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Know the West

West of 100: Droughts past, present and future


This summer, the rest of the country has gotten a taste of something the American West has always lived with, and persistently for the last decade: drought. As of August, more than half of the country was experiencing at least moderate drought -- and in many places it was worse than that, with drought conditions that are considered severe, extreme, or exceptional. Huge corn crops in the Midwest won't even be harvested. The Mississippi River is being dredged to maintain a channel deep enough for barges. Here in Paonia, Colo., High Country News' hometown, irrigation season ended more than a month earlier than last year. 

Of course, drought has always been a fact of Western life. But with the specter of climate change hanging over every extreme weather event these days, this year's drought, and the dry years that have preceded it, have people wondering: Is this normal? Is this the new normal? 

So for this edition of West of 100, we're going to take a look at droughts past, present and future. We're venturing a little out of HCN's normal territory, to West Texas, which shares some climatic similarities with the Southwest, and was similarly crushed by the 1950s drought. We'll hear an oral history of the 1950s drought in West Texas, part of the series "Life By The Drop," a joint reporting project of KUT and Texas Monthly. And we'll talk with Christopher Schwalm, lead author of a recent Nature Geoscience study analyzing the 2000 to 2004 drought in the American West and looking at where it sits along the spectrum of potential drier futures projected by global climate models. Spoiler: It ain't good. 

Tune in to West of 100 around the middle of each month. Available via our RSS feed, or subscribe for free through iTunes.

Dripping water sound, courtesy of mich3d, licensed under Creative Commons

Music in this episode: "Farewell Song," by The Agrarians, licensed under Creative Commons. "At the Foothills," by James Beaubreau, licensed under Creative Commons. 

Image courtesy of Flickr user ntxpeach68, licensed under Creative Commons.