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The New Dust Bowl

The Central Valley, the thin, fertile band running down the middle of California, has long boasted the world's richest agricultural economy, reliably producing more than a quarter of the nation's fruits, nuts, and vegetables. But it's done so in defiance of ecological reality. The 70-year-old irrigation system that has pumped water into the otherwise arid valley is proving increasingly vulnerable to shifting weather patterns. It now appears that waterwise, 20th century California was an anomaly, a relatively wet period in the midst of a historical cycle of severe drought.

And the changing climate will only magnify the problem: By the end of the century, scientists predict, Central California could experience temperatures rivaling Death Valley's and face the loss of 90 percent of the Sierra Nevada snowpack, the region's main water source. "Business as usual won't work in the future," says Eike Luedeling, an expert in plant sciences at the University of California-Davis, whose research shows that higher temperatures will likely decimate the state's $10 billion fruit and nut industry. "Especially for tree crops, adapting will require huge investments that probably a lot of small guys can't make anymore."

The sudden collapse of the Central Valley's economy illustrates how climate change can push a fragile region over the edge. Already vulnerable from rampant housing speculation and a dependence on industrial agriculture, the valley never prepared for a prolonged spate of bad weather. In 2008, local bankruptcy filings jumped 74 percent—from about 15,300 to 27,000—a rate of increase twice the national average. Three of the valley's counties were among the nation's six worst for foreclosures, with nearly 85,000 houses lost. The drought is expected to dry up a billion dollars in income and 35,000 jobs, adding to a statewide unemployment rate that recently hit 11.9 percent—the highest since the eve of World War II. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has asked the federal government to declare the region a disaster area.

On the west side of the valley, which is often last in line for deliveries from federal water projects, farmers are selling prized almond trees for firewood, fields are reverting to weed, and farmworkers who once fled droughts in Mexico are overwhelming food banks. In short, the valley is becoming what an earlier generation of refugees thought they'd escaped: an ecological catastrophe in the middle of a social and economic one—a 21st century Dust Bowl.
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