By Steve Hockensmith, UC Berkeley News
As 2013 came to a close, the media dutifully reported that the year had been the driest in California since records began to be kept in the 1840s. But UC Berkeley paleoclimatologist B. Lynn Ingram didn’t think the news stories captured the seriousness of the situation.
“This could potentially be the driest water year in 500 years,” says Ingram, a professor of earth and planetary science and geography.
Ingram has an especially long-term perspective. As a paleoclimatologist — a scientist who studies changes in climate by teasing data out of rocks, sediments, shells, microfossils, trees and other sources — she’s accustomed to looking back over eons. And according to the width of old tree rings (which can record the coming and going of wet or waterless stretches), California hasn’t been so parched since 1580.
“These extremely dry years are very rare,” she says.
But soon, perhaps, they won’t be as rare as they used to be. The state is facing its third drought year in a row, and Ingram wouldn’t be surprised if that dry stretch continues.
Given that possibility, the title of a recent book by Ingram seems grimly apropos. “The West Without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts, and Other Climatic Clues Tell Us About Tomorrow,” co-written with geographer and environmental biologist (and UC Berkeley visiting scholar) Frances Malamud-Roam, was released by the University of California Press last year.
Ingram spoke recently about the lessons to be drawn from her research as California heads into what could be its worst drought in half a millennium.
“If you go back thousands of years, you see that droughts can go on for years if not decades, and there were some dry periods that lasted over a century, like during the Medieval period and the
middle Holocene, she said. “The 20th century was unusually mild here, in the sense that the droughts weren’t as severe as in the past. It was a wetter century, and a lot of our development has been based on that.”
In addition, she said, “The late 1930s to the early 1950s were when a lot of our dams and aqueducts were built, and those were wetter decades. I think there’s an assumption that we’ll go back to that, and that’s not necessarily the case. We might be heading into a drier period now. It’s hard for us to predict, but that’s a possibility, especially with global warming. When the climate’s warmer, it tends to be drier in the West. The storms tend to hit further into the Pacific Northwest, like they are this year, and we don’t experience as many storms in the winter season. We get only about seven a year, and it can take the deficit of just a few to create a drought.
For the complete interview go to http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2014/01/21/states-water-woes/