Drought in the West

 JUSTIN SULLIVAN/GETTY IMAGES

BEFORE AND AFTER: Lake Oroville shown in April 2017 (inset) and in July 2021, during the height of the drought.

The American West is enduring one of its worst droughts in recorded history. By July 2021, nearly 59 percent of the land in seven Western states was experiencing extreme to exceptional drought (the most intense level of drought). In California, bodies of water called reservoirs are drying up. That’s alarming because they supply water for homes and agriculture, as well as generate electricity via hydropower.

JUSTIN SULLIVAN/GETTY IMAGES

TEARING UP TREES: During the drought, many farmers replaced almond trees, which require extensive watering, with less thirsty crops.

Droughts are nothing new in the West. But scientists think climate change is making these dry periods more frequent—and more severe. Experts agree that rising temperatures increased the severity of the latest drought by causing more water to evaporate, or change from a liquid to a gas. A hotter atmosphere is “thirstier,” sucking moisture from soil and plants, says Ben Cook, a climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. As a result, says Cook, “climate change is making the drought much more extreme.”

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