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Mapping the Spread of Drought Across the U.S (nytimes.com)
98 points by mturmon 909 days ago | hide | past | web | 44 comments | favorite

I think this excellent feature also serves as a great example of the shortcomings of maps. When I saw the tweeted screenshot of the most recent version of this map, I thought, "Oh shit, the drought is all over the place!"

However, actually going to the article and seeing the D3 animation...I see that it's...kind of the same as before? That is, still not great, but not overall more of a severe drought? Or is it? Just because it looks like a few areas have receded, I can't say for sure my eye is summing up all the drought-areas correctly...so even with the time-lapse, it's hard to tell if things have gotten worse, or better...

And of course, "better/worse" compared to the last few months is just one thing to care about...I'd also like to know how the drought level right now compares to last year, last decade, etc....and while we're looking at the past, I want to see what the rates of change were in those past timeframes, so I can judge whether or not the change from this month to last is drastic or expected (based on the cycle).

The bottom of the article contains just that chart (which is why I think this is such a great feature)...of course, you lose the geographical information, but at least the perspective is there. One minor improvement, with a small tradeoff in clutter, is to overlay a small part of the Palmer Drought Index chart on top (or near) the map, so that anyone visiting this map, now or in the future, can have some perspective at a glance on how bad the drought is...because without that frame of reference, just about any quantity of orange/red over a geographical map will be dramatic.

The map is just for this summer, so it's not really trying to show a progression. Just which areas are in continuous drought vs a 1 off.

An annual map going back a 100 or so years would be vary interesting, but I don't think we have that data.

This. There may be some correlation between AGW and this drought, but this map is not doing a good job of illustrating that.

It's not a "shortcoming of maps". It's a difficulty in data representation. It's hard to clearly display more than two metrics in a chart. If geography is one of your key metrics, a map is perfect.

What's the evidence for the link between west coast droughts in recent years and global warming? (I'm not trying to start a debate, just genuinely asking).

I apologize for not having time right now to track down primary sources for you, but if you're interested in learning more about the current research specifically on this drought and climate, look up stuff related to the position and strength of the North Pacific High, how it's affected by the Arctic Oscillation (and decoupling of the AO from the North Atlantic Oscillation), and how those are related to extreme jet stream configurations (regarding which there is emerging evidence for a relationship with Arctic sea ice extent).

And if you find good stuff, post the links!

Dr. Jennifer Francis at Rutgers has a great talk on the polar vortex and climate: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ETpm9JAdfcs (40m, polar vortex starts at 24m)

Full unedited: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RtRvcXUIyZg (1h24m)

Exactly. The recent drought on the west coast can be attributed to a very massive high pressure system sitting off the coast deflecting away much needed rain storms. http://www.mercurynews.com/science/ci_24904396/california-dr... --- Is this "resilient ridge" caused by global warming/climate change? Haven't seen any evidence that links the two yet. If El Nino doesn't produce a very very wet this winter, then a lot of change will be coming to the west.

I found the book "The West without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts, and Other Climatic Clues Tell Us about Tomorrow" very informative.


The authors describe their paleoclimatology research, what the water in the West has typically been, and how global warming may impact things (for the worse) - with some tips on mitigation.

I was left wondering the same thing. The author did not present evidence that global warming is the cause, and from the Palmer Drought Index data, the current drought appears no more severe than those of the 30s and 50s.

The evidence given in the article is "A 10-year average of Palmer values has been increasing for most of the last 20 years, which is to say that the country is in the midst of one of its most sustained periods of increasing drought on record."

If the new normal is what used to be severe peaks than the west is in trouble. But looking at that graph, especially the non-smoothed light-grey line, I'd say we need another 10 years of data to be sure that we are in a new pattern.

>But looking at that graph, especially the non-smoothed light-grey line, I'd say we need another 10 years of data to be sure that we are in a new pattern.

Ok, imagine it's a decade hence and we're all "sure" the Western US is in a new climate pattern (most likely because it's gotten worse).

What happens then?

Personally I'm very much a global warming believer and I think we needed big carbon taxes 20 years ago.

That doesn't mean that I think any aberration in weather patterns should be blamed on global warming without evidence.

Ahh, sorry for the miscommunication. I can see why you took my question that way.

It was a serious inquiry, more along the lines of, "what difference would it actually make?" I don't see another line of evidence convincing the skeptics, and the diffusion of responsibility and the probabilistic nature of climate consequences means the present tort system is incapable of addressing the problem.

> What happens then?

These are neat thought-experiments because the challenge is to try to imagine everything that would be affected by water, how they interact, and what will happen to them, without blowing things so out of proportion that they sound unrealistic.

First, let's assume a best-case scenario for human behavior: that the majority of the population decides it wants to stay, at least for the near term, and that people decide to throw money and technology at the problem, and there isn't mass hysteria and so on.

I think two things will happen immediately, almost simultaneously: one, various demands for water will suddenly start competing with eachother (e.g. municipal vs. agricultural), and two, water conservation will become a big business, as big as energy conservation has become.

With the first, we're going to see food prices rise across the board. California alone produces a lot of dairy, a lot of fruit, a lot of vegetables, and a lot of it in the central valley areas. Water costs will rise, and so will food costs. This will exacerbate the already high cost-of-living problem in a lot of areas in the west, and there are a lot of struggling rural areas that will get into even more trouble.

With the second, homeowners eager to avoid ever-increasing water costs are going to be replacing toilets and other fixtures. Plumbers will be busy for a while. But, yards are going to be one of the first things to go for a lot of homeowners, so we're going to see a lot of xeriscaping, and as a result a lot of landscaping services are going to suffer really badly.

Coastal cities with sufficient resources -- San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara -- will start reactivating, building, or seriously considering desalination plants, all of which will need efficient power generation to be cost effective. So we might see some nuclear come back online, but that could take several decades easily.

Watersheds all over the state will suffer badly and environmentalists will freak right out. There will probably begin to be some long-term changes in ecology; there's already a wild fish problem in California and Oregon at least, and dry lakes and warm, dry riverbeds will pretty much destroy remaining populations. Fishing is still a big business in California, and that's going to suffer, as is a lot of adjunct business related to fishing: tourism, hospitality, and so on.

The dry conditions will leave the state ripe for wildfires, so there will almost definitely be an ever-increasing wildfire threat in the state, with increasing costs for firefighting and increasing loss of life and property. Smoke inhalation causes respiratory problems in large numbers of people outside of burning areas. When it rains on burned areas, there are mudslides, causing more property damage.

It will also get hotter, resulting in some desertification. I'll stop short of saying this is a runaway cycle, but it could get pretty bad.

At this point I see one of two things happening: either California quietly falls further and further into debt with more and more agricultural and other revenue losses, and falls out of the top 10 list of world economies as people begin to leave the state for greener or less expensive places, or some of the brilliant science and engineering talent in the west starts taking a very close look at attempting to turn the tide back, possibly with new agricultural methods, desalination, reclamation, and environmental efforts. For example, California is already considering reversing the flow of its aqueduct system (!) (http://www.mercurynews.com/science/ci_25709331/california-dr...).

Water shortages will also further divide the already politically divided state of California. Rural and agricultural areas already feel that their representation in the state is unfair, and the "state of Jefferson" movement is gaining a surprising amount of traction. As politicians and agencies are forced to make decisions on who gets water, nobody's going to be happy with the results; it will only add fuel to various efforts to break the state up into smaller states (which I think would be a massive, massive mistake for rural communities; as unfair as the current system is -- and it does need to be fixed -- there's no such thing as a wealthy rural state).

Ultimately, I think that a lot of how this turns out will depend on the leadership that the state has at the time.

Climate-wise, there isn't much that I expect people will be able to do other than adapt. This is not, however, the same as doing nothing. The sooner we begin to adapt, the less severe the adaptation will need to be later.

We really, really need to stop growing lawn grass as a region.

I'm only 1 season in, but clover is nice.

A part of the grass thing I think is the fairly recent desire to have a pure Fescue/Bermuda/etc grass lawn.

I don't remember why, but a few months ago it popped into my head: You know, when I was a kid in Harlingen, there was clover everywhere. We'd pick a bit out of lawns as we roamed the neighborhood and chew on it. It's been decades since I've seen a neighborhood like that...

So I bought some clover seed and spread it around. Within just a couple weeks (4 or 5 days of daily watering at the outset to establish it) it was crazy green, spread through most of the lawn, while not being disruptive to the grass. The grass actually seems to be benefitting. It is chocking out weeds OTOH, so win win win. Overall my lawn is a whole lot brighter/greener/more-alive and it doesn't take more than the twice weekly watering schedule allowed by DFW's water conservation ordinances.

Now at the height of summer my lawn looks better than most of my neighbors and unlike the retirees' manicured lawns I'm not out there watering with a hose (a loophole the water conservation ordinance allows to please the demographic) daily.

I just thought it was noteworthy that there's a middle-ground between green painted gravel like Sun City, AZ, and golf-course lawns.

> I don't remember why, but a few months ago it popped into my head: You know, when I was a kid in Harlingen, there was clover everywhere. We'd pick a bit out of lawns as we roamed the neighborhood and chew on it. It's been decades since I've seen a neighborhood like that...

Clover was not considered a weed until the 1950s, when 2,4-D became the herbicide of choice.

Before then, seed companies intentionally added clover into their grass seed mixes. Clover will grow in nitrogen-deficient soil because it can fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. Grass cannot. If you wanted to avoid bare patches on your lawn, you needed the clover.

For example, the book Planting and Care of Lawns (1931) recommends planting lawns north of 35 N latitude with a mixture containing 5% clover: http://books.google.com/books?id=_vL1mNCfVDAC&pg=PA8

  For the greater part of region 1 the following mixture
  has proved quite satisfactory: Kentucky bluegrass 17 parts,
  redtop 2 parts, white clover 1 part by weight.
Once 2,4-D became popular, anything that it killed became regarded as a weed. This included clover, so clover became a weed.

> watering with a hose (a loophole...)

Are you sure that's a loophole? I've seen statistics that hand watering and drip irrigation systems are much less wasteful than sprinklers. And sprinklers are the only thing that are banned to twice-weekly in my region of DFW at least.

I think drip is in a different category.

I wouldn't argue your overall point, but my point is that it's not like those neighbors don't run their sprinkler systems. They're supplementing with hand watering. Not substituting.

And who has time for that except empty-nesters?

Don't get me wrong. I love my neighbors. Living in the city has been an entirely different experience for me coming from the suburbs. There's an actual feeling of community here I never experienced out there.

Maybe it's unfair, but I just expect City Hall would have a hard time going to usage based billing instead.

You seem to be overestimating the amount water we use for lawns.

Agriculture uses 77% of all water in California. Residential is less than 14%, with half of that being indoor use.

I am all in favor of low water gardening, but you are not going to save us from the drought by getting rid of lawns.

>I am all in favor of low water gardening, but you are not going to save us from the drought by getting rid of lawns.

That's why you replace the lawns with zero-maintenance[1] food forests.

Water? Rainwater irrigates the garden, suburbs having an abundance of 100% runoff surfaces like streets, roofs, etc that are usually mismanaged. Reforestation is critical, since ~80% of inland rainfall comes from transpiration.[2]

In deserts (read: much of California), minimizing evaporation is key. You also need to harvest the infrequent (and torrential) rains that do happen. If you have a floods followed months later by droughts, that should tell you that your water system isn't set up correctly. ;)

Global warming? How about instead of driving to the supermarket, having the produce section is right outside your door? Since an acre of farm-land is now CO2 positive, this is a big win.

Fertilizer? Municipal-scale composting of human wastes[3] can safely close the nutrient cycle. In a zero-maintenance system the "weeds" build soil, fix nitrogen, eat minerals, and attract support species like pest-eaters and pollinators (which are really "seed spreaders", since they let the plants re-seed themselves).

One challenge is that zero-maintenance food systems can look "messy" to the suburban eye

[1] Do you have time to tend a garden?

[2] http://www.science.uwaterloo.ca/~jjgibson/mypdfs/nature11983...

[3] e.g. http://www.milorganite.com/Using-Milorganite/What-is-It

Yeah, but agriculture feeds people. Lawns... look nice?

A very good point. But most agriculture water in California is used in livestock production... esp. Alfalfa.

If water for agriculture were not so heavily subsidized by taxpayers, the market would likely correct the shortage fairly quickly with changes in diet (which arguably might have some health benefits as well).



Funny enough, that would require changes to laws first: http://www.foxnews.com/us/2014/07/19/california-couple-faces...

I would love it if I could just throw a bunch of gravel down around my house and never have to worry about mowing again...

Well, there is a middle ground involving heartier plants that require little watering (and less maintenance to boot).

Denver Water coined the term "xeriscape" (xeros is Greek for "dry") to describe this. They have extensive documentation on how to make it happen, as well as a xeriscaped garden you can tour at their headquarters.


The city of Long Beach will pay you to replace your grass. http://www.lblawntogarden.com/

I didn't know the word came from Denver, but now it's commonly pushed here in Florida, too, with demonstration lawns and such.

That's really ridiculous. You HAVE to have a "nice, green lawn"?

We also need good alternatives. If you just leave disturbed earth or stop watering you wend up with nap weed and other noxious, not native weeds that contribute to desertification.

Developing a mature, drought tolerant landscape is difficult though there are some really interesting techniques used by permaculturists and others.

Not growing rice may also help.

A few water and the southwest related articles:

Water and Texas: http://www.mensjournal.com/magazine/print-view/who-stole-the...

Arizona and wildfires (and water): http://www.azcentral.com/news/wildfires/yarnell/arizona-wild...

SoCal's current water management (shorter than the other articles): http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-famiglietti-south...

I think there's a certain point at which we need to accept, and are accepting, that droughts will happen and that we need to prepare for them.

Mike Bostock and D3!

Everything that guy touches is visualization gold. I wish I had half as much talent.

Exactly! I submitted it because @mbostock (https://news.ycombinator.com/user?id=mbostock) is a contributor here, and I think (?) this is his first direct appearance in the NYT. Congratulations!

Not true: Mike Bostock's stuff is all over the NYT website very frequently. He and Jeremy Ashkenas seem to be key players over there. Very inspiring work from both of them.

Thanks for the correction.

Glad someone pointed out the really weak "Hacker News" tie in. I thought I left global warming wars behind at slashdot.

Why is it global warming warriors decide to invade every tech board? Isn't there a global warming board somewhere they can argue on?

You didn't have to click on the link.

Also, your categorization of "global warming warriors" seems a bit senseless, as if there are not regular folks on HN who happen to also be interested in climate change.

>You didn't have to click on the link.

I don't have to come to this website for that matter. The reason I do is because of the focus on technology news. If that is going to change, then I will leave and go elsewhere. I already find myself checking datatau before hn these days, because the content is so much more focused/relevant/better.

>Also, your categorization of "global warming warriors" seems a bit senseless, as if there are not regular folks on HN who happen to also be interested in climate change.

Then they can go to a climate change news site. Is it too much to ask that the submissions to a tech news site be on topic? Given my down votes, I guess it is. So long, and thanks for all the fish.

I recall reading that Napa and Sonoma are going downhill as a result, and that 10-15 more years of this will make the Washington and Oregon wines just as good, if not better. I hope the Microsoft millionaires are investing in wine country. :-)


That drought is spreading across the western US. Not sure how that's difficult to discern.

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