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It’s Drought Hype Season Again

June 10, 2021

Climate Change Weekly #400

It’s that time of year again! Summer, when things get hot and dry and certain seasonal extreme weather events naturally occur—as do alarming claims about them. When hurricanes form during “hurricane season,” expect climate alarmists to claim human-caused climate change is creating them, even though hurricanes have always formed at this time of year (thus the existence of the term “hurricane season”).

When wildfires break out during “wildfire season” and scorch thousands of acres of mismanaged, overgrown forests and the homes and businesses that recently pushed into formerly wild, forested areas, expect climate alarmists to claim human-caused climate change is causing them, even though wildfires have always been sparked at this time of year (thus the existence of the term “wildfire season”).

The third in the trifecta of weather-related horror stories we can expect to read about every summer is drought. Droughts are natural. At any point in time portions of the United States and the world are suffering from a drought of some length and severity. The areas suffering from drought change in response to shifts in short- and long-term weather and oceanic patterns of varying scales that affect precipitation, but that a drought is occurring somewhere at any one point in time is almost a certainty.

Some regions of the world and in the United States are more prone to drought than others, of course. Those same areas are also more prone to prolonged droughts of multiple months, years, and sometimes even decades or millennia. The western United States is one such area.

This year’s drought-scare climate hype has already started. Yahoo! News opened the season with an article promoting the false claim human-caused climate change is responsible for a “historic” drought in California and the western United States. Although drought conditions have persisted for a couple of years across portions of the western United States, droughts in the arid West are common and research shows much larger, longer-term droughts have occurred there historically. There is no evidence human greenhouse gas emissions are contributing to the current drought.

In a story titled “California and much of the American West face mega-drought brought on by climate change,” Yahoo! News claims, “Thanks in part to rising temperatures due to climate change, ‘extreme’ or ‘exceptional’ drought conditions are now occurring in 74 percent of the state of California, while 72 percent of the Western U.S. is classified as experiencing ‘severe’ drought, according to data from the U.S. Drought Monitor.

“Back-to-back dry years in conjunction with above-average temperatures have exacerbated drought conditions across the American West, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said on its website,” Yahoo! News states. “The extent of the drought is unprecedented in recorded history, with 100 percent of both California and Nevada now classified as experiencing ‘moderate to exceptional drought.’”

Data shows “back to back” dry years are not unusual in California or the Western United States. Neither California nor the western United States is experiencing a mega-drought.

Completely undermining Yahoo! News’ alarmist story is the fact that data presented by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in its post titled “Climate Change Indicators: Drought” in mid-May demonstrates no trend toward greater numbers or severity of droughts.

“Average drought conditions across the nation have varied over time,” the EPA post states. “The 1930s and 1950s saw the most widespread droughts, while the last 50 years have generally been wetter than average. Over the entire period … the overall trend has been toward wetter conditions.”

EPA’s drought and climate change indicator confirms what other sources of data have shown. As reported in Climate at a Glance: Drought, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports with “high confidence” precipitation has increased over mid-latitude land areas of the Northern Hemisphere (including the United States) during the past 70 years. IPCC also reports “low confidence” about any negative precipitation trends occurring globally.

Moreover, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports the United States is currently undergoing its longest period in recorded history with less than 40 percent of the country experiencing “very dry” conditions. In fact, the United States in 2017 and again in 2019 registered its smallest-ever percentage of land area experiencing drought. In California, for example, 2019 ranked among the state’s wettest years since official records have been kept.

Interestingly, the graphic accompanying Yahoo! News’ story omits the drought maps of Colorado and Wyoming. Perhaps this is unsurprising: the data from these two Western states undermines the claim the drought in the American West is historic.

News media outlets ran multiple stories at the end of the summer of 2020 claiming Colorado was experiencing historic drought. A year ago at this time, two-thirds of Colorado was experiencing severe drought or worse. At the start of 2021, the entire state was listed as being under “moderate drought” conditions, with 93 percent of the state listed as suffering “severe drought” or worse. How much things can change in a short time! In just six months, Colorado went from 100 percent of the state suffering from some degree of drought to more than half the state experiencing no drought at all. Only 35 percent of Colorado is currently experiencing severe drought or worse.

Wyoming, a naturally arid state, is going in the opposite direction, and that too is instructive. One year ago, less than 2 percent of Wyoming was experiencing moderate drought, and no portion of the state was suffering from severe drought or worse. In other words, in June of 2020, nearly 99 percent of Wyoming was drought-free. This has changed. At present, 68 percent of Wyoming is suffering from some level of drought, with 24 percent experiencing at least severe drought.

Two things are important to note for the purposes of this essay. First, as with Colorado, Wyoming’s shift shows how dramatically precipitation conditions can change in short periods of time. Say what you will about Wyoming, it is not suffering “back-to-back” drought years. Like Colorado, Wyoming an outlier in the supposedly alarming multiyear drought trend Yahoo! News is trying to convince its readers is scourging the American West.

Second, because only 24 percent of Wyoming is listed as being in severe drought, including that state and Colorado in the story would significantly diminish the impact of the drought claim. Yahoo! News would no longer have been able to claim “72 percent of the Western U.S. is classified as experiencing ‘severe’ drought.” Moreover, if the story had included data from Texas, also typically counted as a Western state historically prone to multiyear droughts, its claims would have even been less convincing: less than 11 percent of Texas is experiencing severe drought or worse. The percentage of Texas in severe drought increased from less than 2 percent in June of 2020 but then declined sharply after reaching more than 50 percent in January 2021.

The lesson: drought comes and goes, lingering in some places longer than in others.

Going back further in time, research conclusively demonstrates the current drought in the western United States is not historic in length or severity. It is well-recognized that drought is cyclical and mega-droughts, some lasting 100 years or more, have been commonplace in the past.

The book The West Without Water states, “"Prolonged droughts—some of which lasted more than a century—brought thriving civilizations, such as the ancestral Pueblo (Native Americans) of the Four Corners region, to starvation, migration, and finally collapse.”

Research shows decade-long droughts happen once or twice a century in the western United States, and droughts lasting for multiple decades occur a few times each millennium. In a 2016 Columbia University Academic Commons paper, the authors state, “During the Medieval Climate Anomaly (MCA), Western North America experienced episodes of intense aridity that persisted for multiple decades or longer. These mega-droughts are well documented in many proxy records, but the causal mechanisms are poorly understood.”

To conclude, contrary to Yahoo! News’ report, “back-to-back” years of drought are hardly uncommon and don’t count as mega-droughts. Also, since mega-droughts of the past in the western United States have lasted for decades and even centuries, it is impossible to attribute current drought conditions, barely two years old, to human-caused global warming.

Keep these facts in mind this summer as the mainstream media and radical climate alarmists begin to bombard us with studies and news reports claiming human-caused climate change is causing a historic mega-drought in the West and that conditions will worsen if Americans refuse to cede power to international climate experts and cease using fossil fuels.

Unlike droughts, their arguments are all wet.

—    H. Sterling Burnett

SOURCES: Yahoo! News; Environmental Protection Agency; Climate at a Glance; U.S. Drought Monitor; West Without Water; Columbia Academic Commons


IN THIS ISSUE …

GREENHOUSE GASES’ INFLUENCE ON WARMING IS OVERSTATED, SAYS STUDY … SOLAR HIBERNATION COULD AFFECT CLIMATE


GREENHOUSE GASES’ INFLUENCE ON WARMING IS OVERSTATED, SAYS STUDY

New research published in the journal Science Advances indicates the effect of greenhouse gases on recent temperatures is overstated, because our understanding of the effect of airborne soot from historical wildfires has been grossly understated.

An international team of 13 scientists from universities and research institutes in the United States (lead author), Australia, China, Germany, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom analyzed soot levels in 14 ice cores from Antarctica and one central Andean ice core dating back to 1750. The team discovered preindustrial soot levels were four times higher than previously believed. Soot has an atmospheric cooling effect, in opposition to greenhouse gases.

Climate models have failed to account for the fact that, as this evidence indicates, wildfires had a much larger impact on past temperatures than previously assumed. As wildfires, and the soot they put into the atmosphere, have significantly waned, the Earth has warmed in response, meaning the effect of human greenhouse gases on recent warming has been less than climate models have assumed. Some of the recorded warming results from the reduction of sunlight-blocking soot in the atmosphere.

The trustworthiness of climate model projections depends in part on the soundness of the understanding of all the factors that force global temperatures, including the extent to which different forcing mechanisms have contributed to past temperatures.

This new research shows levels of cooling aerosols released by volcanoes and wildfires fires were much higher in the past than at present, even after accounting for twentieth-century aerosol emissions from burning of fossil fuels. Records from these ice cores suggest historical fire activity in the Southern Hemisphere (SH) exceeded present-day levels by a large margin, with SH fire emissions declining by more than 30 percent during the twentieth century. This decline in wildfire emissions was greater than “the cooling effect of increasing aerosols from fossil fuel and biofuel sources,” the research shows.

“While most studies have assumed less fire took place in the preindustrial era, the ice cores suggested a much fierier past, at least in the Southern Hemisphere,” atmospheric chemist and study coauthor Loretta Mickley of Harvard University told the Daily Mail.

The researchers conclude that although the world is “clearly” warming, it is not heating up at the rate some previously feared would be attributable to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

SOURCE: Daily Mail; Science Advances


SOLAR HIBERNATION COULD AFFECT CLIMATE

A recent article at Space.com states the Sun seems to be going into a sustained lull, or absence of solar activity. This fact may have important implications for climate change because the Sun is the prime driver of Earth’s temperature.

“Solar activity refers to the state of the sun’s magnetic field and associated phenomena: sunspots, flares, solar wind and coronal ejections,” Space.com reports. “During periods of minimal solar activity, such events are often uncommon and weak.

“[S]ometimes the [sun]spots don’t appear at all,” the article states. “This was the case for 80 days of the first six months of the current solar cycle, which started in December 2019. It was greater still for the same period in Cycle 24, where there were 281 spot-free days. The period from 1645 to 1715 saw a near-total crash in sunspot numbers, where they could literally be counted on two hands.”

Some scientists are comparing the current cycle of solar inactivity to the Maunder Minimum, which ran from approximately 1645 to 1715, during the middle of the Little Ice Age (approximately 1300 to 1850). The Maunder Minimum coincided with the period of coldest temperatures during the Little Ice Age.

Research from numerous scientists indicates decreased solar activity allows more cosmic rays to enter the Earth’s atmosphere, which correlates with lower temperatures.

“High-energy radiation from space, known as galactic cosmic rays, can affect Earth’s climate by increasing cloud cover and causing an ‘umbrella effect,’ according to scientists,” as the relationship is described in an article on Down to Earth.com. “The rays can enhance the formation of low-lying clouds or increase the global cloud cover, ultimately leading to the cooling of Earth’s atmosphere.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change acknowledges climate models account poorly for the effect of cloud cover on global temperatures, and the climate models overstate measured warming by a significant amount. As such, research into the relationships among solar cycles, cosmic rays, and global temperatures could do much to improve our understanding of the short- and long-term causes of climate change.

SOURCES: Space.com; Down to Earth

Author
H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., is a Heartland senior fellow on environmental policy and the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.
hsburnett@heartland.org
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