The American West, especially California, has always been subject to droughts, fires, and floods. But human-induced climate heating tipped the Western weather system into overdrive. 2020 was an exceptional year for drought, wildfires, and floods. 2021 was even more exceptional. Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, lying between Arizona and Nevada, fell to record low levels and forced the first ever rationing of water. In July, the reservoir was at 1,069 feet above sea level, or 35 percent of its total capacity. It supplies water to Arizona, Nevada, California and Mexico.
Land, brush, and trees became exceedingly dry, needing only a spark to ignite. And ignite they did. As of Dec. 7, 2021, the National Interagency Fire Center’s (NIFC) reported a total of 54,350 wildfires across the country that had burned more than a record 6.8 million acres. The Center for Disaster Philanthropy reports the average year-to-date was 54,485 fires burning 7.22 million acres.
A recent article in The Guardian entitled “A Year of Extreme Weather in the American West — in Pictures” writer Gabrielle Canon weaves together different geographic areas and types of extreme weather events.
One striking photograph shows two thin rows of houseboats sitting in what looks like a thin alley of water in Lake Oroville surrounded by thick dried banks of sand. The Butte County lake in northern California also has had record low water levels.
According to the Sacramento Bee, Folsom Lake reservoir, a critical water supply to the Sacramento region, was 22 percent full until a recent heavy rain fall raised the level to 58 percent capacity. In July, 2021, the Washington Post, California’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Shasta and Lake Oroville, are on track for potential record lows this summer, now at 37 percent and 31 percent of their total capacities, respectively.
Featured pictures in the Guardian article aren’t only of dry lake beds, empty boat slips and dried and cracked lands. There are photographs of burning wild fire infernos that exude catastrophic and deadly heat. A lone metal chairlift at the Sierra-at-Tahoe ski resort is in the foreground while the Caldor fire burns in the background. In another, a surreal smoke cloud in Beatty, Oregon rises from the Bootleg Fire.
If it wasn’t fires devastating the Pacific north west, it was heavy downpours and flooding, driving residents in western Canada and Washington state to evacuate as water levels dangerously rose. Two heavy rain storms put streets under water, downed trees and power lines in Northern California and saw hillsides crumbling.
Although the recent rains and snows provided some relief, the drought isn’t over. Fully half the counties in California remain at extreme risk of more drought. There’s no telling if 2022 will be the third exceptional year in a row. What’s clear to many experts, however, is that the American West’s weather system, made more hyper by the heat-trapping carbon emissions we have continued to spew into the air, has entered a new, more extreme, and more deadly cycle. All of these systems are manifestations of human-caused climate change, all made more extreme by our inability to kick the fossil fuel habit. Americans throughout the country fully realize that extreme weather events plaguing the American West will get worse. How much worse depends on how quickly we stop driving all those events by burning carbon.