Climate Change and the Dry, Wild West Part 2

Welcome to part two of my blog on the California drought. In my last blog, I discussed how low rainfall and higher-than-average temperatures are worsening the drought and causing severe water shortages.

The changes that are affecting the drought in the Southwest – lower-than-average rain, higher temperatures, and changes in snowpack and runoff patterns – are consistent with the changes we expect to see with climate change. The Southwest is already the hottest and driest region in the United States, and, according to the National Climate Assessment this area is expected to get even hotter and drier in the future.

Impacts on Human Health
There are consequences of long periods of dryness. When vegetation is dried out or stressed, wildfires are able to start more easily and burn hotter. Wildfire data in California suggest a trend towards increasing acres burned statewide. The annual average of acres burned since 2000 is 598,000 acres, almost twice the annual average for the 1950-2000 period. This is almost the area of New York City and Los Angeles combined. Increased wildfires increase the risk of harmful respiratory and cardiovascular effects of those who are exposed to the smoke. Wildfire risks can even spread hundreds of miles downwind from burning acreage and affect the health of those many miles from the blaze. In addition, increased wildfires can cause significant damage ecosystems and property, and put firefighters and rescue workers at risk.

Impacts on the Economy
The predicted total statewide economic cost of the 2014 drought is $2.2 billion, with a total loss of 17,100 seasonal and part-time jobs. The impacts of California’s drought – water restrictions, wildfires that threaten homes and health, and financial cost – will not only affect California residents, but may have ripple effects across the country. According to a study by UC Davis, expected water shortages through 2014 are projected to cause losses of $810 million in crop revenue and $203 million in dairy and other livestock value, plus additional groundwater pumping costs of $454 million. The water shortage not only threatens California’s agricultural production, but could impact food prices felt by the rest of the country.

In short, the drought in California is serious, and climate change is increasing the odds for longer and more intense droughts like the one occurring now. Fortunately, there are numerous initiatives underway to reduce the carbon pollution driving climate change, and to better prepare for the changes that are already happening. States, like California, have taken the lead in reducing emissions through market-based initiatives, and many states are making strides with climate action plans, renewable portfolio standards, and energy efficiency resource standards. Under the President’s Climate Action Plan, EPA is promoting standards for vehicles and power plants that build on what these states have accomplished and will provide billions of dollars in climate and health benefits in the next few decades.

With our combined efforts, we can reduce the risks we all face from our changing climate. I’m proud to support EPA’s climate efforts – for the sake of my home town and all those impacted by climate change.

Learn more about the causes and impacts of climate change, what EPA is doing to address it, and what you can do about climate change on our website.

Learn more about California’s response to climate change on the state’s website.

A picture of mid- September drought conditions from the past 10 years. While drought is not something new to California, continued periods of drought have significant impacts on the state.  Image: U.S. Drought Monitor

A picture of mid- September drought conditions from the past 10 years. While drought is not something new to California, continued periods of drought have significant impacts on the state.
Image: U.S. Drought Monitor

About the author: Krystal Laymon is an ORISE Fellow in EPA’s Climate Change Division. She has a background in environmental policy and communications. Krystal received her master’s degree in environmental science and policy at Columbia University and currently resides in Washington, DC with a turtle named Ollie.

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