Most people in the world actively engaged in watching the news know about the California drought, which has impacted the state particularly badly, hitting its agriculture and causing the largest spate of wildfires in their history. In April 2015, the conditions causing the drought also broke California’s low snowpack record which, according to the state’s Chief of Snow Surveys, Frank Gehrke, was ‘obliterated’, shrinking to just 3 percent of its normal size. This in turn caused state reservoirs to fall to 27 percent of their average level. Although a strong El Nino delivered a snowpack 200 percent above the average in November, it would still require months of above-average precipitation to start turning the drought around.
The decline of the snowpack in recent years is a serious problem because the Sierra Nevada snowpack provides 75 to 80 percent of California’s freshwater. Currently, around 27,000 wells are completely dry. Even with the rain and snow that has fallen this winter, California would still need four more months of storms before water supplies began to recover, bearing in mind most of the rain would just flow into the sea. Those storms also need to appear over the mountains, not along the coast, and temperatures in the mountains need to be below freezing.
Overall, the drought has caused thousands of job losses in agriculture and cost the state $2.74 billion in 2015, an increase on the previous year’s losses of $2.2 billion.
California isn’t the only state to suffer, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming are also affected but California has undeniably been the worst affected. However, the problem is particularly serious in California given that the state provides substantial supplies of vegetables, fruits and nuts to the US food sector (over a third of US vegetable production and two-thirds of US-produced fruit and nuts according to the 2014 Crop Year Report), while also being the world’s largest food exporter. More than 560,000 acres of farmland are now lying fallow. Some farms, having faced continual productivity losses, are now on the verge of bankruptcy. The natural response among farmers has been to drill deeper wells, but this in turn causes subsidence which damages infrastructure such as highways, canals and dams. However, some farms have begun to switch away from thirsty crops such as almonds and oranges towards less water-intensive produce such as grapes and unusual fruit such as pomegranates, persimmon, pistachios and dragon fruit.
There are some who argue that California’s four-year drought is just part of a natural cycle, while others attribute it to climate change. Some of the firemen fighting the state’s largest wildfires seem to think it’s the latter and in August last year, a study published in Geophysical Research Letters provided confirmation that indeed, climate change is at least partly responsible.
The study found that the drought was initiated by an “anomalous high-amplitude ridge system”. This generated a surge of wave energy forming what is known as a ‘dipole’ (an oscillation in winds and temperatures). Neither this, nor its associated air circulation pattern, was found to be linked with El-Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) or Pacific Decadal Oscillation (natural periodic variations in winds and sea surface temperatures that occur over the Pacific Ocean) but was linked with increased greenhouse gases as simulated by the CESM. Therefore the drought has a traceable anthropogenic (man-made) warming footprint. The study found that climate change could be linked to between 8 and 27 percent of the drought conditions between 2012 and 2014 and 5 to 18 percent in 2015.
Lassen Volcanic National Park, Winter 2014. No snow where there really should be… (Image: Lassen National Park Service, Flickr)
The drought has forced Governor Jerry Brown to impose urgent action to mitigate its effects on the state, including California’s first ever mandatory water restriction measures. Brown declared a drought State of Emergency in January and has also significantly ramped up the state’s climate change goals. An agreement signed in October 2015 now commits California to a generation level of 50 percent for electricity from renewable energy. It also requires the state’s existing buildings twice as energy efficient and to do this in just 15 years.
Water management sign at California Capitol, Sacramento (Image: roam and shoot, Flickr)
Action against climate change in California isn’t something new. For example, in 2005 Arnold Schwarzenegger issued an Executive Order calling for the state to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. In 2006, he passed a law that created the state’s first cap on greenhouse gas emissions. A second law passed by him prohibited large utilities and corporations in California from doing business with suppliers that failed to meet the state’s greenhouse gas emissions standards. These two laws were part of an overall plan to reduce California’s emissions by 25 percent, relative to 1990’s levels, by 2020.
Another Executive Order issued on 17th October 2006, enabled the state to work with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) initiated by a number of Northeastern US states in association with certain regions of Eastern Canada.
California has since continued to lead the way in adopting legislation intended to counter climate change. According to Schwarzenegger the state has “some of the most revolutionary environmental laws in the United States”. Renewable energy accounts for 40 percent of the state’s power supply. The state is also 40 percent more energy efficient than the rest of the country.
Governor Schwarzenegger inspecting a NextEra solar generating plant at Harper Lake, CA, 2010 (Image: US Department of the Interior)
What is truly remarkable about all this is that the message comes from a Republican, a party that has got a name for itself as a vociferous proponent of climate-scepticism. However, this just proves that climate change isn’t, or shouldn’t be, party politics. Everybody should be getting in on this, whatever party, religion, race or group they belong to.
Ask a California fireman whether he believes in man-made climate change and the chances are that he will very quickly tell you that everything in the state has now changed because of it. For example, in September 2015, Paul Duncan, a California Fire Department Battalion Chief, reported that he had “never seen this type of fire behaviour, especially this far north in California. It came with a speed more like a Santa Ana fire in Southern California.”
In August, the state’s firemen found themselves dealing with 167 wildfires raging across the state. The Boise, Idaho, fire more than doubled in size covering nearly 79,000 acres in the space of four hours. It was so ferocious that it caused a ‘firenado’, a twisting column of fire that is started by the fire itself and consists of a spiralling plume of fire or ash. One California firefighter involved in fighting a fire near Napa told The Guardian that 30-40 year veterans had never seen such conditions before during their careers. One of the major initiatives in place to try and stop wildfires breaking out in the first place begins with the recognition that around 90 percent of wildfires are started by carelessness and lack of thought among people themselves. This means that a major public education programme should be able to address the problem significantly.
California firefighters helping to battle the Rocky Fire at Clearlake, California, in August 2015 (Image: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images on Flickr)
Most Californians live by the coast, which means they may not be too pleased to hear that, according to the White House National Climate Assessment, that sea levels are projected to rise by 4.6 feet (1.4 metres) by 2100. Climate change will also make the ocean more acidic, triggering a whole range of impacts affecting marine wildlife. Storm surges and sea level rise will also impact California’s creeks, streams and rivers and an analysis by the Pacific Institute predicts increasing flood risk which in turn will affect coastal infrastructure, wetlands and other habitats, as well as coastal property valued at an estimated $100 billion dollars.
Fortunately, organisations such as the California Coastkeeper Alliance (CCKA) and other such groups, are starting to act. For example, CCKA helped to ensure that ocean acidification and other impacts are covered by the California Ocean Plan which became effective in 2013. Other adaptation measures have been addressed by the 2009 California Climate Adaptation Strategy (CAS Report) while key strategies to protect coastal ecosystems and communities have been incorporated into a Resolution on Sea Level Rise adopted by the Ocean Protection Council. CCKA has also prompted state agencies such as the Department of Water Resources and Strategic Growth Council to issue adaptation guidance and it is also working with Waterkeeper organisations to help demonstrate to communities how they can prepare their own adaptation plans which address issues of sea level rise impacts and enhance the resilience of coastal ecosystems.
On clean energy, California is now working with big companies such as EDF to decarbonise the state’s electricity and transport sectors. The state’s current climate change goals include increasing renewable generated electricity to 50 percent of total power supply, reducing petroleum fuel for vehicles by 50 percent by 2030 and doubling energy efficiency in buildings.
Overall, the drought, if anything, has acted to stimulate action on climate change that was happening anyway thanks to the foresight of Governor Schwarzenegger. The current Governor, Jerry Brown, is now taking that forward. California isn’t the only US state to be taking determined action against climate change of course, but it’s certainly leading from the front.
The drought has given California a taste of what future climate change will bring, and it’s acting on it. As the old saying goes, ‘the time is now’.
I am an experienced freelance journalist with a wide and varied portfolio to my credit including web content, magazine articles, reporting, features, interviews, reviews and blogs. My special interests include environmental issues, particularly climate change, renewable energy, transport, green building and sustainable infrastructure. I have numerous secondary interests ranging from politics and current affairs to social justice, science, technology and innovation, historical topics and lifestyle subjects such as literature, psychology, contemporary spirituality and culture.