From individual water use to lessons from past civilisations, here’s what our Parched Earth series revealed about the impact of the megadrought in south-western North America
7 December 2022
“All the water on Earth already exists. We can’t make more.” – Bradley Doorn, NASA
Since 2000, south-western North America has been in the grips of a megadrought. The severe dry spell is dramatically changing the landscape, drying up lakes and shrivelling the mighty Colorado river to the point that it often fails to reach the sea.
Extreme droughts of this kind are not new — they have occurred on every continent outside Antarctica for the past 2000 years. But only recently have we started to pin down the complex global climate patterns that cause them.
In our Parched Earth series, we have taken a hard look at this unique moment for North America. We have examined what causes megadroughts, when the current one will end and what permanent scars the land will bear thereafter.
We have also considered how personal and political decisions can help or make matters worse – from reckoning with the expansion of water-intensive data centres to figuring out what gets people to use less water.
Finally, in a cover story for the US edition of our magazine, we examined the particular threat to the Colorado river and the radical proposals to save it that are finally being taken seriously. It is increasingly clear that the awe-inspiring landscapes of south-western North America will be forever altered by this extreme drought, but we still have some say in what that new future will come to look like.
What is a megadrought?
The dry spell in south-western North America is so severe that researchers don’t just call it a drought but use the term “megadrought” instead. The growing consensus is that such droughts will become both more common and more severe thanks in part to human-driven climate change.
When will the megadrought end?
In a new analysis in October, drought researchers from NASA and New York University found that the dry conditions in south-western North America may not simply pass – but that instead we may be facing a permanent climate shift known as “aridification”.
Do data centres contribute to drought?
Our ever-growing appetite for data may exacerbate droughts, as data centres use a tremendous amount of water for cooling. And, this may become more pronounced in the years ahead – many data centres are under construction in some of the most drought-stricken areas of the US.
How is the megadrought changing the land?
Is climate change making the megadrought worse?
Megadroughts have recurred throughout history, but anthropogenic climate change can deepen existing climate trends. As we come to grips with exactly how this happens, an even bigger question looms: is climate change not just amplifying the effects of long-established patterns, but disrupting them as well?
Will the land go back to how it was before the megadrought?
The aftermath of extreme historic droughts may give us some insight into what the future holds – and it is a sobering view. Even if the rains return, the land will may be forever altered. As climate scientist Samantha Stephens told New Scientist, “By today’s standards, we’ll be in a drought all the time.”
What makes people curb their water use – and does it really make a difference?
Coping with a dramatically reduced water supply requires significant cutbacks in water use – from power generation and agriculture to individuals in their homes. One of the most effective ways to do this involves showing people how their water use stacks up with that of their neighbours.
How can I cut back on my water consumption right now?
Fortunately, there are many small changes that have an outsized effect on reducing water use. Running the dishwasher is far more water-efficient than handwashing dishes, for instance, and simply turning off the tap while you brush your teeth could save up to 15 litres of water per brushing.
How might the megadrought change society?
How do we save the Colorado river?
The majestic Colorado river that carved the Grand Canyon is at unprecedentedly low levels. Though water use policies that date back a century set the current crisis in motion, the ongoing drought conditions have made matters significantly worse, and are now prompting radical proposals to save the Colorado.
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