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13 Photos of California's Devastating Drought

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California is home to plenty of weird and wonderful things: sea otters, for example, and burritos stuffed with french fries. But not all is sunny in the golden state. 2015 marks California’s fourth consecutive year of drought. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 71% of the state is considered to be in “extreme drought,” and only 0.14% is not experiencing drought at all—meaning a whopping 99.86% of the state is at least abnormally dry.

In the photo above, weeds grow from the cracked earth that used to be the bed of Lake McClure near La Grange. Images like this are becoming increasingly common in California as the drought continues into its fourth year. Here, we’ve collected 13 more.

1. Though cities feel the effects of the drought through water restrictions, the change in landscape is clearest in California’s rivers, lakes, dams, and reservoirs. This Buzzfeed collection of before and after shots of Lake Oroville and Folsom Dam, gives a striking picture of how much water these sites lost just between the summers of 2011 and 2014.

From a wider angle, the clear waterline at Lake McClure tells its own before-and-after story.

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2. The causes of the drought are both natural and manmade. In a study published earlier this month in Geophysical Research Letters, researchers analyzed soil moisture to determine that climate change is responsible for making the drought 15 to 20 percent worse. Dryness is also cyclical, and another study suggests that we may have been spoiled by 500 years of unusually wet conditions in the American West.

Here, Tahoe City looks little like its usual vacation-destination self as the pier at Commons Beach extends over dry land.

"Tahoe City Drought" by AFP via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

3. As temperatures rise, evaporation speeds up, increasing the likelihood that bodies of water will look like this one, the empty reservoir at Sweetwater Dam. In Los Angeles, the city is combating evaporation with shade balls, which act as a barrier between water and sun.

4. California has had a precarious relationship with water even before the current drought. The most populous state in the U.S. with almost 39 million people, California is mostly arid. Los Angeles is notoriously dry, which means that most of the city’s water travels a long distance, from the Colorado River or the Owens Valley.

This is the exposed dam wall and water intake of the San Luis reservoir, which is currently at 22% capacity

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5. Some of Los Angeles’s water also comes from the tributaries of Mono Lake, shown here. The south end of the lake is dotted with the rocky towers pictured here, called tufa, which are calcium carbonate (limestone) structures formed when water from calcium-rich underground springs mixes with carbonates in lakewater.

The tufa were once almost entirely underwater, but as the water recedes, they become increasingly exposed. The Mono Lake Committee has been fighting to restore water levels since 1978.

"Mono Lake Tufa at Twilight" by Derrick Story via Flickr //CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

6. Some of the biggest effects of California’s drought are felt by farmers. Here, a dry irrigation canal lies next to a fallow field in Lemoore.

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7. The drought has led to arguments about the water required to grow or raise food, particularly almonds (uprooted in the drought-stricken orchard pictured here) and beef. (Spoiler alert: The Onion wins.) The Los Angeles Times put together this interactive graphic that shows just how much water goes into producing one meal.

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8. The drought affects more than just humans and soil. It also disrupts ecosystems, causing ripple effects up and down the food chain. At Mono Lake, for example, salinity has been rising as the water level falls, making the lake less hospitable to brine shrimp, which in turn takes away an important resting stop for migrating birds that typically feed on the shrimp.

Salton Sea has been losing water since before the current drought. As a result, it’s known for its beach full of fish skeletons. As the water level decreases, the algae growth has boomed, as seen here. Note the murky-colored waves.

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9. The Salton Sea exemplifies another effect of drought: the spread of pollution through dust. Because the lake contains high levels of pesticides like DDT and arsenic, as it dries, these poisons settle in the dust and become airborne.

Ian Collins via Flickr //CC BY-ND 2.0

10. Other effects of drought include more rattlesnakes in residential neighborhoods, more insects indoors, increased birthrate among stray cats, and price increase for crops like grapes. This vineyard in Kern County has experienced extensive damage from sustained water shortages.

U.S. Department of Agriculture via Flickr //CC BY 2.0

11. Many argue that it’s unreasonable to expect that this drought will be short-lived. It may in fact be the start of a megadrought, a kind of drought that lasts two decades or longer. Climate change can only exacerbate these conditions.

Here, the Gibraltar Dam in Santa Barbara looks surprisingly dry for a temperate, foggy coastal town. 

"Gibraltar Dam, Paradise Canyon High Road River Trail loop" by Harold Litwiler via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

12. California is not the first area to experience serious drought in recent history. Australia went through a drought of its own between 1997 and 2009, and a recent study in the journal WIREs Water analyzed Melbourne’s response with the goal of finding possible solutions for other “water-stressed” regions. Some successful strategies included graywater treatment and rainwater holding tanks.

At Yosemite National Park, the water level has receded so far that families picnic on what would normally be the bed of Mirror Lake.

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13. El Niño may bring some drought relief to California this winter, but a sudden influx of rain will pose other challenges. Californians continue to hope that bodies of water, like this area of the Russian River, will eventually be restored to a healthy level again.

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Everyday Household Items Made From Black Plastic Can Be Harmful to Human Health
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It would be difficult to get through an entire day without coming into contact with plastic, but too much exposure to certain kinds of the material could pose a health risk, according to new research. A study by the University of Plymouth in England has revealed "significant and widespread contamination" of everyday items containing black plastic, such as thermos cups, toys, coat hangers, and Christmas decorations, Co.Design reports.

Black plastic isn't widely recycled because its dark pigment makes it hard for many plastic sorting facilities to detect it via infrared radiation. Nevertheless, the plastic parts of old electronic devices like laptops and music players are often repurposed into common household items. Researchers used X-ray fluorescence spectrometers to examine 600 black plastic items and found the presence of additives that can be harmful to human health, such as bromine, antimony, and lead. Historically, bromine has been used in electronic devices to prevent them from catching fire, but they’re not suitable for food containers or other items (like children's toys) that can come into contact with one's mouth. Their findings were published in Environment International.

"Black plastic may be aesthetically pleasing, but this study confirms that the recycling of plastic from electronic waste is introducing harmful chemicals into consumer products," the study's author, Andrew Turner, said in a statement released by the university. "That is something the public would obviously not expect, or wish, to see and there has previously been very little research exploring this."

As Co. Design points out, the greatest concern is cooking utensils, especially food containers. In the UK, some businesses have vowed to stop using black plastic, including supermarket chains Waitrose and Tesco. In Toronto, some businesses are considering swapping out their black plastics (like coffee cup lids) for materials that can be recycled more easily.

Another University of Plymouth study from January found toxic elements in second-hand children's toys, including bromine, lead, and other substances that can be toxic over time. Beyond the risk to human health, black plastic also harms the environment and introduces contaminants to beaches, the researchers found.

[h/t Co.Design]

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Climate Change Is Making It Hard for Bears to Hibernate Through the Winter
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What was once a rare sight—a bear wandering outside its den before springtime—has become increasingly common, thanks to climate change. As The New York Times reports, warming temperatures are waking American black bears from hibernation earlier than ever, and in some cases, preventing them from settling down for the winter in the first place.

Hibernation is a vital part of the black bear's life cycle. When awake, a bear must consume at least 11 to 18 pounds of food per day to maintain a healthy body weight. Withdrawing for the winter allows it to survive the food scarcity that comes with the colder months.

But as climate change promotes certain extreme weather patterns in the western U.S., the region's black bear population has begun to act differently. Last year the Pine Nut Mountains in Nevada saw unusually high levels of snowfall, and the excess moisture produced an abundant pine nut crop. This past winter, snowfall in the area hit near-record lows, leaving the pine nuts exposed on the ground for a longer period. The prolonged access to food in the area meant some bears started hibernating later or just never got around to it.

Many of the bears that did eventually crawl into their dens were woken up ahead of schedule this year. According to a 2017 study, for every 1°C that minimum winter temperatures rise, bears hibernate six days fewer. In January 2018, temperatures in the Pine Nut Mountains reached 5.4°C above the 20th-century average for the region.

Some years bears emerge from hibernation during droughts, which are exacerbated by climate change, and food is hard to come by. When that's the case, bears may end up on private property, raiding people's trash cans and bird feeders and sometimes breaking into their homes. Fatal bear attacks on humans aren't common: The more likely scenario is that the so-called problem bear will be euthanized. Bear management groups will often try other strategies, like capture and release and aversive conditioning, before resorting to this option. Nonetheless, dozens of bears are euthanized by states each year.

Black bears aren't the only ursine species being forced to adapt to global warming. In the Arctic, polar bears are losing the sea ice they need to hunt marine mammals, and many of them are moving onto land in search of prey. Climate change is pushing both species of bears toward human-populated territory, which means conflicts between the bears and people will only increase from here.

[h/t The New York Times]

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