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Sundin column: The hottest and driest year on record

Hal Sundin
As I See It

The year 2021 will go down as the American West’s hottest and driest year in recorded history. The states of Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and northern California are all setting new records for high temperatures and low precipitation through August, with little sign of change in the rest of the year.

A forecaster has noted that this drought could become the worst in at least 1,200 years.

The implications are severe, far-reaching and frightening. Droughts will diminish stream flows, creating massive water shortages — significantly impacting crop yields, livestock production, electric power generation and wildlife survival, and opening the door to massive fires that incinerate everything in their path.



Fire deforestation also increases erosion and destruction from uncontrolled runoff. High heat intensifies drought, increasing the heat as soil moisture (which normally reduces the heat by evaporation) declines — a vicious cycle. Researchers have determined that climate change has nearly doubled drought conditions between 2000 and 2018.

Vast amounts of farmland are being taken out of production — a million acres in California alone, at an economic cost of billions of dollars. It is also threatening food supplies worldwide. Electricity production from dams has dropped: The hydroelectric plant at Lake Oroville, California, may be forced to shut down.

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The 20-year drought has reduced the flow in the Colorado River by 4 million acre-feet per year from the 16 million acre-feet per year allocated in a 1922 compact by the seven states dependent on it. That requires the drafting of a Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan, which will expire in five years. Both Lake Mead and Lake Powell are about one-third full, invoking mandatory water cuts.

The scorching temperatures are straining the electric power grid, posing threats of fires ignited by failure of overhead power lines, as happened in California in 2018 when almost 2 million acres of forest burned, destroying most of the city of Paradise (population nearly 30,000), killing 85 people.

The 2020 fire season in California was even more widespread, when almost 10,000 wildfires burned an area of 4.25 million acres. Now, 2021 is proving to be just as destructive, if not more so. The 500,000-acre Dixie Fire has destroyed the town of Greenville, California (population 1,000).

The heat and drought are worldwide phenomena, afflicting China and India, the world’s two largest populations, as well as most of Europe (especially Greece, Spain and Turkey) and even Siberia, with no end in sight. In Greece it is so serious that it was declared a national emergency. High temperatures will render many parts of the world unlivable.

In the U.S. and much of Europe, air conditioning, which merely pumps the heat outdoors and increases electricity demand, is contributing to the problem. In the Arctic, global warming is thawing the permafrost, releasing massive amounts of methane gas, which is 80 times as effective an atmospheric heating agent as carbon dioxide but shorter lived. Much of the Brazilian rainforest (which converted huge amounts of carbon dioxide back to oxygen) has been destroyed to raise cattle and produce palm oil.

Last month, newspapers featured articles reporting far more dire predictions of global warming, presented to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in an alarming 3,000-page report by 234 scientists. The panel called it a “Code Red Alert,” cautioning that unless drastic steps are taken to rein in the massive consumption of fossil fuels, the world will face a future threatening the survival of mankind. They cited the ever-increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide (now up to nearly 1.5 times pre-industrial levels) and methane (from cattle) in the atmosphere, and their effects on climate.

Temperatures worldwide are threatening to exceed the 2-degrees centigrade warming set by the International Panel on Climate Control as a ceiling not to be exceeded. Melting of the Antarctic and Greenland ice caps and glaciers worldwide, and thermal expansion of the oceans, will raise ocean levels 2-3 feet, causing massive coastal flooding and making many islands (especially in the Pacific) uninhabitable. Rising ocean temperature (reducing oxygen levels) and increased acidity (caused by increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere) will adversely affect sea life.

Scientists have been predicting these effects for 30 years, but no one was listening. Now we are faced with the herculean task of attempting to reverse those trends. How many of us will be willing to make the sacrifices required to pass a livable world on to our children and grandchildren? Quoting Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and he is us!”

“As I See It” appears monthly in the Post Independent and at postindependent.com. Hal Sundin lives in Glenwood Springs and is a retired environmental and structural engineer. Contact him at americron@comcast.net.


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