Visualizing the Western Drought

Lower-than-average rainfall and reduced snowpacks have led to one of the driest and most dangerous fire seasons in history.

2 minute read

June 23, 2021, 9:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Wildfire

Tom Reichner / Shutterstock

In a piece for the New York Times, Nadja Popovich highlights the "alarming picture" of drought in the American west. "Across the region, reservoir levels are near record lows and mountain snowpack, which slowly releases water in the spring and summer, is largely depleted. In California, water restrictions are already in effect, with more widespread cuts expected. Dry soil conditions are already increasing fire risk."

The extreme conditions facing much of the west this year are unusual in their range and intensity, writes Popovich. "Winter rain and snowfall usually bring most of California’s moisture for the year, but this winter was drier than usual, with warm temperatures arriving early this spring. The state is now in its dry season and is unlikely to see significant rainfall again until October."

Climate scientist Daniel Swain, evaluating this year's low rainfall and early fire season, says "[t]here’s a 100 percent chance that it gets worse before it gets better." A late summer monsoon could help reduce the risk–"if it materializes."

In 2021, "twice as many acres have burned in California as during the same period last year. The state’s fire season has expanded in recent decades, starting earlier and ending later than it used to." States across the west are implementing drought contingency plans in order to mitigate the crisis and conserve precious water resources. According to Dr. Swain, the "predictable elements" that contribute to fire risk, intensified by climate change, are "as bad as [they] can be."

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