So far, the Western United States has had a devastatingly hot, dry, and smoky 2021. Historic drought and heat waves have contributed to wildfires throughout the region. Massive blazes burned for months, scorching millions of acres and forcing residents in some places to evacuate.
Experts say climate change is partly to blame. Much of the West is naturally hot and dry, so droughts and fires are not unusual there. Still, experts say that as the climate is shifting, the region is experiencing less precipitation and higher temperatures than ever before. That helps create the perfect conditions for wildfires.
But fires aren’t the only consequence of climate change in the West. This summer, the region experienced multiple heat waves, including one in the normally mild Pacific Northwest. Temperatures there reached 20 to 30 degrees above normal. The heat was blamed for nearly 200 deaths.
Meanwhile, much of the West has been gripped by drought. Reservoirs that provide water to millions of people have dropped to record low levels. The vast majority of water used in the West goes to agriculture.
Water supplies have been cut for some farmers in the region. States are also asking residents to conserve water. For example, California is requesting that most residents cut water usage by 15 percent.
Federal and state officials have also proposed ways to increase the West’s resilience to drought and fires. Those include upgrading infrastructure to ensure there is enough access to water during dry spells, and thinning forests by removing some trees to help prevent fires from spreading.
At the same time, scientists warn that the West’s extreme drought, heat, and fires are signs that combating climate change remains an urgent goal for the nation.