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Megadrought Likely to Impact the Western United States through 2030

What’s happening?

The western United States is facing the worst megadrought in about 1,200 years according to a new study published in Nature Climate Change. 

The drought period, which has persisted since 2002, has significantly shrunken waterways and reservoirs. Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two largest reservoirs in North America, hit the lowest levels ever recorded in 2021.

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According to one of the study’s authors, Park Williams, megadroughts tend to ease after about two decades, but drought conditions worsened in 2020-21 and show no signs of improvement in the near future. 

By simulating historical wet-dry patterns, the study estimated that the drought is likely to continue through 2030 given current climate change conditions. Human-caused climate change accounts for 42% of the drought as increased temperatures evaporate more of the earth’s moisture.

The study used soil moisture levels and tree ring measurements to model historical droughts in an area covering California, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and parts of Oregon, Idaho, New Mexico, Colorado, Montana, Texas, and Mexico. 55% of the western United States is currently in drought.

What’s the impact?

The drought’s severity and climate change projections mean that recovery could be harder than previous megadroughts, requiring more than a year or two of significant rainfall.

The megadrought will continue to bring more intense wildfires to the western United States. Water shortages may also become more severe. In 2021, low water levels on the Colorado River affected water supplies for 40 million Americans.

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A drought period lasting through 2030 would also be devastating for the agriculture industry. Drought conditions are already increasing costs for cattle ranches, in turn increasing consumer prices.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the US Department of Commerce, droughts are one of the most costly natural disasters, costing the US economy $9 billion a year, including hits to agriculture and tourism.

How can OSINT help?

In October 2021, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a climate change report describing increased national security risks to the United States through 2040. These include country-level instabilities that may result from disasters like severe droughts—such as strain on energy and food systems, negative health consequences, and cross-border water tension and conflict.

 

“Climate change will increasingly exacerbate risks to US national security interests as the physical impacts increase and geopolitical tensions mount about how to respond to the challenge.”


—Climate Change and International Responses Increasing Challenges to US National Security Through 2040

 

Governments must quickly and accurately assess the fallout of megadroughts and other climate change impacts as the situation evolves over the next few decades. Open-source information is becoming more relevant for intelligence teams supporting crisis response and anticipating climate change outcomes on public safety.

For example, online social media and news content can help intelligence teams assess:

  • Environmental changes through public media like aerial photography
  • Where natural disasters are happening and what the situation is on the ground
  • Public sentiment and impacts from affected communities, like farmers

Specialized OSINT software helps intelligence teams quickly and easily gather this information to supplement other information sources and support disaster response.

Connect with us to learn more about OSINT software and how it can support intelligence cycles in response to climate change and national security.

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