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A year of extreme weather in the American west – in pictures | Climate crisis in the American west
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A year of extreme weather in the American west – in pictures | Climate crisis in the American west

Houseboats sit in a narrow section of water in a depleted Lake Oroville.


Even before the west was hit by summer heatwaves, the lakebeds were there. already begunceding ground for the cracked, dried soil.

There were rings around reservoirs with low water levels. Verdant hillsides turned brown and trees were set ablaze. Unstoppable fires erupted from the conditions, and they grew in size and intensity enough to start their own. Weather patterns.

There were also downpours, despite the desiccation. Even as states struggled to cope with the devastating effects of drought, storms brought heavy rains that caused flooding and debris flows.

It was a year of extremes in the American West. Scientists say it is likely just a taste of what’s to come if the climate crisis continues on its current course. “We have known this for a while,” said Steve Ostoja, director of the USDA CaliforniaClimate Hub. “The question is how extreme is this going to go? What is the ceiling and what is the floor?”

Houseboats sit in a narrow section of water in a depleted Lake Oroville.
Kamala Harris tours Lake Mead in Nevada in October.

As of early December, roughly 80% of the American west was still experiencing “severe drought” as categorized by the US Drought Monitor. Nearly half still qualifies for the “extreme drought” category. The critically dry conditions left some communities with water shortages, fields were left to fallow, and reservoir storage in California – which has been among the states hardest hit by the catastrophe – 60% was the average.

Lake Mead, which spans Nevada and Arizona and is the country’s largest reservoir, sank this year to record-low levels. This was the first time in its history, and it is now the highest level ever recorded. Water allocation shortage was declaredThe Colorado River, which supplies water to many western states and Mexico.

All of California remains under a statewide drought emergency and the state’s governor, Gavin Newsom, has Residents were asked to reduce their water consumptionBy 15%. “This is without precedent,” Newsom said at a news conference announcing the first two drought declarations in April, standing on the dried and cracked ground once covered by the waters of Lake Mendocino. “Oftentimes we overstate the word historic, but this is indeed an historic moment.”

In most western climates, including California, the ebbs & flows of precipitation are common. Human-caused warming has raised the stakes and created additional characteristics. The snowpack is being reduced by rising temperatures, which can also accelerate the process of evaporation in dry environments. That’s why, scientists fear, this isn’t just a disaster but a troubling trend.

“The drought in the American west is not a passing crisis,” Justin Mankin, a climate scientist and co-lead of the NOAA Drought Task Force wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in September. “It is the shape of things to come.”

A kayaker paddles in Lake Oroville as water levels remain low.
Empty boat slips sit on a dry lake bed at Folsom Lake Marina in May.
Rows of almond trees sit on the ground during an orchard removal project in Snelling, California in May.

High temperatures and drought created conditions for wildfires that were difficult to contain and ravaged more than 7.6 millions acres in the US in 2021. The fast-moving flames that spewed embers far away consumed ancient trees and mountain towns. The infernos grew in size and power to force thousands of people to flee their homes.

“This year’s fire season in the western US, and especially in three west-coast states, was the second exceptional wildfire year in a row” says Park Williams, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. He cited the extreme drought and heat-wave events “which dried out fuels and made it easy for fires to escape our control in dense forested areas”.

The Caldor fire burns as a chairlift sits motionless at the Sierra-at-Tahoe ski resort in August.
The Bootleg Fire smoke cloud in Beatty, Oregon in July.
A firefighter sprays water while trying to stop the Sugar fire, part of the Beckwourth complex fire, in Doyle, California in July.

  • A firefighter sprays water to stop the Sugar fire in Doyle, California, July.

A firefighter prepares to battle the North Fire from a backyard on Via Patina in Santa Clarita, California.
A satellite image of fires raging in California in August.
The remains of homes and businesses that were destroyed by the Dixie fire in Greenville, California.
Firefighters wrap the historic General Sherman Tree, estimated to be around 2,300 to 2,700 years old, with fire-proof blankets in Sequoia national park, California. in September.

  • In September, firefighters wrapped the historic General Sherman Tree in fireproof blankets at Sequoia national parks.

The Windy fire blazes through the Long Meadow Grove in Sequoia national park.
Fire consumes a home as the Sugar fire, part of the Beckwourth complex fire.
The Caldor fire approaches South Lake Tahoe in August.

Record-breaking heatwaves – hot enough to Cook small sea creatures alive along the shores of the Pacific north-west this summer – wreaked havoc on residents, agriculture, and infrastructure. Hundreds of people died due to the dangerously high temperatures. 18% of the US broke heat records, and the summer temperatures were 2.6F. above averageAccording to Noaa.

These extreme events are predicted to become more frequent by mid-century according to climate models. There could be as many as 30 heatwaves per year. The norm is now between 4 and 6. “That’s a huge difference,” Ostoja said. “That basically means it is going to be that hot all the time.”

According to Bradfield Lyon (a professor at the Climate Change Institute of the University of Maine), they are also expected to grow in number, having a greater impact on more people.

“By mid-century, the spacial size of heatwaves in the US are expected to increase between about 50% to 80% from what they are in the current climate,” he said. “The frequency will increase, the duration will increase, as well as the intensity.”

A thermometer at Badwater Basin in Death Valley national park in July.
People at a cooling station in Portland in June.
A man rests at Willow’s Beach, British Columbia, during the ‘heat dome’, in June.

  • A man rests at Willow’s Beach, British Columbia, during the ‘heat dome’, in June.

The sun shines near the Space Needle in Seattle in June.
A dead chinook salmon floats in a fish trap on the lower Klamath River in Weitchpec, California, in June.

  • A dead Chinook salmon floats in a trap on the lower Klamath River in Weitchpec (California) in June.

While most of the west was still in drought through the fall, there were some areas of southwest including New Mexico and Arizona. Between June and September, they were soaked.. The heavy rains caused not only fire hazards but also deadly flash floods.

Downpours also hit the Pacific north-west. Residents of Washington and western Canada had no choice but to flee their homes as the water rose. Water treatment facilities In the city of Merritt, I was overwhelmed in British Columbia, where officials called for evacuations due to “risk of mass sewage back-up and personal health risk”. These warnings came just months after evacuations were ordered during wildfires that decimated nearby towns. The province also experienced heatwaves that broke records. Hundreds of lives were lostAll over the region

Two rainstorms left submerged streets, downed trees, power lines, and crumbling hillsides in Northern California. Evacuations were ordered for areas with high levels of debris flows and burn scars in recent years. Residents without homes were the most affected, as shelters and tents were destroyed by the rains. Photographers who captured the scene at a Santa Cruz, California, waterlogged encampment were photojournalists said it looked “like a nightmare”.

Heavy rain in LA in October.
Heavy waves break against a sea wall in Depoe Bay, Oregon, in October.
Crews work to upright an overturned truck on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge in Richmond, California in October.
Rocks and vegetation cover Highway 70 following a landslide in the Dixie fire zone in October.

In December, strong winds created dust storms across the middle US with gusts exceeding 100 mph. The unusual conditions were caused by high temperatures These were reminiscent the Dust BowlThe 1930s saw the destruction of the region by high winds. High wind warnings were issued from New Mexico to Upper Michigan.

A storm cloud of dust in Niwot, Colorado in December.
An overturned truck pushed high power lines over along Highway 93 in Superior, Colorado in December.

The extreme events that defined 2021 were destructive and devastating – but scientists hope they serve as warnings against a future that can still be avoided. Ostoja, from the USDA, likened humanity’s approach to climate change as a frog sitting in water that’s slowly starting to boil. But when disasters strike, it’s more difficult to look away.

“At least the extreme events kick that a little,” he says, “and my hope is that that’s what we start paying attention.”


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