The California Drought – Natural, Man Made, or Both?

Peter Sinclair (ClimateCrocks) March 13, 2014: I was asked weeks ago to do an update on the California drought situation – which seemed pretty straightforward at the time – but it turned into one of the most challenging assignments I’ve taken on.

Not only has the weather situation continued to morph, but the political dialogue heated up as well, when the President travelled to the state and mentioned climate as a contributor to the drought conditions. Hysteria ensued.

Aside from the predictable political fallout from this very critical, very visible, and potentially crippling weather event, there is a very real ongoing debate in the science community as to when an event can be attributed to climate change, and how much.

I spent a lot of time interviewing a range of scientists, both in and outside California, on the history of drought cycles in the state, as well as the effects of the slow but persistent signal of climate warming on that variable cycle. Dr. Kathleen Johnson of UC Irvine shared with me her research on the central California paleo-climate, derived from cave geology.

One confounding factor is the exponential population growth that has occurred during an era when the state has been, historically speaking, relatively lush with water – a condition that the paleo-record warns, is temporary under the best scenario, as I was reminded by Dr. Bill Patzert and Dr. Tom Painter, both of NASA JPL.

But, even given that, it is impossible to ignore the emerging exploration in the science literature for possible changes in atmospheric dynamics that may be part of a warming climate.

We’ve become used to the cycles we know, such as El Nino / LaNina, Pacific Decadal Oscillation, North Atlantic Oscillation – but as Dr. Richard Rood of the University of Michigan, and Dr. Aradhna Tripati of UCLA told me, there is no guarantee that these are set in stone.

Finally I talked to Dr. Jacob Sewall, whose computer modeling of a decade ago forecast that declines in arctic sea ice might mean future circulation pattern eerily similar to the stubborn, “ridiculously resilient ridge” that has produced the spectacularly variable weather from the arctic, to North America, to Europe, this winter.

Teaser image via EcoWatch

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  1. Change is coming and we’re pitifully unprepared. Seems like concerted action will only be taken when the excrement has well and truly hit the fan.

  2. Consider it’s a combination of both, natural geographical zone per latitude, oceanic exposure and landform relationships to that along with man-made causes. Geographically Central Valley is semi-arid, the coast range robbing it of moisture and regular rains off the ocean.

    Fremont saw the problem in these areas when first explored in the 1860’s and recommended to Congress to triple the size of the homesteads for western arid lands, to not use irrigation-based agriculture and instead use dryland farming, then to leave the groundwater and aquifers alone because the first lowers the water-table and that stresses and kills of many plants from lacking deep roots, and the latter doesn’t recharge in an Interglacial period.

    So, add all that up and it comes out pumping water for crops is not sustainable and what Fremont foresaw was correct advice.

    So, when are you going to quit doing it?
    For slow learners is 130-years warning enough lead time?
    Does science have to hold your hand while you make up your mind?

  3. Does it matter whether global warming is due to man made or natural
    causes? The devastating effects are still the same. It’s like wasting
    resource and time arguing over whether the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant
    disaster is cause by nature or by human negligence, the effects are still
    the same. So if the elites, having access to think tanks and vast number
    of scientists, have figured out that the environment is going to collapse;
    and they are preparing by building underground cities and seed vault for
    themselves using public tax money. Why aren’t the common folks taking
    lesson from them, pool resources and do the same to prepare? It’s like
    sitting around and watching Noah as he build his ark and not take the
    hint. Just food for thoughts. This is a gathering call. For more info,
    check out the “about” section of the Project channel.

  4. Excellent presentation. Need even more on how the arctic warming effects the jet steam allowing it to wander. Drought, polar vortex, even trop storm Sandy ride that wandering jet.

  5. The answer to the question appears to be “we don’t know”. Will need to wait
    and see if there is a trend.

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