If a NASA scientist is correct, current droughts in the American West will pale in comparison to the mega droughts yet to come during the remainder of this century. In fact, Dr. Benjamin Cook projects that it is likely that much of western North America will get drier than at any other time in the past thousand years.
Tree Ring Analysis Effective in the West
Cook works for NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies as a research physical scientist. He has a PhD from the University of Virginia. He was interviewed by Water Deeply, an independent media project that receives no government funding. The Water Deeply project partners with a variety of organizations and institutions, including the Associated Press and the UC Davis Center for Watershed Services.
Cook and his team combined computer models and tree ring growth analysis to make the dire prediction of a looming mega-drought. Cook maintains tree ring analysis is particularly effective in the western United States due to the prevalence of forested areas.
Compared to other parts of the United States, the West is particularly subject to annual fluctuations in precipitation because temperature is less of a factor than it is in New England or the Upper Midwest. Therefore, annual growth rings more closely correlate to the presence or absence of adequate precipitation.
High Probability of Mega Drought
The study concludes that California will experience “a level of aridity exceeding even the persistent mega droughts that characterized the medieval area the medieval era.” Cook defines a mega drought as one that lasts 35 years or more. He says that the likelihood of such a long-term drought in the West is greater than 80 percent.
The NASA scientist points out that those living in North America have not had any experience with droughts of this magnitude over the past two centuries. However, he says the western part of the continent did suffer from mega droughts way back in the 12th and 13th centuries.
Growing Populations and Economies a Problem
One of the key points he makes is that increased average temperatures will more than offset any periods of increased precipitation, so it is much more than a simple matter of hoping that it will rain and snow enough each year.
Although Cook says leaders can avoid turning the West into a “post-apocalyptic wasteland,” as he puts it, his prescription for averting disaster is sobering. For example, although he says Californians have made strides toward using municipal water supplies more effectively, much more work lies ahead.
Cook expresses real concern that the West is already coping with water shortages even as population growth soars. Growing economies across the American West also threaten to make water problems spike. Ultimately, he suggests that the water problem in the West will demand attention whether climate change is a factor or not. It remains to be seen whether his prediction of a looming drought that could be the worst one in a thousand years will galvanize support for drastic water conservation measures.
Risks of Relying on Public Water
Now more than ever, it is risky to rely on public water supplies. Contamination introduced by natural or intentional sources can wreak havoc on water supplies, virtually overnight. Population growth and expanding economies put even more pressure on already tight supplies.
Fortunately, self-reliant individuals and families are particularly well-prepared to endure a temporary or long-term loss of clean water supplied by governments. Advancements in the design of rainwater harvesting equipment and water purification techniques have made it easier than ever for concerned citizens to acquire the freshwater supplies they must have.
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