Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor website.
Click the link to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:
This Week’s Drought Summary
The upper-level circulation over the contiguous U.S. (CONUS) during this U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) week (May 24-30) was dominated by three features: a trough over the West, a ridge that extended from the southern Plains to the Great Lakes, and a cutoff low over the Southeast. This pattern resulted in targeted areas of precipitation, some of it heavy, while large parts of the CONUS received little to no precipitation. Pacific weather systems moved across the West, but their fronts stalled out when they ran into the ridge over the Plains. The northwesterly flow associated with the trough inhibited precipitation across parts of the West, so the week was wetter than normal only from the Great Basin to northern Rockies. A southerly flow over the Plains was created between the western trough and eastern ridge. This flow funneled Gulf of Mexico moisture across the Plains. The moisture fed thunderstorms and weather complexes that developed along the stalled-out fronts and dry lines, resulting in above-normal precipitation across western portions of the Great Plains from Texas to Montana. Several inches of rain fell with some of these thunderstorms, resulting in localized flooding. The ridge inhibited precipitation, so a large part of the country from the Mississippi River to the Northeast received little to no precipitation. The exception to this was the Southeast, where the cutoff low pulled in Gulf and Atlantic moisture to spread above-normal precipitation across much of Florida and the Carolinas to Appalachians. Weekly temperatures averaged cooler than normal from the southern Plains to East Coast, but they were warmer than normal across the northern Plains and northern parts of the West. Abnormal dryness or drought spread across a large part of the Midwest and Northeast, and in parts of the Pacific Northwest, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii. Drought or abnormal dryness contracted across the Florida peninsula, across large areas in the western Great Plains, and in northwest Puerto Rico…
Locally heavy rain fell over western parts of the High Plains region while eastern parts had a dry week. Several stations in southwest Nebraska received over 5 inches of rain during this USDM week, with 10 inches reported near McCook. The rain replenished soil moisture, but caused extensive flooding. The rain caused a 2-category improvement in drought conditions in southwest Nebraska. Two inches or more of rain fell in localized parts of northeast Colorado, western Kansas, northeast Wyoming, and the western Dakotas, prompting pullback of abnormal dryness or moderate to exceptional drought. But continued dry conditions in the eastern portions of the region resulted in expansion of abnormal dryness or moderate drought in the Dakotas, abnormal dryness to extreme drought in eastern Kansas, and severe to exceptional drought in eastern Nebraska. Based on May 28 USDA data, 69% of the winter wheat crop in Kansas and 51% in Nebraska was in poor to very poor condition, and more than 40% of the topsoil moisture was short or very short in Nebraska (57%), Kansas (50%), and South Dakota (46%). More than two-thirds of the subsoil moisture was short or very short in Nebraska (75%) and Kansas (68%)…
Half an inch of rain fell over parts of northern California and from Nevada to the northern Rockies, with much of Montana receiving 2 or more inches. Eastern parts of New Mexico were soaked by 2 to locally over 4 inches of rain, with over 7 inches recorded near Texico. But the rest of the southern third of the West region, and most of Oregon and Washington, received little to no precipitation. D1-D3 were pulled back in eastern New Mexico, and D0-D2 were trimmed in Montana. But D0 expanded in parts of Oregon and Washington where the last 30 days have been unusually warm and dry, soils were drying, and streamflow was decreasing, and D0-D1 expanded in Yellowstone National Park and adjacent southwest Montana. May 28 USDA data revealed 60% of the topsoil moisture in Oregon, 52% in New Mexico, and 48% in Washington was short or very short…
Western parts of the South region were wet, while eastern parts were mostly dry. Extreme eastern Tennessee received some rain from the Southeast’s cutoff low, but dry conditions dominated across Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. D0 expanded in parts of these states. Heavy rain inundated parts of western Texas and Oklahoma, causing contraction of abnormal dryness and moderate (D1) to exceptional (D4) drought. Over 5 inches of rain was recorded at several stations in the Texas panhandle. Soils were wet, streamflow was high, and 6-month precipitation deficits were erased across much of the Texas panhandle. D3 (extreme drought) expanded in Oklahoma just east of where it rained. May 28 USDA data revealed 40% of the winter wheat crop in Texas was in poor to very poor condition…
For June 1-6, an upper-level ridge will dominate the middle part of North America, bringing above-normal temperatures to the north central states and Pacific Northwest. Upper-level troughs and closed lows will cover much of the West and New England, bringing cooler-than-normal temperatures to New England and southern parts of the West to the southern Plains. Like the last 7 days, a southerly flow of Gulf of Mexico moisture will feed showers and storms that develop from the Rockies to the Mississippi River during the next 7 days. An inch or more of rain is forecast from the southern Plains to northern Rockies, with locally 4 inches or more from the Texas panhandle to southern Kansas, and locally 2 inches or more in parts of Colorado to Montana. A fourth of an inch or more can be expected from California’s Sierra Nevada to the Great Basin, across the northern Plains to Mississippi Valley, in the Tennessee Valley, across the Gulf of Mexico coast, and along the Appalachians to Northeast. New England may see over an inch of rain, while much of the Florida peninsula will be inundated with another 2+ inches of rain. Little to no precipitation is predicted for the eastern Great Lakes to Ohio Valley, the interior Southeast, and southern and western portions of the West.
For June 6-14, a warmer-than-normal pattern is likely for the Pacific Northwest to western Great Lakes, the northern half of Alaska, and the Alaska panhandle, with cooler-than-normal temperatures across southern portions of the West, the southern Plains, and from the Appalachians to New England. Odds favor wetter-than-normal conditions across the West, southern Plains, western portions of the central to northern Plains, and the southwest half of Alaska, with drier-than-normal conditions across the Great Lakes, Upper Mississippi Valley, Ohio Valley, and northeast Alaska.
Soil moisture is dropping rapidly in the mid-South, Midwest and Northeast.
Click the link to read the article on the Sky-Hi News website (Kyle McCabe). Here’s an excerpt:
The river district’s Public Relations Director Marielle Cowdin spoke about the district’s work. She highlighted the Colorado River’s crisis, saying that the increased precipitation over the last year will not save the river…Cowdin talked about the water consumption differences between the upper and lower basin states, highlighting that upper basin states make cuts more effectively because they do not have massive reservoirs like Lake Mead or Lake Powell to rely on in drier years.
“Between 2020 and 2021, the four upper basin states cut our water consumption by 1 million acre-feet — just on our own because the water wasn’t there,” Cowdin said. “Instead of about 4.5 million acre-feet of water use, in that year timeframe, we only used 3.5 (million).”
The lower basin states’ 2020-21 consumption went up 600,000 acre-feet from their average use, Cowdin said. The annual water usage split between the states has been about 60%, or around 8.8 million acre-feet, used by the lower basin versus 30%, or around 4.4 million acre-feet, used by the upper basin, with the remaining water going to Mexico…
The next speaker, Rebecca Mitchell, the Colorado Water Conservation Board director and Colorado’s commissioner to the Upper Colorado River Commission, was the special guest at the event. She spoke about the Bureau of Reclamation’s Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) and news that broke about it the day of the meeting. Mitchell explained that the bureau’s SEIS came after the lower basin states did not respond to the bureau’s June 2022 announcement that states needed to cut 2-4 million acre-feet. That announcement, she said, was not a surprise to those working on the Colorado River…Differences between the upper and lower basin states came up several times in Mitchell’s talk. She mentioned that the six-state plan, which included all states besides California, acknowledged that the upper states have shortages annually because, unlike the lower states, they do not have huge reservoirs from which to draw…On May 22, the day of the meeting, the bureau announced a pause on the SEIS. Mitchell explained that the lower basin states had presented a plan which included temporary cuts that would amount to 3 million acre-feet from 2024-26 but provided few details on how cuts would be enforced.
“Instead of coming up with 2-4 million on an annual basis, they were like, ‘Hey, there’s all this money … we can kick the can a little bit more, and we can use this money and make some temporary changes,” Mitchell said of the lower basin states.
Click the link to read the article on The Denver Post website (Judith Kohler). Here’s an excerpt:
Across the Denver area, local governments, water utilities, homebuilders and developers are employing a number of strategies to meet the demands for housing, respond to growth and strive to ensure the long-term supply of the resource essential to a future in this semi-arid region: water. Agriculture consumes the lion’s share of Colorado’s water, about 90%, while municipal uses account for 7% of the total.
“When you start off with that number, I think it’s really easy for people to say, ‘Why does municipal water use even matter? Why are we even worried or focused on this?’ That’s a question I answer a lot,” said Lindsay Rogers, a water policy analyst with Western Resource Advocates.
One response is that state water planners say municipalities could face a shortfall of as much as 740,000 acre-feet of water by 2050…
Harold Smethills, Sterling Ranch co-founder and chairman, doesn’t want to see large portions of Colorado’s agricultural land dried up. Smethills, who has a ranch, leases land on the development south of Chatfield State Park to a cattle operation…No water-thirsty Kentucky bluegrass is allowed at Sterling Ranch, which has about 5,000 residents. The company worked with the Denver Botanic Gardens to identify roughly 155 different plants that use less water, many with the added bonus of attracting bees and other pollinators. The water meters in the homes tracks indoor and outdoor use and have revealed leaks when staff at the Dominion Water and Sanitation District noticed water use shoot up. Residents are also able to keep an eye on their water bills.
Click the link to read the article on the Carbon Brief website (Ayesha Tandon):
The new study develops the idea of “planetary boundaries“, first set out in an influential 2009 paper. The paper had defined a set of interlinked thresholds that it said would ensure a “safe operating space for humanity”. Its authors had warned that crossing these thresholds “could have disastrous consequences”.
The new study – published in Nature and written by many of the same authors – gives the concept an important update by introducing a “justice” framework.
This includes “rejecting human exceptionalism” by focusing on all species and ecosystems, emphasising intergenerational justice and examining local-scale impacts.
The authors find that adding “justice considerations” often makes the planetary boundaries stricter, warning that seven of the eight “safe and just” global Earth-system limits have already been breached.
“There is no safe planet without justice,” a study author says. She explains that the new thresholds “define the environmental conditions needed not only for the planet to remain stable, but to enable societies, economies and ecosystems across the globe to thrive”.
However, a researcher not involved in the study warns against allowing a “self-selected group of scientists” to define the planetary “safe space”.
He tells Carbon Brief that this approach is “divisive and not the way to address the global challenges of the Anthropocene”.
Human activity puts pressure on the Earth in a range of ways, from surface warming to biodiversity loss. In 2009, a team of scientists set out to quantify how much humans can use the Earth’s resources without putting themselves and the planet in danger.
The team – led by Prof Johan Rockström, now the joint director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research – published a landmark paper in 2009. The paper identifies nine interlinked global systems and sets a “planetary boundary” for each. Staying within all of those limits ensures a “safe operating space for humanity”, the study claims.
The 2009 work has been cited widely in academia, including in a key report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, forms the cornerstone for a theory of economic development known as “doughnut economics” and was featured in a 2021 Netflix documentary starring Rockström alongside Sir David Attenborough.
But the framework has also attracted criticism.
Prof Simon Lewis, a global change scientist at University College London and the University of Leeds, wrote a commentary piece at the time calling the idea “conceptually brilliant and politically seductive”, but warning that “boundaries could spread political will thinly”, adding that the will to act “is already weak”.
In response to the original paper, Prof Ruth DeFries, the co-founding dean of the Columbia Climate School, led a study on “planetary opportunities” – emphasising the ability of societies to adapt to changing conditions. DeFries, who was not involved in the 2009 study or the new paper, tells Carbon Brief:
“We wrote the ‘planetary opportunities’ paper to counter the idea that there is a hard and fast global-scale limit to the use of resources, without regard for the ability of societies to adapt to change or overcome negative externalities of technologies.”
An “updated and extended analysis” of the planetary-boundaries framework was published in 2015. The authors identified climate change and biosphere integrity as “core” boundaries, stating that either has the potential on its own to “drive the Earth system into a new state”, if breached.
In 2017, Dr Jose Montoya – a senior scientist at France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique – published a critique of the planetary boundaries concept, arguing that “the notion of a ‘safe operating space for biodiversity’ is vague and encourages harmful policies”.
Rockström and his team called the piece “a vitriolic and highly opinionated critique of the planetary boundaries framework based on a fundamental misrepresentation of the framework”.
‘Safe and just’
In 2019, Rockström co-founded the Earth Commission – an international team of natural and social scientists – to advance the planetary boundaries framework.
Since then, the team focused on improving “justice and equity”, as well as establishing “quantitative scientific targets from the local to the global scale” and “the ability to translate the science into operational implementation on the ground”, Rockström told a press briefing on the new study.
Now, more than a decade after planetary boundaries were first proposed, the updated Earth-system boundaries framework explores how to keep the planet stable while minimising “significant harm” to humans and other species, using a “justice framework”.
The authors select five of the nine original planetary systems – climate, biosphere, water, nutrients and air pollution – and identify eight key, quantifiable indicators that can monitor these systems.
These indicators – including warming level, area of natural ecosystems and surface-water flow – were “carefully chosen” to be “implementable for stakeholders in cities, businesses, countries across the world”, Rockström told a press briefing.
For each indicator, the authors assess the conditions needed to avoid “significant harm” at both global and local scales, taking into account the following justice considerations:
- Interspecies justice: prioritising other species and ecosystems in addition to humanity.
- Intergenerational justice: considering how actions taken today will impact future generations.
- Intragenerational justice: accounting for factors including race, class and gender, which “underpin inequality, vulnerability and the capacity to respond” to changes in planetary systems.
The paper defines significant harm as “severe existential or irreversible negative impacts on countries, communities and individuals”.
(The challenging and subjective nature of summarising complex, geographically variable risks into single, global thresholds is at the heart of much of the criticism of the planetary boundaries concept.)
“There is obviously no one way to quantify justice,” says Dr Steve Lade, a researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre who is an author on the new study. He tells Carbon Brief that this paper looks at exposure to “significant harm”, but notes that other studies by members of the team have delved into other aspects of justice, such as access to resources.
The graphic below shows the eight global Earth-system boundaries proposed in the study. The red and blue lines show the “safe” and “just” boundaries, respectively. The green shading shows where the safe and just boundaries align. The icons of the Earth show the state of the planet today. Where this image sits outside of the red, blue and green circles, the global Earth-system boundary has already been breached, according to the researchers.
The authors find that adding “justice considerations” makes many of their boundaries more strict. As a result, seven of the eight “safe and just” global Earth-system boundaries have already been breached.
(Looking at “safe” boundaries alone, six of eight have already been breached, but the Earth’s climate currently remains within the “safe” threshold, according to the paper.)
Prof Joyeeta Gupta, a professor of environment and development at the University of Amsterdam and co-founder of the Earth Commission, is an author on the new study. She told a press briefing that “there is no safe planet without justice”.
She said the new thresholds “define the environmental conditions needed not only for the planet to remain stable, but to enable societies, economies and ecosystems across the globe to thrive”.
Climate change is the first Earth-system boundary discussed in depth in the paper. It is the only one with a “relatively well-established and implemented methodology”, the authors write.
The authors find that a global warming level of 1C above pre-industrial levels exposes tens of millions of people to temperature “extremes” – defined as wet bulb temperatures of greater than 35C for at least one day per year.
They warn that, at 1.5C, more than 200 million people – disproportionately those already vulnerable, poor and marginalised – could be exposed to “unprecedented” average annual temperatures.
The paper proposes a “safe” surface warming boundary of 1.5C and a “safe and just” boundary of 1C. The planet has already warmed by 1.2C, on average, meaning that the “safe and just” boundary has already been breached.
This study is the first to assess Earth-system boundaries at a local scale, rather than analysing the planet as a whole. This allows the authors to determine which boundaries have been crossed in specific regions and to identify “hotspots” for breached boundaries.
The map below shows the number of Earth-system boundaries that have already been breached in different regions, where darker colours indicate more boundaries breached.
The authors find that two or more “safe and just” earth system boundaries have been breached across 52% of the world’s land surface, affecting 86% of the global population.
Carbon Brief spoke to a range of scientists about the new study.
Dr Åsa Persson, research director at the Stockholm Environment Institute, is an author on the 2009 paper, but was not involved in the new study. She tells Carbon Brief that the new study is a “significant scientific contribution”. She adds:
“I commend the authors for not oversimplifying justice, but considering its many dimensions in a nuanced, yet workable way.”
However, she says that in her view, “some questions on interdependencies between boundaries remain unanswered”.
DeFries tells Carbon Brief that the focus on localised impacts makes the new study more “nuanced” than the 2009 paper. She adds that the planetary-boundary concept is “intuitively appealing”, but warns that the complexity of the Earth system “makes the task of defining a limit extremely difficult”.
Dr Jose Montoya is very critical of the new framework, saying the scientific basis is “weak”. He maintains that “there are no safe operating spaces”, telling Carbon Brief:
“Even small disturbances can have very large effects on ecosystems at different scales.”
Prof Frank Biermann – a professor of global sustainability governance at Utrecht University, who was not involved in the study – conducted a “critical appraisal” of the planetary boundaries concept in 2020.
Biermann welcomes that the paper now seeks to address questions of global justice. However, he tells Carbon Brief that he feels the “definitions of justice and societal values” presented by the authors “in essence, belong in the political space”.
Prof Erle Ellis from the University of Maryland co-authored the planetary opportunity paper with DeFries. He tells Carbon Brief that he appreciates the inclusion of social justice in this “expanded and more nuanced framework”. However, he says there are “issues relating to the way this work was produced”.
“The planetary boundaries framework originated with a self-selected group of scientists deciding what the ‘environmental safe space for humanity’ was – without any input from ‘humanity’.
“Now, after naming itself the ‘Earth Commission’, this small group will now also decide the planetary ‘safe space’ in terms of social justice?
“This kind of unilateral ‘scientific’/expert setting of limits – environmental or social – is divisive and not the way to address the global challenges of the Anthropocene, which can only succeed through increasing cooperation, trust and negotiations across all concerned.”
Study author Gupta tells Carbon Brief about the importance of “procedural justice” in interpreting these results. She says:
“Procedural justice requires these numbers to be talked about and debated, and if people come up with better numbers, or better suggestions, then we’re open to their critique.
“This is just a proposal about safe and just boundaries. And it remains to be debated in the political sphere before it’s adopted…We are not dictating anything to anybody.”