GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A new study conducted by researchers at Michigan State University estimate the warming climate will trigger an unprecedented stretch of drought over the next 30 years.
Yadu Pokhrel, an associate professor with MSU’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, was one of the leading researchers on the project. The study was published last month in the scientific journal “Nature Communications.” He says it follows the basics of science.
“Rainfall or precipitation is going to reduce and temperatures are going up, for sure. There is a consistent trend historically and the projections show that temperatures will rise continuously,” Pokhrel told News 8. “With higher temperatures, more water will be lost as evaporation. That will lead to less water available on land, in rivers, lakes, groundwater, aquifers and so on.”
Pokhrel and his team used global climate models dating back to 1865 and forecasts through the year 2100. From there, the team broke down each climate variable, including factors like temperature, precipitation and humidity.
“We did this historical simulation and set the baseline. We know what was really unprecedented in every global region,” Pokhrel said. “And then we do future projections with 20 different models. We generated 2 million different combinations.”
Those simulations include an additional layer of projection: How much can the world cut its carbon emissions?
“We ran the simulations under two different scenarios,” Pokhrel told News 8. “One is very low emission. Basically, we put very strict climate mitigation measures (in place) and then emissions are reduced over time. The other is the top of the envelope. We continue doing everything business as usual like we do today, so emissions are going to continue and temperatures are going to rise at the fastest rate among all of these projections.”
The places that will be hit hardest by drought? Southwestern South America, Mediterranean Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. In those places, it’s already too late to take substantive action to prevent drought.
“Regardless of what we do, these unprecedented droughts are likely to happen. … We have already passed a threshold where there are significant steps in climate change. Even if we start reducing emissions today, we cannot help much,” Pokhrel said. “But in some other regions, if we take the low emissions pathway, we can substantially delay these kinds of droughts in time.”
Pokhrel says we are already seeing signs of these droughts growing in intensity.
The three dams that service the city of Monterrey, Mexico — home to more than 5 million people — are nearly dry. Authorities have forced people to restrict water use to just six hours per day while the city bakes with temperatures often cracking 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Cities in Arizona are implementing contingency plans on how to handle drought conditions that haven’t been seen in centuries. The Colorado River is so low that state officials in Colorado have been told to implement water restrictions or prepare for federal intervention.
Lake Mead, a popular recreational spot on the Arizona-Nevada border, is at its lowest level in more than 60 years. According to the National Parks Service, Lake Mead’s surface elevation has dropped 143 feet since 2000, losing about 62% of its water volume.
“California has been in a drought for more than a decade, almost two decades, like most of the southwestern U.S.,” Pokhrel said. “I think it is important for all of us to start thinking about saving water.”
Though Michigan is tucked neatly between four of the five Great Lakes, it doesn’t mean the state is out of the woods. While Michigan’s cities have large enough water sources, places further inland could see trouble, especially farmers and people who rely on consistent rainfall for crops.
“Farmers rely on rainfall, particularly the rain-fed agriculture,” Pokhrel said. “If there’s (less) rain and the river systems start depleting, groundwater levels go down over time. Then, there’s going to be a direct impact on farmers. That has already been seen in many parts of the U.S. and Michigan is no exception, even though we have a lot of water around.”