Prall: Here comes the megadrought


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NASA released a study Feb. 12 with a clear, simple message: Get ready for the worst.

The study found that as the century unfolds, the risk of droughts will increase dramatically. Their frequency will increase, as well as their severity. These ominous scenarios are being labeled “megadroughts.”

The impending droughts have no historical precedent; that’s what makes them all the more worrisome. And NASA’s predictions don’t just show California and the North American Southwest being affected, but the Midwest as well.

Two droughts in recorded history give an idea of what to expect. The Pueblos and other Native people of the Southwest experienced the most severe drought in North American history. Their legacy is foreboding: massive abandoned enclaves in plateau faces. The drought is thought to have occurred sometime in the 14th century, and lasted around a decade, forcing the people of the area to move in search of water and fertile soil.

The second drought is a little closer to home, both chronologically and geographically. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s ravaged the American West, burying farms, homes and towns in thick layers of dirt. 

The droughts to come will be more severe and last longer than either of these droughts. We can expect water reserves to dwindle. The Great Lakes themselves may be dried up before the turn of the century.

Population growth and current droughts have already put a huge strain on water resources of the American Southwest, particularly in California. Droughts also lead to an increase in the number and severity of forest fires. California knows this better than most. 

What if the entirety of the Great Plains dries up? Is another dust bowl inevitable? Perhaps. Population growth in the West has been large, with most internal migration in the United States happening westward. More people means more water necessary to sustain them. The possibility of water rations becomes very easy to imagine, especially in metropolitan areas. We may say goodbye to the conventional front lawn as we know it (though I’ve always felt they are a waste of resources anyway).

Food supply is another possible victim of prolonged, intense droughts. Livestock would die off, crops would wither, and the Midwest produce economy could collapse. As if being a farmer wasn’t already difficult enough, it appears the job won’t be getting easier any time soon.

The world’s supply of soybeans and corn are heavily dependent on the farmlands of Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, and other Midwest states. Problems with production affect a vast variety of aspects in daily life. Fewer soybeans would mean more expensive soybeans. Anything containing soy (many, many foods) would rise in cost, as would the price of ethanol and other byproducts of corn. A sharp increase in food prices can be expected, hitting the least affluent the worst.

NASA’s predictions are based on the levels of carbon emissions globally remaining unchanged. The rate of emission growth worldwide is far from zero, and it is hard to say whether any attempt to reduce climate change could stop these droughts from occurring. It may not be too late to lessen their effect, however, through careful use of natural resources.

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