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Scorching heat broils West again: Severe drought and heat wave, explained

The temperature topped 130 degrees in Death Valley, the hottest seen anywhere on Earth in almost a century.

Dry riverbed in the Rio Grande

The drought in the West is reaching new peaks.

NOAA

Extreme heat and related drought continue to ramp up in the Western US and Canada, with the region currently bracing for a fourth heat wave since early June. New triple-digit record highs are in the forecast for places like Montana that are normally thought of as escapes from the summer sizzle.

Earlier this month, California's Death Valley recorded a scorching high temperature of 130 degrees on July 11. That ties the hottest reliably recorded temperature anywhere on Earth and puts an even bolder exclamation point on an already unprecedented summer for numerous regions.

Record high temperatures have also been seen along the West Coast from California all the way up to British Columbia, with the heat now blamed for hundreds of deaths in Canada and the US.  

One village in British Columbia topped 121 degrees, the hottest temperature ever recorded anywhere in Canada. Within days a wildfire tied to the heat burned down the majority of the same town.

The heat is also directly tied to critical water resources. Already below average snowpack in California's southern Sierra mountains quickly disappeared under the searing sun this year and by June 1 the California Department of Water Resources reported snow was at zero percent of normal.

These record-toppling, early-season heat waves, related droughts and wildfires in the West are exacerbated by climate change and have become nearly annual events. Portland, Oregon, hit an all-time high of 112 degrees June 27 and then broke that record the following day by notching a high of 116. All this has some beginning to seriously consider the prospect that ratcheting temperatures and severe lack of rainfall could be permanent.

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Mountain snow melted away nearly a month ahead of schedule, leaving reservoirs without their usual inflow of freshwater.

NASA/Terra-Modis

It's a worrying sign for a region already in the grips of a historic drought and recovering from last year's destructive wildfires. Now, as wildfire season ramps up again, unprecedented water shortages are raising anxieties among farmers and municipal water managers facing reductions or even being completely cut off from all water.

Here's everything you need to know about the ongoing drought in the West as it reaches epic proportions.

How can I monitor drought conditions?

One look at a heat map of the drought in the Western US states may be enough to send the message home. Numerous websites and organizations keep tabs on the worsening meteorological conditions, including this drought monitor from drought.gov, a site from the National Integrated Drought Information System. 

You can compare current drought conditions with historical data, and further search to see how the sky-high temperatures and shrinking groundwater affect your neighborhood. (You'll enter your ZIP code.) The site updates each Thursday with the most recent information.

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The darker the red on the map, the worse the drought.

Screenshot by CNET, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

How severe is the Western drought?

Not surprisingly, given all the records that have been toppling, this June was the hottest ever on record in the US, according to the World Meteorological Organization. As of July 13, nearly 28% of the Western US was experiencing exceptional drought, which is what the US National Drought Monitor considers the most intense level of dryness, and 99% of the West is seeing some level of drought. Prior to this cycle of dryness, which started in November, the biggest proportion of the West dealing with exceptional drought at any one time during the last 20 years was just 12%.

In other words, the extent of the most extreme level of drought in the West is more than double what it's been at any other point this century. And research that doesn't even include the last two years suggests the period between 2000 and 2018 in the Southwest was the driest such span seen in over four centuries. This is where all the talk about a megadrought comes from: It's defined as a prolonged drought lasting two decades or longer. Arguably, parts of the West are already there.

In the shorter term, this is the second consecutive dry year for the West. Water levels are at historic lows in many of California's reservoirs, as well as at other key stores around the region including Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which are formed by the Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams on the Colorado River, respectively. The USGS measures stream and river flows throughout the West, and the Upper Colorado above Lake Powell is seeing flows that are below 20 percent of normal at some key locations in Colorado and Utah.

The federal government is poised to declare a first-ever water shortage tied to the unprecedented lows. The declaration will mean less water for farmers already struggling through the heat.

See also: Don't delay when preparing your home for wildfire season

Local weather reports are only adding to both short- and long-term concerns about dryness.

On June 24, Palm Springs, California, tied the highest temperature ever seen in the city: 123 degrees F (50.6 Celsius). In the same week, Santa Fe, New Mexico, which sits 700 miles (1,127 kilometers) to the east at an elevation of 7,200 feet (2,195 meters) tied its all-time high of 102 degrees F (38.9 C). The previous records at these locations were set in the heat of summer, in July and August. This year's heat wave started before summer even officially began.

What states are in a drought in 2021?

As of July 13, there was at least some level of drought in at least one county in 39 of 50 US states. However, exceptional drought was only seen in 10 states -- North Dakota, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and California. Utah, Arizona and southern Nevada are the areas where the exceptional dryness is most widespread, while the heavily populated San Francisco Bay Area and the inland central forests to the north are also a tinderbox for the second year in a row.

Additionally, there are 10 states where the entire state was suffering from some level of drought or excessive dryness: North Dakota, Minnesota, Maine, Montana, Utah, Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, California and Oregon.

What does it mean for people living in the West?

Fire restrictions are already in place across much of the region. Don't expect many fireworks in the West this summer, but smoke or haze from wildfires is already a feature of daily life in the Southwest this month.

If conditions worsen, entire national forests, parks and other public lands may be closed off to certain types of access, impacting numerous small towns across the area that depend on outdoor recreation and tourism. That's to say nothing of the rivers and lakes that also support local economies but are rapidly drying up.

California is already beginning to cut off water supplies to farmers and other users in much of its Central Valley and the Russian River watershed, where the drought is at its worst in the state. The Central Valley is one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world.

"Conditions in the Russian River watershed have deteriorated rapidly and are already worse than those experienced during the last drought," said Joaquin Esquivel, chair of the State Water Board.

The board is struggling to meet demand for agricultural needs while preserving required water flow for endangered fish species and drinking water supply for downstream cities.

So far there doesn't seem to be any indication that urban taps will be shut off this year, but officials are already urging people to conserve water to help avoid a worst-case scenario.

Is climate change to blame?

Climate change, largely driven by human activity, is making the problem worse. 

A study of the most recent intense period of drought in California found that human-caused global warming "is increasing the probability" of the warmer and drier "conditions like those that have created the acute human and ecosystem impacts associated with the 'exceptional' 2012-2014 drought in California."

Other studies also reach similar conclusions, which is what we hear a lot about climate change: it isn't to blame for these extreme weather events, but it does make them more likely and more intense.

"Currently, climate change has caused rare heat waves to be 3 to 5 degrees warmer over most of the United States," writes climate scientist Michael Wehner of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in a recent statement.

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A smoke-filled sky over the Bay Area in 2020 gave the sun an eerie Martian glow.

James Martin/CNET

When will the drought end?

It would take quite a deluge of precipitation to turn this summer into an average year in the record books. Strong monsoon moisture could reduce currently biblical drought conditions to just extreme or really bad conditions, but 2021 is shaping up to be a pretty dry year and perhaps set a new standard for how we define what a dry year is.

Over the longer term, it appears that the predictions we've heard for the past couple of decades of a great Southwestern megadrought are becoming reality. Many expect the trend to hold deep into the middle of this century. If that's the case, even bigger changes like expanded desertification start to enter the picture.

However, that could be generations away, and things may shift -- we can all hope. In the meantime, though, it's best to start being smarter about how you use water and energy if you live in the West, and if you live elsewhere, those of us here would sure appreciate a reexamination of everyone's carbon footprint.

Stay safe out there.

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