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Southwest Lurches from Drought to Flood

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What’s behind the massive floods in Phoenix and Las Vegas that caused unprecedented death and destruction this week, along with the deepening megadrought in California, the chilly summer in several Midwestern states, and all the other weird weather effects this year?

For a simple answer, look to the latest figures on greenhouse gases from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Last year, they went through the roof, once again, with CO2 hitting 396 parts per million, the highest annual level since we started keeping records.

No human being has ever witnessed greenhouse gases at this level. Scientists say the last time Planet Earth was like this was probably about 2 million years ago, during the Pleistocene Era.

The point of no return for CO2 in the atmosphere is generally considered to be 350 ppm. (That’s why environmentalist Bill McKibben’s website is called 350.org.)

Before the Industrial Revolution, the level was around 275 ppm. In 2007, when NASA scientist James Hansen testified to Congress about the urgency of the situation, atmospheric levels were at 383 ppm, and they’ve been climbing steadily. In May last year, the monthly level topped 400 ppm, and settled at 396 for the year (479 ppm when methane and nitrous oxide are included). The oceans and forests have maxed out and can no longer keep up with the amount of CO2 and methane that we’re poisoning the atmosphere with.

The story gets worse: Every day, according to the WMO, the oceans absorb 8.8 pounds of CO2 per human on the planet. As a result, they are becoming more acidic than ever, dissolving coral reefs and the shells of crustaceans. And it now appears that the oceans and the forests have maxed out and can no longer keep up with the amount of CO2 and methane (an even more dangerous greenhouse gas) we’re poisoning the atmosphere with.

“Of particular concern is that carbon storage in the world’s forests and oceans may be faltering,” Professor Dave Reay of the University of Edinburgh told The Independent. “So far these carbon sinks have been locking away almost half of all the carbon dioxide we emit. If they begin to fail in the face of further warming then our chances of avoiding dangerous climate change become very slim indeed.”

And according to Dr. Oksana Tarasova of the WMO:

“It could be that the biosphere is already at its limit, or it may be close to reaching it. This problem is very serious.”

WMO secretary-general, Michel Jarraud warns:

“We are running out of time. The law of physics are non-negotiable.”

The drought could be worse than anything experienced by any humans who have lived in [the Southwest] for the last few thousand years.”In fact, while it’s politically incorrect to say so, we’ve already run out of time.

Climate scientist Gregg Garfin of the University of Arizona foresees a worst-case scenario where people have to migrate out of California altogether in the years to come. To avoid this, he told USA Today, “we could simply suck down more and more groundwater, which would have its own set of ramifications.” 

According to Cornell University scientist Toby Ault, the likelihood of the Southwest experiencing a decade-long megadrought is at least 50 percent and likely closer to 80-90 percent. And the chances of a three-decade-long megadrought range up to 50 percent over the next century:

“I’m not optimistic about avoiding real megadroughts. As we add greenhouse gases into the atmosphere – and we haven’t put the brakes on stopping this – we are weighting the dice for megadrought conditions

… They could possibly be even worse than anything experienced by any humans who have lived in that part of the world for the last few thousand years.”


A helicopter monitored the inexorable advance of the earlier August flood on the I-15 in North Phoenix.

Ironically, the flash floods that hit Phoenix, Las Vegas and parts of Southern California have done virtually nothing to relieve the drought conditions, since it would take sustained rain over an extended period to replenish reservoirs and the Colorado River.

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