Droughts are coming. Are we ready for the past to repeat?

Summary: This post by Prof Curry has something for everyone, at all levels of interest and knowledge. It discusses one of the more timely and serious subjects in the climate debates. If you would like more information after reading these selections (or are still confused, or more confused) see the links at the end of the post.  Bottom line: while we bicker about anthropogenic effects on climate, we remain unready for the return of past droughts.

California drought in context

by Judith Curry (Prof Atmosphere Science, GA Inst Tech)
From her website Climate Etc
10 March 2014

Posted here under her Creative Commons license

Texas Drought
Photo by AP


  1. The NYT gives a rebuttal to Obama
  2. Anthropogenic global warming and droughts
  3. Past California droughts
  4. The Dust Bowl Returns
  5. California’s drought is due to politics
  6. Judith Curry’s reflections
  7. For More Information

(1)  The NYT gives a rebuttal to Obama

A changing climate means that weather-related disasters like droughts, wildfires, storms [and] floods are potentially going to be costlier and they’re going to be harsher.
Speech by President Obama, 14 February 2014

Justin Gillis of the NY Times responded to the statements made by President Obama in his February 14 visit to California to discuss the drought: “Science linking drought to global warming in dispute“. Excerpt:

In delivering aid to drought-stricken California last week, President Obama and his aides cited the state as an example of what could be in store for much of the rest of the country as human-caused climate change intensifies.

But in doing so, they were pushing at the boundaries of scientific knowledge about the relationship between climate change and drought. While a trend of increasing drought that may be linked to global warming has been documented in some regions, including parts of the Mediterranean and in the Southwestern United States, there is no scientific consensus yet that it is a worldwide phenomenon. Nor is there definitive evidence that it is causing California’s problems.

(2)  Anthropogenic global warming and droughts

(a)  The main arguments being put forward regarding AGW making the drought worse seem to be put forward by John Holdren and Joe Romm. John Holdren has prepared a document entitled Drought and Climate Change:  A Critique of Statements Made by Roger Pielke Jr. The existence of this document is astonishing in itself (Holdren is Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy) – it was written in response to tweets and blog posts by Pielke Jr (Prof Environmental Studies, U CO-Boulder).

Pielke responds to Holden with “John Holdren’s Epic Fail“, 1 March 2014.

(b)  Joe Romm (Center for American Progress) has a follow on post “Climatologist who predicted drought 10 years ago says it may become even more dire“.  He lays out the arguments in support of global warming influencing the drought. The arguments aren’t  strong, an excerpt:


In my recent comments about observed and projected increases in drought in the American West, I mentioned four relatively well understood mechanisms by which climate change can play a role in drought. (I have always been careful to note that, scientifically, we cannot say that climate change caused a particular drought, but only that it is expected to increase the frequency, intensity, and duration of drought in some regions ― and that such changes are being observed.)

The four mechanisms are:

  1. In a warming world, a larger fraction of total precipitation falls in downpours, which means a larger fraction is lost to storm runoff (as opposed to being absorbed in soil).
  2. In mountain regions that are warming, as most are, a larger fraction of precipitation falls as rain rather than as snow, which means lower stream flows in spring and summer.
  3. What snowpack there is melts earlier in a warming world, further reducing flows later in the year.
  4. Where temperatures are higher, losses of water from soil and reservoirs due to evaporation are likewise higher than they would otherwise be.

Romm’s article also {quotes} Michael Mann (Professor of Meteorology, Penn State U):

There is credible peer-reviewed scientific work by leading climate scientists, published more than a decade ago, that hypothesized that precisely this sort of blocking pattern would become more frequent with disappearing Arctic sea ice. Moreover, Arctic sea ice has declined precipitously in the intervening decade. So it seems quite clear that there is a potential connection, in a statistical sense, between human-caused global warming, declining Arctic sea ice, and the anomalous blocking pattern this winter that has added to other factors we know are tied to human-caused climate change (warmer temperatures and increased soil evaporation, and decreased winter snowpack and freshwater runoff) to produce the unprecedented drought this year in California.

To claim that it is “quite clear” there is no connection at all turns the burden of scientific evidence completely on its head. Such a statement defies logic.

(3)  Past California droughts

(a)  MSN News

Past California droughts have lasted 200 years“, MSN News, 31 January 2014 — “Researchers have documented multiple droughts in California that lasted 10 or 20 years in a row during the past 1,000 years.”  Excerpts:

“We continue to run California as if the longest drought we are ever going to encounter is about seven years,” said Scott Stine, a professor of geography and environmental studies at Cal State East Bay. “We’re living in a dream world.” Stine, who has spent decades studying tree stumps in Mono Lake, Tenaya Lake, the Walker River and other parts of the Sierra Nevada, said that the past century has been among the wettest of the last 7,000 years.

Looking back, the long-term record also shows some staggeringly wet periods. The decades between the two medieval megadroughts, for example, delivered years of above-normal rainfall — the kind that would cause devastating floods today.

The longest droughts of the 20th century, what Californians think of as severe, occurred from 1987 to 1992 and from 1928 to 1934. Both, Stine said, are minor compared to the ancient droughts of 850 to 1090 and 1140 to 1320.

Already, the 2013-14 rainfall season is shaping up to be the driest in 434 years, based on tree ring data, according to Lynn Ingram, a paleoclimatologist at UC Berkeley. “It’s important to be aware of what the climate is capable of,” she said, “so that we can prepare for it.”

(b)  Martin Hoerling (Meteorologist, NOAA)

Andy Revkin has a  post entitled A climate analyst clarifies the science behind California’s extreme drought.   Of particular interest to me is a note that Revkin received from Marty Hoerling. Excerpts:

Andy, I’ve been engaged in understanding this drought event, having just returned from Sacramento where I briefed a group of water managers and emergency responders on the drought. [The event: “California Drought Outlook Forum: What’s Ahead and What We Can Do.”]

This drought has many of the attributes of past historical droughts over the region — widespread lack of storms and rainfall that would normally enter the region from the Pacific with considerable frequency. It resembles the 1975-76 and 1976-77 California droughts, when two consecutive years were at least as dry as the last two years have been for the state as a whole.

The bottom line is that this type of drought has been observed before. And, to state the obvious, this drought has occurred principally due to a lack of rains, not principally due to warmer temperatures.

This may seem pretty obvious (and trivial) from simple inspection of historical observations, and indeed this drought is quite familiar to anyone who lived in California during the mid-1970s, as I did.

But the obligations for water have greatly increased in the state, and it may very well be that the stress created by the current failed rains is more severe than for similar rainfall deficits 40 years earlier. Without making a strong claim, it is at least intuitive that sociological and economic changes in California could be reducing resiliency to natural hazards, like drought.

To the extent that precipitation is key, it can be said with high confidence that there is no trend toward either wetter or drier conditions for statewide average precipitation since 1895, so that has not likely been a player. But there are other indicators, and aspects of rainfall behavior that could be conducive to drought, even if the mean seasonal rainfall isn’t changing. What is the evidence there?

The argument hinges mostly on temperature and how it may be affecting water resources. (Never mind, by the way, that the farmers and water managers are praying to the heavens for rain, not for cooler temperatures, to bust their drought!).

A way of integrating the effects of temperature on drought is to examine soil moisture time series. That latest 2012 report, (the so-called SREX report) in their Table 3-2 examines the evidence for regional changes since 1950, and makes the following assessment of these various indicators for western North America:

“No overall or slight decrease in dryness since 1950; large variability; large drought of the 1930s dominate.”

The team of 42 authors assigned a “Medium Confidence” to that assessment. The report’s team in Table 3-3 then goes on to assess the scientific evidence for how drought in this region will change in the 21st century. They write:

“Inconsistent signal in consecutive dry days and soil moisture changes,” to which they assign a low confidence.

It is quite clear that the scientific evidence does not support an argument that this current California drought is appreciably, if at all, linked to human-induced climate change.

This is not to say that a warmer climate can’t and won’t act to decrease soil moisture. It simply reminds us that the current drought event, like its historical ancestors, continues to be strongly driven by the vagaries of storm tracks and the manner in which rains are delivered to the narrow stripe of the U.S. West Coast.

(c)  Peter Gleick (President, Pacific Institute)

Peter Gleick has an article “Clarifying the discussion about California drought and climate change“.  I am not a fan of Gleick, but this article is a useful contribution to the debate.  His punch line:

The research and the debate over climate change and California droughts will continue. But before commenting, let’s make sure we understand what question is actually being asked, what question should be asked, and what question is actually being answered.

(d)  National Geographic

Could the California drought last 200 years?“, National Geographic, 13 February 2014 — “Clues from the past suggest the ocean’s temperature may be a driver.” Excerpt:

Ingram and other paleoclimatologists have correlated several historic megadroughts with a shift in the surface temperature of the Pacific Ocean that occurs every 20 to 30 years—something called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). The PDO is similar to an El Nino event except it lasts for decades — as its name implies — whereas an El Nino event lasts 6 to 18 months. Cool phases of the PDO result in less precipitation because cooler sea temperatures bump the jet stream north, which in turn pushes off storms that would otherwise provide rain and snow to California.

Ingram says entire lakes dried up in California following a cool phase of the PDO several thousand years ago. Warm phases have been linked to numerous storms along the California coast.

“We have been in a fairly cold phase of PDO since the early 2000s,” says Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center, “so the drought we are seeing now makes sense.”

(4)  The Dust Bowl Returns

An op-ed in the NY Times entitled “The Dust Bowl Returns” asks the question: “How long can we continue to grow a third of the nation’s fruit and vegetables?”  Excerpts:

The Willeys have done what they can to cope. They’ve cut back on less profitable crops, and they are already dedicated practitioners of sustainable agriculture. But many farmers aren’t, and the future is worrisome. Pumping from aquifers is so intense that the ground in parts of the valley is sinking about a foot a year. Once aquifers compress, they can never fill with water again. It’s no surprise Tom Willey wakes every morning with a lump in his throat. When we ask which farmers will survive the summer, he responds quite simply: those who dig the deepest and pump the hardest.

Yet for all the doom around us, here in Fresno itself it is hard to find evidence that the drought is changing the behavior of city dwellers.

And while religious communities around the valley organized a day of prayer and fasting, entreating God to send rain, concrete efforts to solve the water problem are less apparent. Gov. Jerry Brown has called on all Californians to reduce their water use by 20 percent, but residential lawns, seeded each year with winter ryegrass, continue to glow in brilliant, bright-green hues, kept alive by sprinkler systems that are activated in the dark of night.

Fresnans have long resisted water-saving measures, clinging tenaciously to a flat rate, all-you-can-use system. Nudged by state and federal officials, Fresno began outfitting new homes with water meters in the early 1990s, but voters passed a ballot initiative prohibiting the city from actually reading them. It took two decades for all area homes to acquire meters and for the city to start monitoring the units. To its credit, Fresno has a watering schedule, limiting when residents can water their lawns. But enforcement, to put it charitably, is lax.

Our behavior here in the valley feels untenable and self-destructive, and for much of it we are to blame. But we also find support among an enthusiastic group of enablers: tens of millions of American shoppers who devour the lettuce and raisins, carrots and tomatoes, almonds and pistachios grown in our fields.

(5)  California’s drought is due to politics

(a) California’s Drought Isn’t Due to Global Warming, But Politics“, Editorial in the Investors Business Daily, 14 February 2014 — Excerpts:

Instead of blaming the man-made political causes of California’s worst water shortage, [Obama]‘s come with $2 billion in “relief” that’s nothing but a tired effort to divert attention from fellow Democrats’ dereliction of duty in using the state’s water infrastructure.

The one thing that will mitigate droughts in California — a permanent feature of the state — is to restore the water flow from California’s water-heavy north to farmers in the central and south. That’s just what House Bill 3964, which passed by a 229-191 vote last week, does.

But Obama’s plan is not to get that worthy bill through the Senate (where Democrats are holding it up) but to shovel pork to environmental activists and their victims, insultingly offering out-of-work farmers a “summer meal plan” in his package.

“They want to blame the drought for the lack of water, but they wasted water for the past five years,” said Nunes {Congressman from the Central Valley}.

The two explain that California’s system of aqueducts and storage tanks was designed long ago to take advantage of rain and mountain runoff from wet years and store it for use in dry years. But it’s now inactive — by design. “California’s forefathers built a system (of aqueducts and storage facilities) designed to withstand five years of drought,” said Nunes.

Environmental special interests managed to dismantle the system by diverting water meant for farms to pet projects, such as saving delta smelt, a baitfish. That move forced the flushing of 3 million acre-feet of water originally slated for the Central Valley into the ocean over the past five years.

(b) Drought Stokes California’s Class War“, blog of Forbes, 8 March 2014 — Excerpts:

There are two prevailing views about how to deal with the drought. Farming interests in the Central Valley want the state to fund construction of additional water storage capacity so that the 700,000 acres of some of world’s richest farmland now fallowed by steep water cutbacks can be put back into production.

The predominant view embraced by the media and ruling political class identifies the drought as yet another manifestation of relentless global warming, which means the focus should be on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Greens balk at the idea of massive new spending on water storage for the agriculture sector, the state’s biggest water user, advocating instead for more conservation. New dams and reservoirs would have high environmental impacts, they argue, and their benefits may not justify the costs.

(6)  Judith Curry’s reflections

It seems that only Holdren, Romm and Mann (well Obama also) are pushing the link between the current drought and AGW.  Holdren is a political appointee, Romm works for a political appointee, and Mann is a self declared advocate.  Hard to know whether Obama is the dog or the tail on this one.

The California drought raises some interesting questions regarding detection and attribution related to AGW.  If the drought is not the biggest in 100 years, or 1000 years, we can’t say it was caused by AGW.  If you want to say that it was worsened by AGW, you need to have a convincing mechanism or evidence from climate models (climate models indicate more rainfall in CA under anthropogenic forcing).

The water resource issue in CA is looming very large; the demands continue to increase and agriculture seems the obvious loser under a water shortage scenario.  The CA enviros seem to be an enemy of sane water policies.  The final statement in Justin Gillis’ article sums it up:

“It all adds up across the Southwest to an increasingly stressed water system. That’s what they might as well get ready for.”


(7)  For More Information


  1. Testimony of Roger Pielke Jr before a Congressional hearing about Climate Change on 18 July 2013
  2. California faces growing water management Challenges“, Public Policy Institute of California, January 2014
  3. California drought: Past dry periods have lasted more than 200 years, scientists say“, San Jose Mercury News, 25 January 2014
  4. Science linking drought to global warming in dispute“, New York Times, 16 February 2014
  5. The drying of the West“, The Economist, 22 February 2014 — “Drought is forcing westerners to consider wasting less water”
  6. It Takes How Much Water to Grow an Almond?!“, Mother Jones, 24 February 2014 — “Why California’s drought is a disaster for your favorite fruits, vegetables, and nuts.”

Some useful research:

  1. Extreme and persistent drought in California and Patagonia during mediaeval time“, Scott Stine, Nature, 16 June 1994
  2. North American drought: Reconstructions, causes, and consequences“, Edward R. Cook et al, Earth Science Reviews, March 2007
  3. Megadroughts in North America: placing IPCC projections of hydroclimatic change in a long-term palaeoclimate context“, Edward R. Cook et al, Journal of Quaternary Science, January 2010

Posts about extreme weather:

  1. Looking into the past for guidance about warnings of future climate apocalypses, 17 October 2010
  2. Run from the rising waves! (The latest climate catastrophe scare), 27 June 2012
  3. Ignorance and propaganda about extreme climate change, 10 July 2012
  4. A look behind the curtain at the news of extreme climate events in the US, 22 August 2012
  5. Hurricane Sandy asks when did weather become exceptional? (plus important info about US hurricanes), 28 October 2012
  6. Has global warming increased the frequency & virulence of extreme weather events?, 10 February 2013
  7. The Oklahoma tornadoes can teach us about our climate, and ourselves, 22 May 2013
  8. The IPCC gives us straight talk about Extreme Weather, 4 October 2013
  9. A summary of the state of climate change and extreme weather, 12 December 2013



4 thoughts on “Droughts are coming. Are we ready for the past to repeat?”

  1. Watching Americans deal with drought is almost laughable, being an Australian. For such a country, with such massive water resources, to stuff things up is… what an you say.. a monument to stupidity, greed, short term thinking … and all the rest.

    There is not a single US farmer who would survive for 5 minutes here in Oz (if nothing else the lack of massive Govt subsidies would wipe them out).

    You have more than enough water to survive under even the most extreme climate change scenarios for the next 50-100 years or so, probably far, far longer. Provided it is used and allocated properly.

    My god .. the waste is incredible. Should all hang your heads in shame…to be blunt. What a wasteful society you have become.

    Never mind, you are all saved, Wall Street ‘sees an opportunity’ … to make money for itself.

  2. Please don’t distribute misinformation.
    Twenty basic points concerning California’s water supply:
    1- California’s climate ranges from rain forest with winter rain and summer fog to desert, but most residents live in areas with a summer-dry and winter-wet Mediterranean climate.
    2 – The annual rainfall varies considerably year-to-year perhaps in a ratio of 5-10 to one. Temperate areas have variations of about 2:1. Example: 1862 saw flooding rains that destroyed 1/3 of all accessed valuation in the state, 2 years later the Los Angles cattle industry collapsed from drought.
    3 – Droughts in the past have been multi-generational measured in decades.
    4 – The annual dry season lasts for at least 6-9 months.
    5 – Despite an arid climate, the state has enormous developed water resources.
    6 – About 50% of all runoff is captured for use.
    7 – Almost all large dam sites are already used, perhaps four remain.
    8 – All dams have at least 3 purposes, rain/river water capture (early rainy season), snow melt storage (late season) and flood control. These are mutually incompatible, i.e. you can’t save water in dam which might be needed to .
    9 – There is no provision for long term storage for a multiple-year drought due to the expense and the need to provide flood control. About 3 years is all that is practical.
    10 – Total state use is about 80 million acre-feet per year.
    11 – 80% of all water is used in agriculture at highly subsidized rates.
    12 – 20% of all water is used in urban areas of which 1/2 irrigates landscapes costing about 5-10 times the ag rate.
    13 – Extraction of water from the Sacramento Delta depends on inflow because of volume limitations and salt intrusion from San Francisco Bay, not fish preservation or regulations.
    14 – There is no state-wide regulation of ground water although some areas have what are called adjudicated basins.
    15 – Recycled water use is small but growing because it is very expensive to retrofit urban areas.
    16 – Desalinated sea water is expensive for urban areas and prohibitive for farming. While useful in a drought, when rains make water cheap again, people don’t want to pay the costs.
    17 – Cities like Los Angeles and San Diego, contrary to popular opinion, are located where water resources were available. They did start to out run local resources in the early-20th century which required the replumbing of the state.
    18 – Despite roadside signs proclaiming “Congress created deserts” in the Central Valley, these are really Congress created farms where none were before. Ag water is heavily subsidized by urban area water customers and taxpayers.
    19 – Conservation efforts have saved considerable water in urban areas and crop changes have reduced some ag water use.
    20 – In the future reuse will be an imperative, above ground storage won’t change much, aquifers will become the storage location of choice and conservation will grow even more critical.


  3. Pingback: Lessons learned from the end of California’s “permanent drought” | Watts Up With That?

  4. Pingback: California’s past megafloods – and the coming ARkStorm | Watts Up With That?

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