DON’T BE SURPRISED IF THE PRICES OF PRODUCE SKYROCKET IN THE NEXT SIX MONTHS. If the California draught, now two years old, continues the inflation in farm products could double or triple current prices within a year.
Thomas M. Kostigen for National Geographic
PUBLISHED FEBRUARY 13, 2014
Two years into California’s drought, Donald Galleano’s grapevines are scorched shrubs, their charcoal-colored stems and gnarled roots displaying not a lick of life. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Galleano, 61, the third-generation owner of a 300-acre vineyard in Mira Loma, California, that bears his name. “It’s so dry … There’s been no measurable amount of rain.”
California is is two years into its worst drought since record-keeping began in the mid 19th century, and scientists say this may be just the beginning. B. Lynn Ingram, a paleoclimatologist at the University of California at Berkeley, thinks that California needs to brace itself for a megadrought — one that could last for 200 years or more.
Given that California is one of the largest agricultural regions in the world, the effects of any drought, never mind one that could last for centuries, are huge. About 80 percent of California’s freshwater supply is used for agriculture. The cost of fruits and vegetables could soar, says Cantu. “There will be cataclysmic impacts.” (Related: “Epic California Drought and Groundwater: Where Do We Go From Here?”)
What’s causing the current drought?
Ingram and other paleoclimatologists have correlated several historic megadroughts with a shift in the surface temperature of the Pacific Ocean that occurs every 20 to 30 years—something called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). The PDO is similar to an El Nino event except it lasts for decades—as its name implies—whereas an El Nino event lasts 6 to 18 months.
Cool phases of the PDO result in less precipitation because cooler sea temperatures bump the jet stream north, which in turn pushes off storms that would otherwise provide rain and snow to California. Ingram says entire lakes dried up in California following a cool phase of the PDO several thousand years ago. Warm phases have been linked to numerous storms along the California coast.
How long the current California drought will last is anyone’s guess. The Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority is stymied by that uncertainty. “We need to import water, and we need to know how much we can move around,” she says. Some 4.5 million people rely on that southern California water supply, including ranchers and farmers.