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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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Art
Artists Transform the Polar Bear Capital of the World Into Massive Mural Gallery
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Tre' Packard

The freezing village of Churchill, Manitoba has just gotten a whole lot brighter. Sixteen “artivists” recently descended on the self-titled Polar Bear Capital of the World, leaving behind beautiful murals with a meaningful message.

The Sea Walls: Artists for Oceans initiative is an international art project by the nonprofit PangeaSeed Foundation, which melds culture and environmental activism to increase public interest in saving our oceans. From 2014 to 2017, the program sponsored more than 300 murals in 12 countries by 200-plus artists from around the world.

Churchill’s Sea Walls were created in collaboration with the Polar Bear Fund (PBF), a nonprofit that supports innovative projects to raise awareness about the polar bears’ plight.

Polar bear mural on the side of a building.

Polar bear mural on the side of a building.

Spending more than 80 percent of their time in the water, polar bears are technically sea creatures, PBF founder Kal Barteski said in a statement.

“Polar bears are directly affected by the unprecedented melting of sea ice and subsequent habitat destruction at an alarming rate, resulting in a big challenge for the species to survive.”

Polar bear mural on the side of a building.

Artist painting a polar bear mural on the side of a building.

Tre’ Packard is the founder and executive director of PangeaSeed. “Public art and activism can educate and inspire the global community to help save our seas,” he said.

“Regardless of your location – large metropolitan city or small seaside village like Churchill – the ocean supplies us with every second breath we take and life on Earth cannot exist without healthy oceans.”

All images courtesy of Tre’ Packard. Artists, top to bottom: Kal Barteski, Arlin, Dulk, Jason Botkin, and Charles Johnston.

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Animals
Harry Potter Has Created a Huge Black Market for Owls in Indonesia
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There are many fantastical things in the Harry Potter world you can’t have. Teleportation. Invisibility. A weird tween’s ghost hanging out in your school bathroom. If you know where to look, though, you can buy yourself a pet owl like Hedwig. And that’s not a great thing for the owls.

In Indonesia, researchers believe that the popularity of the Harry Potter franchise is leading to a significant uptick in black-market owl trading, Nature reports.

A new study in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation examined the number of owl sales in 20 bird markets on the Indonesian islands of Bali and Java, where wild-caught birds are sold as pets. In the early 2000s, owls were rare in these markets, but now, more owls from a variety of species are available to buy, spelling bad news for bird conservation. (The first Indonesian translation of Harry Potter came out in 2000, and the first film was released in 2001.) In larger bird markets, there might be 30 to 60 owls representing as many as eight species available at once, according to the study. Owls made up less than 0.06 percent of the birds in Indonesian bird markets before 2002, but after 2008, they were 0.43 percent of the market.

While there could be other reasons for the increase in demand for owls as pets, such as greater internet access allowing people to trade info on where to get the birds, the world’s most famous boy wizard surely shares some of the blame. Look no further than the birds' popular name: "Harry Potter birds." They used to be known as "ghost birds," the researchers write.

Technically, selling wild-caught owls is illegal, but the law isn’t well enforced. Indonesia doesn’t monitor its native owl population, so it's hard to pin down exactly how this is affecting the numbers of wild owls in the region. But typically, nothing good comes of large numbers of wild birds being sold as pets, especially when they're kept in sub-par conditions. The paper's authors recommend that owls be placed on the country's protected species list, with better education for both bird traders and the public on the illegality of buying and selling owls caught in the wild. Maybe a "Save Hedwig" campaign is in order.

[h/t Nature]

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