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The American West is currently the driest it’s been in 1,200 years, a new study found

By CONRAD SWANSON | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. | The Denver Post

PUBLISHED: February 19, 2022 at 6:00 a.m. | UPDATED: February 21, 2022 at 3:07 p.m.

Not only is the American West the driest it’s been in more than a millennia but the megadrought is likely to continue for years, diminishing Colorado’s already short water supply and increasing the risk of wildfires, climatologists say.

The current, 22-year-long megadrought plaguing the West surpassed the megadrought in the late 1500s, previously considered the worst on record, according to a study published this week in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change. Plus, about 42% of this megadrought’s severity can be blamed on climate change caused by humans.

Soil moistures, increasing temperatures and climate modeling shows a 94% chance that the drought will continue for a 23rd year, Jason Smerdon, a climate scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, said.

And there is a 75% chance that the megadrought will continue through its 30th year in 2029, Smerdon, also a co-author of the study, said.

The study focuses mostly conditions west of the continental divide, Russ Schumacher, director of the Colorado Climate Center, said. But those conditions affect life on the Front Range as well.

Snow and rainfall can fluctuate through wet and dry months or years, Schumacher said, and because temperatures are increasing, more moisture than normal is lost due to evaporation.

“The situation gets very concerning if you have lots of years of dryness and similarly the precipitation and snowpack that we do get doesn’t go as far as it used to,” Schumacher said.

The likely continuing dry period comes at a time when the Colorado River, which supplies water to about 35 million people, and reservoirs along the waterway are hitting record low levels, Smerdon said.


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