The lack of rainfall for a long period of time can lead to drought conditions that potentially create distressing effects across all environmental spheres. A recent article released by Business Insider showcases how the western U.S. is at its driest in 20 years which is leading to extreme risk of wildfires and power failures. With temperatures expected to be well over 100 degrees across much of the western states for many days in a row, water shortages and potential damage to power-lines is expected (McFall-Johnsen and Hall 2021). Nearly all regions in the western states are now considered in some drought rating, with many in severe drought (U.S. Drought Monitor 2021). Reservoirs and snowpack act as the sources of critical water stocks, which tie into electricity system stocks as well. The energy demand for cooling leads to increased demands for water in addition to the already present needs of water to maintain human, animal, and plant life as the final sinks of the water and energy.
Figure 1. U.S. Drought Map
Source: (U.S. Drought Monitor 2021).
In these scenarios, several systems begin to interact to create dynamic and unpredictable impacts. For example, focusing on the water system, the sources of water, like reservoirs and snowpack, are already diminished, leading to extremely low water stocks. That water is utilized to generate energy as cooling needs drive up the demand for electricity. This leads to a feedback loop where the drier it gets, the hotter it gets, and that increased heat drives more cooling needs and use for water stocks that are dwindling due to the dryness. Not only does that water and energy system struggle from the heat and dry conditions, but the drier conditions lead to wildfire risks as well. These wildfires burn through vegetation, reducing biomass, removing the soils ability to maintain moisture, and releasing more heat trapping carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, but also burning down power-lines that supply the energy to humans trying to stay cool in the extreme heat as well (McFall-Johnsen and Hall 2021). Human actions have over-consumed water leading to this issue, but behaviors to reduce wildfires historically have led to increased fuel availability which leads to greater risk of fires as well (McKinney, et al. 2019, 152). This interconnected web of systems has become more vulnerable over time due to human activities, further exacerbating the drought issues.
To reduce human impacts on drought, a variety of efforts could be undertaken at the corporate and personal level. The promotion of responsible wildfire management is a critical element to reducing available fuel sources using prescriptive burns. These methods can help promote decomposition of dead materials and increase biotic diversity while reducing risks to human energy systems as well (McKinney, et al. 2019, 152). Reduction of water use by individuals and corporations can help reduce the depletion of reservoirs to ensure more water resources are available in critical times of need. Reducing wildfires and water consumption can prevent atmospheric pollution as well as support improved biodiversity and land management. These actions will be critical solutions as global warming continues to create these intense cycles.
In addition to reducing water consumption and improved fire mitigation efforts, what actions do you think could help reduce the risks from serious drought?
Author: Logan Callen
McFall-Johnsen, Morgan, and Madison Hall. 2021. “Drought Maps Show the Western US at its Driest in 20 Years — A Ticking Time Bomb for Even More Fires and Power Failures.” Business Insider. June 23. Accessed June 24, 2021. https://www.businessinsider.com/western-us-extreme-heat-drought-leads-to-wildfires-power-failures-2021-6.
McKinney, Michael L., Robert M. Schoch, Logan Yonavjak, and Grant A. Mincy. 2019. Environmental Science: Systems and Solutions. 6th ed. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.
U.S. Drought Monitor. 2021. “U.S. Drought Monitor.” National Drought Mitigation Center: University of Nebraska-Lincoln. June 24. Accessed June 24, 2021. https://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/.