California could face 35-year megadrought, study says

Amy Powell Image
Wednesday, September 3, 2014
California could face 35-year megadrought, study says
There is a 20 to 50 percent chance California could experience a 35-year megadrought, according to a new study.

California is in the grip of a drought that has gone on for three years. The lack of rainfall has left the soil parched. Wildfires have destroyed property and consumed thousands of acres of vegetation.

A new study says things could get much worse. According to scientists, these extreme conditions suggest we could be heading toward a megadrought in California and other parts of the Southwest.

"Our results suggest that in the coming century depending on exactly where you are and, of course, depending on how warm the world gets, there's something like a 20 to 50 percent change that we may experience a drought of 35 years," said Julie Cole, a professor at the University of Arizona.

The study conducted by researchers at the University of Arizona and Cornell University says prolonged droughts occur naturally every 400 to 600 years.

"A megadrought is a drought that's just as bad, in terms of its severity, just as dry as the big droughts of the 20th Century, so think 1930's Dust Bowl, think 1950's drought, but much longer lasting," said Toby Ault, a professor at Cornell University.

Scientists say they can't predict what will happen, but they do say global warming increases the risk that California, Arizona and New Mexico will be hit by a prolonged drought.

"So we can't really weigh in on whether or not this drought will turn into a megadrought but what we can say with a lot of confidence is that, even without climate change, there's some risk of megadrought," Ault said.

Though the impact could be devastating, experts say we can prepare for a megadrought.

"I think we'd really have to change the way we think about water and the way that we use water because right now we're on a path that would be unsustainable if we had a drought of 35 years," Cole said.