Story at a glance

  • The Western U.S. entered a megadrought in 2000.
  • The megadrought was caused by a combination of dry elements and climate change.
  • The 2020 fire season was the West’s worst in recent history.

Some scientists believe the Western United States is on the verge of a permanent drought. 

A permanent drought is characterized by an unchanging dry climate, sparse vegetation and increased risk of wildfires.

Recent years have seen expansive droughts and longer fire seasons, following the year 2000 when scientists say the Western U.S. entered a megadrought. Found to be the second worst in 1,200 years, the megadrought was spurred by a combination of dry elements and climate change brought on by human activity.

Over the last 20 years, the two worst droughts occurred in 2003 and 2013.


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The concern is heightened as the Western states enter the summer dry season, with the U.S. Drought Monitor anticipating the driest conditions leading to water restrictions and an aggressive fire season.  

The U.S. Drought Monitor currently reads that Western states are experiencing temperatures ranging from 4 to 15 degrees above normal, and last year’s wet season saw 25 percent to 50 percent of its average rainfall. 

Complicating matters, the West’s southern areas only received 50 percent to 75 percent of their normal snowpack. In the West, lakes, rivers, and reservoirs depend on melting snow to replenish them. These then provide water to residents. For example, the Colorado River provides water for 40 million people and 5 million acres of farmland, according to an article by ABC. 

This is a recurring issue, with snowpack decreasing by 25 percent in Western states over the last 40 years. Now, the combination of lack of water, dry conditions and increased temperatures has caused concern as the area reenters fire season.

The 2020 fire season was the West’s worst in recent history. Both California and Colorado experienced their largest fires ever reported, and fire season itself is two to three months longer now than it was a few decades ago. 

As the West begins to enter fire season again, lasting late spring through early winter, the outlook is unpredictable.


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Published on Apr 12, 2021