open_resource : ideas, points of view
and solutions from the actors of the resource revolution



← Back Issues  

Risk of “mega-droughts” in the United States according to NASA

20.03.2015

A study co-authored by NASA and published last month in the journal Science Advances shines a light on the risk of “mega-droughts” in the Unites States – a critical forecast that researchers associate with climate change and that will have an impact on agriculture and the management of water resources.

Drought constitutes a risk grounded in both the territory and history of the US from the great Dust Bowl of the 1930s to more recent episodes, with eleven of the last fourteen years witnessing droughts affecting most of the western part of the country including California, Nevada and New Mexico.

And this phenomenon is not about to change; by analysing data from the last thousand years, NASA researchers are coming up with alarming scenarios. Mega-droughts, in their opinion, will occur with 80% probability between 2050 and 2099, and will particularly affect the West and the Great Plains.

In addition to their intensity, the duration of these episodes is the most urgent factor as they may last between 30 and 35 years. Toby Ault, climatologist from Cornell University and one of the study’s authors, admits that he was “honestly surprised at how dry the future of these regions will likely be (…). These mega-droughts are like a slow-moving natural disaster.”

The risks associated with these mega-droughts are many: agriculture, vegetation and the supply of water to populations will be impacted. They are above all putting into question how water resources are managed. As groundwater recedes and reservoir levels decline, we must rethink how we manage water resources, especially since this study’s forecasts recall an episode dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries called the “Medieval Warm Period” by climatologists, which reportedly contributed to the collapse of the Anasazi Indian civilization.

To guard against these kinds of risks, solutions are already being proposed in the US such as desalination and reuse.
California, for example, currently lists more than 20 desalination plant projects that will secure the supply of alternative drinking water resources.
In Los Angeles (El Segundo), SUEZ Environnement is operating a wastewater recycling plant that offers optimized water management: 5 different water qualities provide for usage as varied as watering public and private gardens, irrigation, supplying water to refinery boilers and cooling towers, and rebuilding ground water.

These are just some of the solutions designed to respond to current water stress. And in terms of NASA’s forecast, it appears essential to develop these initiatives to limit the impact “mega-droughts” might have on all populations in the American West.

Read the full study on the Science Advances website.