Water securityAs Western U.S. Is Experiencing a 1,000 Year Drought, Desalination Could Be a Solution

By Renee Cho

Published 3 September 2021

The Western United States is currently experiencing what one paleoclimatologist called “potentially the worst drought in 1,200 years.” The region has had many droughts in the past, including “megadroughts” that last decades, but climate change is making dry years drier and wet years wetter. One possible solution is the desalination of seawater, but is it a silver bullet?

The United States and many other parts of the world are reeling under the impacts of severe drought. One possible solution is the desalination of seawater, but is it a silver bullet?

The Western United States is currently experiencing what one paleoclimatologist called “potentially the worst drought in 1,200 years.” The region has had many droughts in the past, including “megadroughts” that last decades, but climate change is making dry years drier and wet years wetter. Higher temperatures heat the ground and air faster, and the increased evaporation dries the soil and decreases the amount of precipitation that reaches reservoirs. Warming also leads to less of the snow-pack needed to replenish rivers, streams, reservoirs and moisten soil in spring and summer.

About 44 percent of the U.S. is experiencing some level of drought with almost 10 percent in “exceptional drought.” Wildfires currently rage in 13 states, exacerbated by the hot and dry conditions. There have been unprecedented water cuts to the Colorado River—which provides water to seven states—and shutdowns of hydroelectric power plants. The aquifers of towns that depend on well water are depleted, forcing residents to truck in water. Normally, agriculture consumes over 90 percent of the water in many western states, but the drought has caused yields to plummet; some farmers have reduced their acreage or changed crops to less water-intensive ones, while others will likely go bankrupt. Ranchers are having to sell off parts of their herds. But even as the locals contend with these difficulties, more people are moving to the area.

Between 1950 and 2010, the Southwest’s growth rate was twice that of the rest of the country.  The U.S. population is expected to continue growing through 2040, with more than half of that growth in areas that have experienced severe drought in the last ten years. Many people continue to move to an area expected to get even drier in years to come, just as the latest IPCC report predicts that climate change will intensify droughts in these regions.

Every other continent in the world is also experiencing serious drought, except for Antarctica. And the U.N. has warned that 130 more countries could face droughts by 2100 if we do nothing to curb climate change. But as soon as 2025, two-thirds of the global population could face water shortages, according to the World Wildlife Fund. This could result in conflicts, political instability, and the displacement of millions of people.

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