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Study: “Megadrought” The New Norm In The West

July 30, 2012 | KUOW
CONTRIBUTED BY:
Ashley Ahearn

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  • This tower in a ponderosa pine forest near Sisters, OR gathers data on forest productivity and soil processes that influence the carbon dioxide and water vapor exchange with the atmosphere. credit: Beverly Law
This tower in a ponderosa pine forest near Sisters, OR gathers data on forest productivity and soil processes that influence the carbon dioxide and water vapor exchange with the atmosphere. | credit: Beverly Law | rollover image for more

You’d have to go back to the middle ages to find a period as dry as 2000-2004 in the American West.

Snowpack decreased. Crop productivity in much of the west went down by 5 percent. Evapotranspiration decreased the most in evergreen needleleaf forests - by about 33 percent.

And that’s not the worst news, the authors of a new paper in the journal Nature Geoscience say.

Grasses plants and trees suck up about 30 percent of our CO2 emissions in North America. In the Northwest, that percentage is even higher.

But not during drought years.

“We saw a 51 percent reduction in this net carbon uptake,” says Beverly Law, a professor of global change biology at Oregon State University. “A lot of the sites that were involved in this analysis are evergreen needle leaf forests – doug fir that you see in the NW and ponderosa pine.”

Law says this dry weather compounds our CO2 emissions problem: More CO2 in the atmosphere means more drought. And more drought means the trees and plants are less able to suck up our CO2 emissions.

She adds that as we continue to depend on fossil fuels, things aren’t looking any better.

“This is what it could be like into the future and we can only handle so many large events that cause harm to people’s livelihoods, vegetation, animals – the things we rely on.”

Climate models predict that 80 out of the next 95 years will be just as dry as the 2000-2004 drought period.

© 2012 KUOW
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