of water over-pumping, according to the USGS.
In California, satellite data revealed that some towns in the Central Valley sunk almost a foot in just a single year (2020-2021), according to a report from the San Francisco Chronicle. The USGS tracks land subsidence, and wide swathes of the state are experiencing it. It’s also happening in other states, like Texas and across the Southwest.
As the ground beneath our feet gets lower, human infrastructure is often damaged. Buildings can weaken and even collapse. Sewage, power, and rail lines are busted. And if land sinks enough, future flood risk is amplified.
Trees Start Emitting Carbon
It seems like an unshakeable fact: Trees absorb CO2 and release oxygen. But a growing body of research is showing just how much drought and climate change can throw that reliable give and take out of whack.
Prolonged dryness slows trees’ growth, making them less effective at taking in carbon, according to a May study published in the journal Science. Simultaneously, drought can make trees far more vulnerable to disease and pest outbreaks, which kill trees en masse, according to another May study published in the journal Ecology Letters.
Counter to living trees, dead trees release CO2 instead of absorbing and storing it. And wildfires, especially, accelerate this process. Prior research has found that drought could lead to 3% less carbon uptake by forests in arid U.S. states like Arizona and Utah. It might not sound like much, but when it comes to combatting climate change, all emissions count.