There’s an old fable we’ve probably all heard. Supposedly, if you drop a frog in boiling water, the frog will jump out, but if you gradually heat the water in the pot to boiling, the frog will stay in the water and cook to death because it doesn’t notice the gradual change. Biologists will tell us that this isn’t actually true, because there does come a point where the frog will jump out, but as a metaphor it’s still useful. We know from experience now that gradually worsening conditions aren’t enough for people to want to change what they’re doing.
But what if we could see the situation as it was two decades ago, and then compare it side-by-side with today? The National Drought Mitigation Center gives us the opportunity to do just that! It ain’t pretty, though.
If you set their comparison slider tool for today and set the comparison for August 8, 2000, that gives you what you see above. As you can see, today’s map (to the left of the blue slider) is quite a bit redder than the map from 2000. I’d recommend checking this out for yourself, but here’s what it looks like with the slider all the way to the right (revealing today’s drought map):
As you can see, conditions are far worse today for the western US when it comes to drought. The basins for most western rivers that people count on for drinking and growing food just aren’t getting enough rain.
Comparing this year with one random year could just mean that 2020 was particularly bad, while 2000 was good, though. To avoid any accusation of cherrypicking, let’s use the NDMC’s comparison maps tool to compare to a few different years:
It doesn’t matter what year we compare it to. Feel free to do the comparison yourself with any year here yourself and pick other years if you don’t believe me. I chose to do every 5 years to make it arbitrary, and 2021 beats them all. There’s also a general trend of drought getting worse over time, with some bad spots, but nothing this bad over such a large area.
So, if you have a friend or family member who doesn’t want to believe that there’s a problem in the Western US because climate change isn’t happening, you know where to go.
What Are The Impacts?
Let’s take another look at the NDMC map from 2000 to see just how different things were and then go through some of the impacts.
From this we can see that major western US river basins have been in a drought of some kind. Rivers like the Colorado River, Rio Grande, and Snake River are all in deep red today, while they were in only minor forms of drought in 2000.
But what does that look like on the ground? Fortunately, Google Earth gives us the ability to compare different years of aerial imagery to see what things were like in different reservoirs and lakes. Let’s compare some! Here’s the Elephant Butte Reservoir on the Rio Grande in New Mexico. This was once the biggest dam in the world before larger ones like Lake Mead and Lake Powell dwarfed it. Here’s what it looked like in 1994:
Now, let’s look at the most recent imagery:
These images look at it from the east, so north is to the right in this image. As you can see, the whole northern 2/3 of the lake have been drained since 1994, with the remaining 1/3 very shallow and narrow as the lake retreated down the canyon walls. Areas that had 50+ feet of water on them when I was a kid are now bone-dry, with mesquite and chaparral starting to recolonize the areas.
Let’s look at Utah’s Great Salt Lake in 1987:
As you can see, it’s pretty full, but hasn’t quite gotten as far as filling up the ancient lakebeds to the west (north is up this time). But, the lake was getting so full that its height was unprecedented in modern times, and was starting to flood people out along the shores. The State of Utah put in a pumping station to pull water out of the lake and put it out on the dry lakebeds to the west (the light blue that’s away from the main body of the lake) to evaporate. This kept the lake from growing even larger in the 1980s.
Today, the idea of ever turning that pumping station on again seems absurd. The water doesn’t even come close to it now. Former islands are now nearly all connected to the shores and whole sections of lake have been dry for decades now. People are still getting all of the water they need from the rivers, and human needs have grown in recent decades. What’s left over isn’t enough to maintain the lake, though.
If it were to completely dry up, it would be an ecological disaster that hurts humans and animals alike. Think dust storms that inundate nearby cities with toxins like mercury while both preventing and melting snowpacks. Nobody wants to see what it would be like to completely dry up what little is left of Lake Bonneville (which drained naturally toward the end of the last ice age).
The only people to win would be salt flats racers, as they’d have a nice new section of flats to fool around on once it dries out completely.
I could go on all day showing images of different places that are drying out, like Lake Mead and Lake Powell, but you can fire up Google Earth yourself and see. Just click the little clock on the top and set past dates to see how much these reservoirs have drained, and there’s probably a lot more dry to come.
We need to be sharing all of this to show people what the consequences are of continuing to burn fossil fuels. Expect there to just not be enough water to go around if we keep it up.
All map images (including featured image) from the NDMC. The US Drought Monitor is jointly produced by the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Maps courtesy of NDMC.
Aerial Photo images from Google Earth.