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Drought, Fires And Heat: A Look At Nevada's Climate On Earth Day 2021

An image of Lake Mead dried up.
James Marvin Phelps
CC BY-NC 2.0
This image from Lake Mead in 2014 shows the impacts severe drought can have on water levels in Nevada.

The entire state of Nevada is under some level of drought. Wildfire season is already underway and the Sierra just experienced the second consecutive dry winter.

In honor of Earth Day, Nevada Climatologist Steph McAfee shares the state of Nevada’s climate and where things are headed in this interview with KUNR's Morning Edition Host Noah Glick.

NOAH GLICK: I want to start with water. Projections out this month show that levels in the Colorado River are low, which means Lake Mead is going to be low, and that could even impact the ability to produce electricity at the Hoover Dam. So, how’s our water looking right now after two years of dry winters?

STEPH MCAFEE: Well, you’re very right. After two years of dry winters, most of our reservoirs are looking low and streamflow is probably going to be low as well. Of course, the studies coming out about Lake Mead levels have been showing for a couple of months now that the lake level is probably going to drop to 1,075 [feet] at some point this summer. And of course, 1,075 [feet] an important elevation for Lake Mead, because that starts to kick in shortages - not immediately, but down the line.

GLICK: And that’s been the big headlines this past week, is that we could be seeing the first water shortage declaration. Is it the first water shortage declaration?

MCAFEE: It would be the first shortage declaration, yes.

GLICK: Looking at water, we have Lake Mead, which we’re seeing low levels. What’s going on with Lake Tahoe? What can we expect in northern Nevada?

MCAFEE: Well, of course, water levels in Lake Tahoe are dropping as well. We had, as you mentioned, two dry winters in a row, and this winter in particular, [we had] lower snowpack than normal and it’s melting faster than it normally does. So, Lake Tahoe levels are dropping and the lake may well be near or at the rim by later this summer.

GLICK: This isn’t new for us. We’ve seen this before. Have you seen anything trend-wise at all moving forward? Are we in a “megadrought” period right now?

MCAFEE: I am both pleased and concerned that you brought up the term “megadrought.” So, a megadrought is of course, just a really long drought. It’s a catchy term for [a] drought that lasts a long time. We know these have happened in the Western U.S. in the past.

I think what we’re starting to see now is maybe not a megadrought, because if you tell me we’re in a drought, I think it’s going to get better, it’s going to go back to whatever normal is. And of course in Nevada, our normal is wet years and dry years.

And that becomes more and more problematic as temperatures rise, because of course, the warmer it is, the more moisture the atmosphere wants. And, so even if we have the same amount of precipitation, we will be in these drought conditions more often, both because of this thirstier atmosphere and because we won’t have as nice and big a snowpack as we have in the past.

GLICK: What would you say are some of the biggest challenges facing the state, in terms of climate and fighting the impacts of climate change?

MCAFEE: So, this is both good and bad news. The biggest challenges we’re going to face in climate are seeing more and worse of the climate challenges we’re used to already here in Nevada.

So, maybe droughts will be more frequent or longer. We may see a longer, more severe wildfire season and everything that goes with that. So, both the fires themselves, but also poor air quality. Particularly in southern Nevada, and to some extent in Reno as well, some of the more urban areas, extreme heat is going to be an issue. Las Vegas has already been over 90 degrees.

This is going to sound weird since I just said we may see more drought, but we may also see more floods. It may be the case that our storms will be more intense when we get them, and of course, in the winter, too, if it’s warmer and we’re getting rain instead of snow, or rain on top of the snowpack, that’s always been a recipe for flood here in Nevada. These are some of our bigger challenges.

GLICK: Let’s flip this on its side then here and talk about maybe some of the priorities or some of the solutions. What do you see as some of the paths forward for the state in tackling some of these issues?

MCAFEE: First off, I will say that the state is starting to take action on climate change, but there are two things we need to do: one is [to] reduce emissions, right? That’s of course the ultimate solution to the problem. But because we’ve already been seeing these changes, and because more changes are going to occur, we also need to make sure we’re ready for those changes. So, that even as we might see more droughts, more floods, more fires, that people can stay safe and healthy and economically sound.

GLICK: Is it overly simplifying to say that climate change and greenhouse gas, it’s just as simple as reducing greenhouse gas emissions? Is that too simple, or is that really the answer?

MCAFEE: Let me say this. Climate always varies from year to year, from decade to decade, right? There are always going to be years where there [is] drought, and it’s not like if we reduced greenhouse gas emissions, everything would be amazing everywhere all the time. There’s always going to be bad weather, and there’s always going to be stretches of challenging climate. So, climate and weather are not the same things, and climate and climate change are not the same things.

GLICK: What do you mean by that?

MCAFEE: So when we talk about climate, we talk about both what you would expect in terms of the weather annually. So, when is it hot and how hot does it get? When do you get rain and how does your rain arrive? Does it arrive in daily light sprinkles or does it arrive every so often in big storms? What kind of severe weather do you get? Are you in a place that gets tornadoes or are you in a place that gets dust storms?

But when we’re thinking about climate, we also think about how different is one decade from the next, and of course, the climate itself does have some of this variability that happens on a decade-to-decade scale. So, you might have spells of 3, 4, 5 dry years in a row in some places. In other places, you won’t see that to that extent.

GLICK: We have all these goals to deliver more energy from renewable sources or to electrify vehicles and the transportation sector. But, a lot of these solutions come with their own environmental costs, whether we’re talking bout mining or whatever materials we need, sourcing materials from around the world. So, how do you balance the needs for some of these goals while also looking at some of the trade-offs?

MCAFEE: It would be lovely to say, ‘We’re just going to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy and that will resolve all of our environmental problems.’ And of course, that’s not true. Because we need certain kinds of resources that you get from mining for solar panels. If you’re putting out windmills, obviously you’re using the landscape.

So, one of the ways I’ve thought about this in the past is that we’ve simply been too stuck on a solution. This is kind of what got us here. Fossil fuels were the solution to a lot of problems, and if we want to be honest about it, they were actually a great solution to a lot of problems. Electrifying the country and all the innovation that’s allowed, it’s allowed computers, it’s allowed the internet. It’s allowed a lot of great safety features because we can heat and cool our homes. So there have been a lot of benefits. There have also been negative consequences.

If we’re thinking about going forward using multiple kinds of solutions, the best solution, the best place. I hope that will reduce some of the consequences. Or, at least make sure we have a more diverse array of negative consequences that are easier to deal with.

GLICK: I’ve done quite a bit of environmental reporting myself, following climate change and the climate crisis. Most of the news coverage is pretty dire, pretty bleak. So, how do you stay hopeful? What gets you up in the morning to keep at this work?

MCAFEE: So, I think a lot of people go into doing science because they love the science so much. I became a scientist because I wanted to be useful. And of course, climate change is a big and important issue and it needs attention from science, as well as from social science and policy. So, I get up every morning and do this because it’s how I can be of use.

Noah Glick is a former content director and host at KUNR Public Radio.
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