Cities worldwide aren’t preparing for climate change quickly enough, and it’s putting millions of people at risk

New York City
Coastal cities like New York could be threatened by floods and rising sea levels.

  • Urban issues expert John Rennie Short says cities aren’t prepared for how quickly climate change is accelerating.
  • Depending on their location, cities may experience water shortages, severe drought, heavier storm seasons, and flooding.
  • Cities in temperate latitudes need to be ready for more heat waves and shorter cold seasons, Short says.

Climate change is magnifying threats such as flooding, wildfires, tropical storms, and drought. In 2020 the US experienced a record-breaking 22 weather and climate disasters that each caused at least US $1 billion in damage. So far in 2021, the count stands at 18.

I study urban issues and have analyzed cities’ relationship with nature for many years. As I see it, cities are quickly becoming more vulnerable to extreme weather events and permanent shifts in their climate zones.

I am concerned that the pace of climate change is accelerating much more rapidly than urban areas are taking steps to adapt to it. In 1950, only 30% of the world’s population lived in urban areas; Today that figure is 56%, and it is projected to rise to 68% by 2050. Failure to adapt urban areas to climate change will put millions of people at risk.

Extreme weather and long-term climate zone shifts

As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows in its latest report, released in August 2021, global climate change is widespread, rapid, and accelerating. For cities in temperate latitudes, this means more heat waves and shorter cold seasons. In subtropical and tropical latitudes, it means wetter rainy seasons and hotter dry seasons. Most coastal cities will be threatened by sea level rise.

Around the globe, cities will face a much higher probability of extreme weather events. Depending on their locations, these will include heavier snowfalls, more severe drought, water shortages, punishing heat waves, greater flooding, more wildfires, bigger storms, and longer storm seasons. The heaviest costs will be borne by their most vulnerable residents: the old, the poor, and others who lack wealth and political connections to protect themselves.

Extreme weather isn’t the only concern. A 2019 study of 520 cities around the world projected that even if nations limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius (about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial conditions, climate zones will shift hundreds of miles northward by 2050 worldwide. This would cause 77% of the cities in the study to experience a major change in their year-round climate regimes.

For example, the study authors predicted that by midcentury, London’s climate will resemble that of modern-day Barcelona, and Seattle’s will be like current conditions in San Francisco. In short, in less than 30 years, three out of every four major cities in the world will have a completely different climate from the one for which its urban form and infrastructure were designed.

A similar study of climate change impacts on more than 570 European cities predicted that they will face an entirely new climate regime within 30 years – one characterized by more heat waves and droughts, and increased risk of flooding.

Mitigating climate change

Cities’ responses to climate change fall into two broad categories: mitigating (reducing) emissions that drive climate change, and adapting to effects that can’t be averted.

Cities produce more than 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions, mainly from heating and cooling buildings and powering cars, trucks and other vehicles. Urbanization also makes people more vulnerable to climate change impacts.

For example, as cities expand, people clear vegetation, which can increase the risk of flooding and sea level rise. They also create impermeable surfaces that don’t absorb water, such as roads and buildings.

This contributes to flooding risks and produces urban heat islands – zones where temperatures are hotter than in outlying areas. A recent study found that the urban heat island in Jakarta, Indonesia, expanded in recent years as more land was developed for housing, businesses, industry and warehouses.

But cities are also important sources of innovation. For example, the inaugural Oberlander Prize for landscape architecture was awarded on Oct. 14, 2021, to US landscape architect Julie Bargemen for re-imagining polluted and neglected urban sites. And the prestigious Pritzker Architectural Prize went this year to French architects Anne Lacaton and Jean-Phillipe Vassal for creating resilient buildings by transforming existing structures instead of demolishing them to make room for new construction.

Just 25 of the world’s cities account for 52% of total urban greenhouse gas emissions. This means that focusing on these cities can make a huge difference to the arc of long-term warming.

Cities worldwide are pursuing a rich variety of mitigation measures, such as electrifying mass transit, cooling with green buildings and introducing low-carbon building codes. I see these steps as a source of hope in the medium to long term.

Adaptating too slowly

In contrast, adaptation in the shorter term is moving much more sluggishly. This isn’t to say that nothing is happening. For example, Chicago is developing policies that anticipate a hotter and wetter climate. They include repaving streets with permeable materials that allow water to filter through to the underlying soil, planting trees to absorb air pollutants and stormwater runoff, and providing tax incentives to install green roofs as cooling features on office buildings. Similar plans are moving forward in cities around the world.

But reshaping cities in a timely manner can be extremely expensive. In response to levee failures that inundated New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the US government spent more than $14 billion to build an improved flood control system for the city, which was completed in 2018. But many other cities around the world face similar threats, and few of them – especially in developing countries – can afford such an ambitious program.

Time is also a critical resource as the pace of climate change accelerates. In the European Union, about 75% of buildings are not energy efficient. A 2020 report from the European Commission predicted that it would take 50 years to make those buildings more sustainable and resilient to shifting climate conditions.

At best, urban infrastructures that were built for previous climate regimes and less extreme weather events can only be changed at a rate of about 3% per year. At that rate, which would be difficult even for the wealthiest cities in the world to maintain, it will take decades to make cities more sustainable and resilient. And the most vulnerable city dwellers live in fast-growing cities in the developing world, such as Dhaka, Bangladesh, Lagos, Nigeria, and Manila, Philipines, where local governments rarely have enough resources to make the expensive changes that are needed.

Remaking cities worldwide quickly enough to deal with more extreme weather events and new climate regimes requires massive investments in new ideas, practices, and skills. I see this challenge as an ecological crisis, but also as an economic opportunity – and a chance to make cities more equitable for the 21st century and beyond.

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Heatwaves and droughts have decimated some Christmas tree crops, and industry groups are warning of impending shortages: ‘Find and buy your Christmas tree early’

Man with chainsaw walks among Christmas trees on Oregon farm
A Christmas tree harvest at a tree farm in Salem, Oregon.

  • Live Christmas trees may be in short supply this year due to the effects of climate change.
  • Drought and heatwaves have decimated crops in Oregon, where the most trees are grown nationwide.
  • There is also a shortage of artificial Christmas trees amid ongoing supply chain issues.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

You may have a harder time than usual finding a live Christmas tree this holiday season.

That’s according to the American Christmas Tree Association, a group that represents the Christmas tree industry nationwide. ACTA warned this week that it’s expecting a shortage of live trees this year due to the effects of climate change.

Christmas-tree-growers in the Pacific Northwest have seen their crops decimated this year due to drought and heat waves. One grower, Mark Wonser, recently told The Oregonian that he estimates he’s lost 90% of his Christmas tree crop this year due to extreme heat. He said he planted 13,500 trees this past May, only to see nine acres scorched in the heat.

Christmas trees typically take between eight and 12 years to reach maturity, meaning that the decimation of this year’s seedlings could be felt as late as 2029 and beyond.

Jacob Hemphill, a grower based in Oregon City, Oregon, told The New York Times in July that his seedlings were wiped out by heat waves and that many of his mature trees were damaged too – he estimated the destruction could cost him upwards for $100,000.

“The second day of the heat, it was 116. I came in the driveway that night and seen the trees were basically cooking. Burnt down to nothing,” Hemphill told Reuters.

Oregon is the nation’s leading grower of Christmas trees, according to another industry group, the National Christmas Tree Association. But the drought, and the wildfires that follow, have wreaked havoc on growers: Since 2015, the acreage growing trees decreased by 24%, and the total number of trees sold dropped 27%, according to data from the US Department of Agriculture.

But even before climate change began to take its toll on the industry, live Christmas trees had been short supply. Over-planting in the late 1990s meant that there was an oversupply of trees at the onset of the 2008 Recession. At the same time, land was becoming less affordable, and farmers impacted by the financial crisis planted fewer trees. Because of the length of time it takes a tree to grow, the industry began to see an impact starting in 2016.

And last year, as the pandemic raged throughout the winter, shoppers scrambled to buy live trees in an effort to create a festive atmosphere in their homes.

Live trees represent only a small portion of overall Christmas tree sales. According to ACTA data, while 94 million US households displayed a tree in 2020, only 15% were live. But if you’re thinking of purchasing an artificial tree instead, good luck: Ongoing supply chain disruptions mean that artificial trees are in short supply and prices are spiking by up to 25%.

“We hope that every person who wants a Christmas tree will find their perfect tree this year,” Jami Warner, ACTA’s executive director, said in a statement. “If I can give one piece of advice to consumers right now, it is to find and buy your Christmas tree early. “

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Droughts have killed the most people in the world’s worst natural disasters over the last 50 years

Empty boat docks sit on dry land at the Browns Ravine Cove area of drought-stricken Folsom Lake, currently at 37% of its normal capacity, in Folsom, Calif., Saturday, May 22, 2021.
Empty boat docks sit on dry land at the Browns Ravine Cove area of drought-stricken Folsom Lake, currently at 37% of its normal capacity, in Folsom, Calif., Saturday, May 22, 2021.

  • Droughts killed the most people of the world’s most deadly weather-related disasters, the UN said.
  • A new report released Tuesday highlights an increase in weather-related disasters but fewer deaths.
  • More than 90% of deaths occured in developing countries.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Droughts are the leading cause of death from the world’s worst disasters in the last 50 years, according to a report the World Meteorological Organization released on Tuesday.

The UN agency’s report, which considered more than 11,000 weather disasters over the past half-century, highlighted four specific droughts that occured in eastern Africa in the 1970s and 1980s as the leading killers. In all, droughts killed 650,000 people. The next biggest cause of death from disasters was storms, with more than 575,000 deaths.

Disasters related to weather, climate, or water hazards happen five times more often now than they did in the 1970s, but the deaths they cause have decreased significantly, the report said.

The 1970s and 1980s saw an average of 170 deaths per day, which fell to 90 in the 1990s. In the 2010s, there were 40 deaths per day related to weather disasters.

More than 90% of the deaths occurred in developing counties, the report said.

Meanwhile, economic damage stemming from these disasters has increased seven-fold over the last 50 years, according to the report. The six costliest disasters were all the result of hurricanes in the US, racking up more than $517 billion in economic losses combined.

“The number of weather, climate and water extremes are increasing and will become more frequent and severe in many parts of the world as a result of climate change,” WMO Secretary-General Prof. Petteri Taalas said in a statement. “That means more heatwaves, drought and forest fires such as those we have observed recently in Europe and North America. We have more water vapor in the atmosphere, which is exacerbating extreme rainfall and deadly flooding. The warming of the oceans has affected the frequency and area of existence of the most intense tropical storms.”

He said the global community has become better at saving lives due to improved multi-hazard early warning systems, despite only half of the 193-member countries of the WMO actually having these systems.

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Water cuts are coming to Arizona and Nevada after the US declared the first-ever Colorado River water shortage

lake mead dry bathtub ring
A person looks out over Lake Mead on August 13, 2021. The bathtub ring of light minerals shows the high water mark of the reservoir which has fallen to record lows.

For the first time ever, the US federal government has declared a water shortage on the Colorado River.

That’s because Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, is lower than it’s ever been. It provides water to 25 million people across Arizona, Nevada, California, and Mexico, but as of Monday it’s at just 1,067 feet above sea level – about 35% full.

The federal water-shortage declaration means that Arizona and Nevada will face mandatory water cut-backs in January. The cuts will mostly affect farmers in Arizona; the state will lose about one-fifth of the water it normally gets from the river, according to The Associated Press.

“It’s very significant,” Brad Udall, senior water and climate scientist at Colorado State University, told CNN. “It’s something that those of us in the climate community have been worried about for over a decade, based on declining flows due to climate change.”

buoy on dry land next to lake mead
A buoy rests on the ground at a closed boat ramp on Lake Mead, August 13, 2021

The US is experiencing its worst drought in the 20-year history of the US Drought Monitor, which tracks such conditions across the country. Last week, 26.5% of the country was in “extreme” or “exceptional” drought.

Such droughts will probably become more common and more intense as global temperatures continue to rise in the coming decades, according to a new report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last week. Rising temperatures will also reduce the snowpack that would normally replenish the Colorado River every year. That could lead to more severe water cutbacks.

lake mead's low waters expose pale cliffs behind the hoover dam
Low water levels expose the edges of the Hoover Dam reservoir of Lake Mead near Las Vegas, Nevada, June 9, 2021.

The water-shortage declaration came with an August report from the US Bureau of Reclamation, which projected that Lake Mead would not rise back above 1,075 feet by January. Under a set of Colorado River guidelines established in 2007, that low forecast is considered a shortage condition.

The new restrictions for Arizona and Nevada are the first tier of cuts under those guidelines.

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The amount of warming that world leaders collectively agreed to avoid? It’s inevitable in the next 20 years, a new report shows.

Dixie Fire in California.
The Dixie Fire torches homes in Indian Falls, California, on July 25, 2021.

  • In the Paris climate agreement, world leaders agreed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
  • But new UN report found that goal is now impossible: By 2040, Earth will warm by at least that much.
  • For every half-a-degree of warming, the frequency and intensity of heat waves and drought increase.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

When world leaders from 195 countries gathered in Paris almost six years ago, they agreed to try to cut greenhouse-gas emissions enough to keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

According to a new climate report, however, Earth’s temperature is set to blow past that mark in the next 20 years – under any conceivable scenario of future emissions.

The findings, released on Monday, come from the sixth climate assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – a United Nations body that recruits hundreds of scientists from across the globe to synthesize years of climate research and modeling.

The report found that human-driven emissions have already caused the planet to warm by 1.1 degrees in the last 170 years, and that warming trend will continue until over the next two to three decades to some degree, regardless of how much emissions drop.

What climate change will look like in the short term

california drought Lake Mendocino 2021
Kayakers make a long trek to the water’s edge at a drought-stricken Lake Mendocino, currently at 29% of normal capacity, in Ukiah, California, May 23, 2021.

Global temperatures have risen faster in the last 50 years than any other 50-year period in the last 2,000 years. That’s because humanity emitted about 2.4 trillion tons of carbon dioxide between 1850 and 2019. Every trillion tons causes the world’s average temperature to increase roughly 0.45 degrees Celsius (0.9 degrees Fahrenheit).

The IPCC report outlined five potential future scenarios, each of which assumes a different quantity of carbon emissions between now and the year 2100. So the scenarios all result in different levels of warming.

Even if emissions drop to net zero in the next 30 years – the IPCC authors’ best-case scenario – the global temperature will rise at least 1.5 degrees between now and 2040, the report found. In the worst-case scenario, in which emissions double by 2050, temperatures would rise 2.4 degrees above pre-industrial levels between 2041 and 2060. Then that increase would nearly double by 2100.

If the best-case situation played out, though, temperatures would eventually dip back down, dropping below the 1.5-degree mark by the end of the century.

Some changes in ocean heat and sea-level rise are locked in until 2100

nuuk greenland ice melt
Small pieces of ice float in the water in Nuuk, Greenland on June 13, 2019, following a heat wave in Europe that caused record ice melt in Greenland.

Even in the best-case scenario, the authors found, the ocean warming observed between 1971 and 2018 will double. Waters will also get more acidic and lose oxygen, which can devastate marine life and alter currents that are critical to seasonal weather patterns in the Northern Hemisphere. These changes will be irreversible for the next hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

The report shows as well that glaciers will keep melting for decades or even centuries, and the Greenland Ice Sheet will continue losing ice until 2100 (the Antarctic Ice Sheet will most likely do the same). Because this contributes to sea-level rise, it is virtually certain that oceans will continue rising through the end of this century.

In the best case scenario, the IPCC authors said, oceans will rise by nearly a foot over the next 80 years.

smokestack poland climate change eu
Clouds of smoke over a power plant in Belchatow, Poland, November 2018.

Avoiding 1.5 degrees of warming was the Paris agreement’s ideal scenario, though it set 2 degrees as the threshold never to cross. To make sure we stay under that, the new report says, we have about 900 billion tons of carbon left in our budget. In 2019, emissions reached about 37 billion tons – so if that rate continues and no carbon gets removed from the atmosphere, we’d have about 25 years of emissions left.

Still, the impacts a 2-degree temperature increase will have on weather – including extreme heat and heavy precipitation – will be dramatically more severe. For every half-degree of warming, the frequency and intensity of heat waves and droughts increase. At the same time, the planet’s permafrost, snow cover, glaciers, ice sheets, and Arctic sea ice shrinks.

7 fast facts from the IPCC report

People in the water looking at a hill with smoke rising
A helicopter responds to a forest fire in the Marmaris district of Mugla, Turkey on July 31, 2021.

The UN created the IPCC in 1988 to inform policymakers about how the climate is changing. This is its sixth assessment of existing scientific research.

For these reports, hundreds of scientists from across the globe comb through thousands of scientific papers. They assess how the climate is changing, the impacts of those changes, risks for the future, and what can be done. Almost all the observations and predictions in the report are assigned a level of likelihood or certainty.

Monday’s report is just the first part of the IPCC’s sixth assessment. The second and third will be released in early 2022.

Other key findings from the new report include:

  • The global temperature between 2001 and 2020 was about 1 degree Celsius higher than it was between 1850 and 1900.
  • The world’s average sea level rose by about half a foot (0.2 meters) between 1901 and 2018. The rate of annual sea-level rise nearly tripled during that time.
  • In 2019, the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere was higher than at any time in at least 2 million years. Concentrations of methane and nitrous oxide – more potent greenhouse gases than CO2 – were higher than at any time in at least 800,000 years.
  • Average yearly Arctic sea-ice levels between 2001 and 2020 were their lowest since 1850. The Arctic is likely to have a sea-ice free September at least once before 2050.
  • Major tropical cyclones, heat waves, and heavy precipitation events have increased in frequency around the globe over the last four decades.
  • Combinations of extreme events like heavy rainfall and hurricane-caused storm surge, paired with rising sea levels, will continue to make flooding more likely in coming decades.
  • The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, an ocean current that carries warm water north and cold water south, is weakening. If the current slows enough, Europe and the US East Coast would be hit by freezing temperatures.
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Utah is encouraging people to catch up to twice the fish they’re normally allowed as rising water temperatures threaten to kill off supplies

fishing
  • Utah is loosening fishing restrictions as drought and hot temperatures threaten to kill fish.
  • The state says the changes will allow anglers to “harvest additional fish prior to fish loss.”
  • Warm water has less dissolved oxygen. For fish, this can stunt growth, cause disease, and even kill.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Utah officials are loosening limits on fishing, in some cases allowing people to catch and keep twice as many fish as they previously could, as heat and drought conditions threaten fish survival this summer.

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has made emergency amendments to its fishing guidelines twice so far this year. The first, made in late May, applies to several reservoirs, allowing anglers there to catch and keep more fish of various species.

This change was made “in anticipation of low water levels due to drought conditions,” the division said in a press release at the time.

“Fish loss is expected due to adverse conditions,” the division said on its website. “The intentions of these regulation changes are to liberalize harvest and provide anglers the opportunity to harvest additional fish prior to fish loss, if loss occurs.”

Droughts reduce the water available in various water bodies. Smaller amounts of water heat more quickly and reach hotter temperatures than larger amounts of water. In addition, hotter water has less dissolved oxygen than colder water. These factors combined put fish at risk for stunted growth, disease, and sometimes death.

The division said at the time that it would also cut back on fish stocking in the affected waters to “minimize the amount of fish that may die as a result of the anticipated low water levels.”

“Despite low water levels in some lakes, fishing will be very good in a lot of places this summer,” Sportfish Coordinator Randy Oplinger said in the press release at the time. “The number of waters where we are expecting drought impacts is very small, and we anticipate that the majority of waterbodies, including the major fisheries in the state, won’t be affected.”

The change will stay in effect until the end of October.

Another change, implemented last month, was “prompted by ongoing hot, dry conditions,” according to the division’s website. This amendment allows people to catch and keep more trout when fishing.

“Community fisheries are small ponds and it is anticipated that temperatures in these ponds this summer will exceed the maximum temperature tolerated by trout,” the division said on its website.

This change will remain in place through August.

Heat waves and drought have swept many parts of the country already this summer. Last month, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox asked residents to take part in a “weekend of humble prayer for rain.” Meanwhile, drought maps indicate the western US is the driest it has been in two decades. Last month, the Pacific Northwest suffered a massive heatwave, in which Portland recorded its hottest day ever.

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CA Gov. Gavin Newsom asks California residents to cut water use by 15% as drought ravages the state

California Gov. Gavin Newsom.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

  • California Gov. Gavin Newsom asked residents of the Golden State Thursday to cut their water use by 15%.
  • The move comes as drought conditions intensify across the western US.
  • The state is encouraging locals to “do common sense things” like reducing the amount of time spent in the shower, Newsom said.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom asked residents of the Golden State Thursday to cut their water use by 15% as drought conditions intensify across the western US.

The Democratic governor signed an executive order to “encourage” voluntary water conservation efforts across the state.

“I want to underscore voluntary water conservation,” Newsom said at a press briefing. “We are hopeful that people will take that mindset brought into the last drought and extend that forward with a 15% voluntary reduction not only on residents, but industrial, commercial operations and agricultural operations.”

Newsom explained that the state is encouraging locals to “do common sense things” like reducing the amount of time spent in the shower and doing laundry and running a dishwasher only when there is a full load.

“I’m not here as a nanny-state. I’m not trying to be oppressive,” he said. “These are voluntary standards.”

Additionally, Newsom added nine counties to an emergency drought proclamation, which now includes 50 of the state’s 58 counties.

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Images from space show California’s forests and lakes drying out in a record mega-drought

california artificial lake green lawns trees oasis in dry desert
An artificial lake, Shadow Lake Estates, next to desert landscape in Indio, California on June 29, 2021.

The climate crisis is bearing down hard on the western US.

Historic drought and heat are converging on western states to create the perfect storm for depleted reservoirs, strained power grids, and rampant wildfires later this summer. The effects are so stark, you can see them from space.

Satellite images show that the hills outside Los Angeles are significantly more parched, brown, and dry than they were this time last year. Drag the slider back and forth on the below image to see the difference.

“I’m worried about this summer,” Kathleen Johnson, a paleoclimatologist at the University of California, Irvine, told The Guardian. “This current drought is potentially on track to become the worst that we’ve seen in at least 1,200 years. And the reason is linked directly to human-caused climate change.”

In the US Drought Monitor’s 20-year history of tracking drought, the West and Southwest are drier than they’ve ever been. California Gov. Gavin Newsom has now declared drought emergencies in 41 of the state’s 58 counties, encompassing 30% of California’s population.

Shasta Lake is the largest reservoir in California and, like many western lakes, it has receded significantly over the past few months. NASA satellite images below show a bathtub ring – white layers of calcium carbonate and other minerals exposed when the water level drops – along the lake’s shorelines.

The reservoir is at just 38% of its full capacity – 48% of the historical average, according to California’s Department of Water Resources.

California’s second-largest reservoir, Lake Oroville, has fallen to historically low levels, too. Normally, the lake’s water pumps through the Edward Hyatt Power Plant to generate electricity for 800,000 homes. But officials told CNN that they expect the low water levels will force the plant to close in late summer.

lake oroville full june 2019 and dry receding june 2021
Lake Oroville, California’s second-largest reservoir, on June 4, 2019 (left) and June 9, 2021 (right).

“A lot of the slack in our system has already been used up,” Roger Pulwarty, a senior scientist in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), told The Guardian.

A climate emergency is raising temperatures, straining power grids, and sparking fires

An ever-growing body of research shows that drought events are becoming more common and more severe as human activity fills the atmosphere with heat-trapping pollutants like carbon dioxide and methane.

Rising global temperatures are changing the western US profoundly: Warmer air causes more moisture to evaporate, drying out soil. That raises the risk of drought and leaves forests full of tinder-dry foliage, primed for wildfires.

wildfire smoke plumes over dry hills and a highway road
Smoke plumes rise from a wildfire in Arizona on June 7, 2021.

Heat waves only make the situation worse. They’re occuring three times more often and lasting about a day longer than they did in the 1960s, according to records of such waves across 50 US cities. They also start earlier and continue later into the year – the heat-wave season is 47 days longer than it was in the 1960s.

Two record-shattering heat waves struck western states in June. The first one washed over the Southwest and strained California’s power grid. Temperatures reached 116 degrees Fahrenheit in Las Vegas, Nevada; 115 degrees in Phoenix, Arizona; and topped 110 degrees for eight days straight in Tucson, Arizona.

heat map shows heat wave across US southwest
Air temperatures across the continental US during the afternoon of June 15, 2021.

The most recent heat wave rolled over the Pacific Northwest last weekend and sat there for several days.

Many of the cities that were hit hardest, including Seattle and Portland, have never experienced such temperatures – in some cases breaking their previous records by double digits. Temperatures in Lytton, a town in British Columbia, hit 116 degrees Fahrenheit – the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada. The town broke that record the following day, when temperatures climbed to 118 degrees.

It’s not yet clear how many people died from heat-related illness during the Pacific Northwest heat wave, but the Associated Press reported that the death toll is likely in the hundreds.

Fire department helps man in Oregon amidst heat wave
Emergency personnel help treat a man experiencing heat exposure at a cooling center during a heat wave in Salem, Oregon on June 26, 2021.

“Much of the western United States will continue the trend of hot and dry weather, much like the summer of 2020,” Brandon Buckingham, a meteorologist at AccuWeather, told Insider last month. “Each and every western heat wave throughout the summer will only heighten wildfire risks.”

Heat waves also prompt people to crank up air conditioners, causing energy demand to spike. This can strain the power grid and lead to rolling blackouts.

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Photos show the ‘bathtub ring’ along a parched Los Angeles reservoir, as California’s drought grows more dire

An aerial view of reservoir tucked in between a mountainous landscape under a bright sky.
Aerial view of the reservoir nestled in the San Gabriel Mountain Range.

  • Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency in 41 California counties, representing 30% of the state’s population.
  • Reservoirs across the state are running dry.
  • Photographer Ted Soqui captured the dramatic “bathtub ring” at the San Gabriel Reservoir, just outside Los Angeles.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The three-mile-long San Gabriel Reservoir, nestled in the mountains above Los Angeles, is running dry.

California saw significantly less rain and snow this year, and drought conditions this summer have left much of the state increasingly parched.

Across California, many reservoirs and lakes are experiencing a “bathtub ring” phenomena: Declining water levels expose white rings around the edges of these bodies of water – the result of calcium carbonate and other minerals attached to the rock. The more rings that are visible, the lower the water level.

Photographs of the San Gabriel Reservoir offer a hint at how severe the drought could get in Southern California.

Rings are seen along rocks above a reservoir, showing where the water line once was.
Aerial view of the “bathtub ring” phenomena around the San Gabriel Reservoir.

A close-up of the rings that form along the rocks, showing where the water line once was.
Detail of the newly exposed “bathtub ring” phenomena on the side of the San Gabriel Reservoir as it dries out.

In May, California Governor Gavin Newsom expanded the state’s emergency drought declaration to cover 41 counties, representing 30 percent of the state’s population. The governor’s office attributed the situation to especially hot temperatures brought on by climate change, as well as extremely dry mountaintop soil that absorbs water that would otherwise flow into the state’s water collection systems.

“Extraordinarily warm temperatures in April and early May separate this critically dry year from all others on California record,” the governor’s office said in a statement.

The giant reservoirs in Northern California – Folsom Lake, Lake Oroville, and Shasta – are also seeing low water levels after less snow and rain runoff came down from the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

A bald eagle is seen resting on a leaf-less tree amid a parched landscape.
A Bald Eagle rests near the reservoir.

An aerial view shows the bottom of the reservoir.
The bottom of the reservoir becomes exposed as it dries out.

Most of Los Angeles’ water is pumped over the Tejon pass from northern California. The water from the San Gabriel reservoir, which holds more than 54 million cubic meters of water when full, mostly serves the San Gabriel Valley.

Significant rain and snow fall is not expected until November.

An aerial view of the reservoir shows a swirl of patterns.
Rorschach-like patterns now appear on the newly exposed bottom of the San Gabriel Reservoir.

A wide aerial view of the reservoir dam area.
Wide view of the southern area of the reservoir’s dam area. The reservoir is now almost empty with a sliver if water running through it.

The barren, dry landscape is seen around the reservoir.
The terrain around the San Gabriel Reservoir is now fully exposed.

Ted Soqui is a photojournalist based in L.A. See more of his work here.

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Drought maps show the western US at its driest in 20 years – a ticking time bomb for even more fires and power failures

low water levels at lake oroville reveal bare shorelines
Low water levels at California’s Lake Oroville, June 16, 2021.

The western US was already withering in severe drought when a heat wave struck last week. Temperatures reached 116 degrees Fahrenheit in Las Vegas, 115 in Phoenix, and over 110 for eight days straight in Tucson.

Daily highs shattered hundreds of records across the West, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a statewide emergency, saying the heat wave put “significant demand and strain on California’s energy grid.”

The hottest months lie ahead, so this early extreme weather could foreshadow another devastating fire season. Last year’s fires burned a record 4 million acres in California, 1.07 million in Oregon, and at least 713,000 in Washington.

Current drought conditions across the West and Southwest are more widespread and severe than they’ve ever been in the 20 years the US Drought Monitor has been mapping them.

Map of droughts in US from June 2021
A recent drought map of the US shows “exceptional” drought levels in the West.

Compare that to June of last year, mapped below.

Drought map of the US from 2020
A drought map of the US from June 2020 shows moderate drought in the western region of the country.

“I’m worried about this summer,” Kathleen Johnson, a paleoclimatologist at the University of California, Irvine, told The Guardian. “This current drought is potentially on track to become the worst that we’ve seen in at least 1,200 years. And the reason is linked directly to human-caused climate change.”

Scientists can’t attribute an individual drought or heat wave directly to climate change. But rising global temperatures are changing the western US profoundly: Warmer air causes more moisture to evaporate, which leads soil to dry out. That raises the risk of drought and leaves forests full of tinder-dry foliage, primed for wildfires.

Heat waves occur three times more often and last about a day longer than they did in the 1960s, according to records of such waves across 50 US cities. They also start earlier and continue later into the year – the heat-wave season is 47 days longer than it was in the 1960s.

The drought turned the San Gabriel reservoir lake bed to dust
The drought turned the San Gabriel reservoir lake bed to dust

“Much of the western United States will continue the trend of hot and dry weather, much like the summer of 2020,” Brandon Buckingham, a meteorologist at AccuWeather, told Insider. “Each and every western heat wave throughout the summer will only heighten wildfire risks.”

Meteorologists expect yet another heat wave, mostly over Northern California, next week.

Summer may bring blackouts, water shortages, and wildfires

california wildfire lnu complex fire.JPG
A burning home seen along Cherry Glen Road during the LNU Lighting Complex Fire on the outskirts of Vacaville, California, on August 19, 2020.

Hundreds of thousands of Californians already face water-use restrictions in the Bay Area, since reservoirs are dwindling and there’s almost no snowpack to replenish them. Gov. Newsom has declared drought emergencies in 41 of the state’s 58 counties, encompassing 30% of California’s population.

Lake Mead – the largest reservoir in the US, which provides water to 25 million people across Arizona, Nevada, California, and Mexico – is at its lowest level since it was filled in the 1930s.

California’s second-largest reservoir, Lake Oroville, has fallen to “alarming levels,” a California Energy Commission spokesperson told CNN on Thursday. Normally, the lake’s water pumps through the Edward Hyatt Power Plant to generate electricity for 800,000 homes. But the reservoir is currently at just 35% capacity – less than half the historical average.

heat map of US heat wave shows record temperatures above 110 degrees across southwest
Temperatures across the West and Southwest reached record highs during the June heat wave.

When heat waves roll in, even more water evaporates. At the same time, people crank up air conditioners, causing energy demand to spike. This can strain the power grid and lead to rolling blackouts. It happened last year: When a heat wave hit in August, hundreds of thousands of residents lost power in increments of up to 2.5 hours. Those were California’s first rolling blackouts in 19 years.

That’s different from PG&E’s safety shutoffs, though, which are meant to prevent aging power lines from starting wildfires and can last for days. PG&E has warned that such shutoffs could be more frequent this year than in 2020, according to the Wall Street Journal.

lake mead's low waters expose pale cliffs behind the hoover dam
Low water levels expose the edges of the Hoover Dam reservoir of Lake Mead near Las Vegas, Nevada, June 9, 2021.

With no end to the drought in sight, officials expect they’ll be forced to close Edward Hyatt Power Plant plant in two or three months, CNN reported.

That’s the time of year when wildfires typically peak. But already this year, blazes have forced evacuations in California’s Monterey and Shasta counties. Smoke from fires in Arizona and Utah has billowed over Colorado.

wildfire smoke plumes over dry hills and a highway road
Smoke plumes rise from a wildfire in Arizona, June 7, 2021.

An active monsoon season in July and August may chip away at the drought in the Southwest, Buckingham said, but West Coast states will probably see no such relief.

“The fires we saw in the last couple of years were really awful, and this year it seems like we’re on that same trajectory,” Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, told The Guardian. “It kind of feels like deja vu.”

Grace Kay contributed reporting.

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