From The Washington Post (Matthew Cappucci, Andrew Freedman, and Jason Samenow):
The drought is exacerbating wildfires and taxing water resources
The drought has already been a major contributor to record wildfire activity in California and Colorado. Its continuation could also deplete rivers, stifle crops and eventually drain water supplies in some Western states.
Nationwide, drought has expanded to its greatest areal coverage since 2013; 72.5 million people are in areas affected by drought. More than one-third of the West is in “extreme” or “exceptional” drought, the two most severe categories, according to the federal government’s U.S. Drought Monitor.
In its winter outlook issued last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) cautioned drought conditions are expected to persist or worsen over large parts of the West during the December through February period, and expand farther east into the central United States.
In recent months, drought has surged to extreme levels along parts of the West Coast, including Northern California, much of Oregon and the Cascades in Washington…
In Colorado, wildfires continue to rage along the Front Range, with evacuations west of Fort Collins and northwest of Boulder. The Cameron Peak Fire, which has torched more than 200,000 acres, is now the largest wildfire in Colorado history, and the CalWood Fire became Boulder County’s largest fire on record when it exploded in size over the weekend. That fire has burned at least 26 homes, though the toll is expected to increase.
This is a very serious situation at the #CalwoodFire burning northwest of #BoulderCO. This area is populated with mountain homes. It’s also very dense with camping and hiking trails…. Taking into account how fast this fire has spread so far, I hope everyone makes it out ok. pic.twitter.com/KSBkhbpjZk
— James Dougherty (@DoughertyKMGH) October 17, 2020
There is no precedent for wildfires this severe igniting so late in the season in the Centennial State. It’s no coincidence that the entirety of Colorado is experiencing a drought for the first time since 2013. Fifty-nine percent of the state is enduring an extreme drought or worse.
2020 has been a particularly bad year for wildfires, obliterating records in California with more than 4.1 million acres scorched. This is more than twice the acreage burned during the previous record wildfire season.
An environment already parched from a lackluster monsoon
The Four Corners region is perhaps the one hit hardest, where prolonged, intense dryness has led to “exceptional drought.”
In New Mexico, an area one and a half times the size of the state of Connecticut is listed by the U.S. Drought Monitor as being in extreme drought. This includes Los Alamos and Santa Fe. Officials have noticed a dramatic decline in river flow rate feeding many aquifers, though there are no immediate drinking water supply concerns. The Drought Monitor includes the observation that “vegetation and native trees are dying” in parts of the state.
An exceptionally weak monsoon has been a major contributor to the ongoing drought in the Southwest…
In August, for example, Santa Fe picked up just one one-hundredth of an inch of rain. It averages 2.6 inches for the month. Since the start of the year, the city has had 5.44 inches of precipitation, less than half the 11.5 inches it would typically have by now.
It’s the second dud monsoon season in a row…
A large percentage of New Mexico’s rainfall — in some places more than half — comes from the monsoon…
Fontenon said that the rangeland in eastern New Mexico is suffering heavily, bringing shades of a drought early in the decade that plagued area farmers between 2011 and 2013.
Nearby in Arizona, Tucson hasn’t seen a drop of rain since August. Since the start of May, less than two inches has fallen. The year as a whole is 60 percent below average on rainfall.
Even farther north, the deficit has hit the Rockies and Intermountain West particularly hard. Grand Junction, Colo., has only seen 4.09 inches of rain this year; by now it should be in the double digits. Salt Lake City is at 7.86 inches. That’s five inches below average…
Extreme drought has also snaked its way into Wyoming, while moderate drought blankets most of Idaho and Montana…
The drought will only worsen
Forecasters at NOAA say that with a developing La Niña event in the Pacific Ocean, drought is likely to prevail and potentially worsen through the winter over large areas of the West…
Little relief in sight for most
But looking ahead, little to no wet weather whatsoever is expected in the Southwest, southern California, or the Four Corners region. And the drought will probably continue, if not intensify…
Climate change’s role
Human-caused climate change is increasing the likelihood of precipitation extremes on both ends of the scale, including droughts as well as heavy rainfall events and resulting floods. Studies consistently show that as the Southwest warms, the odds of drought are increasing.
According to the Federal National Climate Assessment in 2018, climate change intensified the severe drought in California and is worsening drought in the Colorado River Basin. Part of the reasons for this is that climate change makes such droughts hotter than they might’ve been just a few decades ago, which draws more moisture out of soils and vegetation, thereby worsening the drought in a positive feedback loop…
A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Southwest may already be in the midst of the first human-caused megadrought in at least 1,200 years, which began in the year 2000.