Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The West without Water

The West without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts, and Other Climatic Clues Tell Us about Tomorrow

B. Lynn Ingram
Frances Malamud-Roam
Foreword by Sandra L. Postel
Copyright Date: 2013
Edition: 1
Pages: 289
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The West without Water
    Book Description:

    The West without Waterdocuments the tumultuous climate of the American West over twenty millennia, with tales of past droughts and deluges and predictions about the impacts of future climate change on water resources. Looking at the region's current water crisis from the perspective of its climate history, the authors ask the central question of what is "normal" climate for the West, and whether the relatively benign climate of the past century will continue into the future.The West without Watermerges climate and paleoclimate research from a wide variety of sources as it introduces readers to key discoveries in cracking the secrets of the region's climatic past. It demonstrates that extended droughts and catastrophic floods have plagued the West with regularity over the past two millennia and recounts the most disastrous flood in the history of California and the West, which occurred in 1861-62. The authors show that, while the West may have temporarily buffered itself from such harsh climatic swings by creating artificial environments and human landscapes, our modern civilization may be ill-prepared for the future climate changes that are predicted to beset the region. They warn that it is time to face the realities of the past and prepare for a future in which fresh water may be less reliable.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95480-9
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
    Sandra L. Postel

    There is little doubt that humanity is in for turbulent times when it comes to water. Rising human demands against a finite supply are draining rivers, shrinking lakes, and depleting aquifers. In a world of seven billion people and growing, competition for water is intensifying to quench our thirst, grow our food, generate electricity, and manufacture all manner of consumer goods from cars to computers to cotton shirts.

    On top of these demand-driven trends, the last century and a half of greenhouse-gas emissions and the concomitant rise in global temperatures are fundamentally altering the cycling of water between the sea,...

    (pp. xv-xviii)
    B. Lynn Ingram
    (pp. xix-xx)
  7. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    ONE OF ROBERT FROST’S MOST FAMOUS POEMS asks whether the world will end in fire or in ice. Although we are not expecting the world to end anytime soon, we anticipate a future that may be vastly different from the world we are experiencing today. We find ourselves in an interglacial period that could return to an ice age like the one that ended some 11,000 years ago; or, we could continue along a path of global warming. A climatologist might add the biblical element of flooding, which could accompany either extreme.

    Whatever the future scenario, these questions have become...


    • ONE From Drought to Deluge: “NORMAL” CLIMATE IN THE WEST
      (pp. 13-26)

      HUMANS TEND TO PERCEIVE CLIMATE AS A FORCE of nature, one to be measured, classified, and ultimately conquered. John Steinbeck’s quote speaks to another human characteristic: the tendency to forget. This seems especially true when it comes to the periods of wet and dry over the past century or so in the American West.

      Perhaps, however, we can be sympathetic to this tendency when we realize that to “measure the climate” at any given point is really a measurement of the currentweather.To understand complex climatic patterns requires a much longer timescale. Thus, in our lifetimes, we experience only...

    • TWO The 1861–1862 Floods: LESSONS LOST
      (pp. 27-40)

      THE ROAR OF THE WATER far up the valley woke Father Borgatta during the night. He ran through the driving rain up the hill next to his little church and frantically began to ring the church bell to warn the sleeping village. The villagers—men, women, and children—fled the rising waters on foot, but the tempestuous floodwaters, billowing fifty feet high, crashed through the village, almost catching the fleeing residents attempting to run to safety.

      The rains had started innocently enough on Christmas Eve, 1861. But they continued day and night for the next twenty days, culminating in a...

    • THREE The Great Droughts of the Twentieth Century
      (pp. 41-48)

      THE GREAT DUST BOWL DROUGHT was considered the worst climate tragedy of the twentieth century in the United States and the worst prolonged environmental disaster in its recorded history. The years between 1928 and 1939 were among the driest of the twentieth century in the American West and Midwest, with heart-breaking impacts stretching into the Midwest and Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas. At its peak in 1934, this drought affected three-quarters of the nation—stretching from the Great Plains north into the Canadian Prairie, and along the West Coast.

      On the Great Plains, unsustainable agricultural practices compounded the...

    • FOUR Why Is Climate So Variable in the West?
      (pp. 49-60)

      CLIMATOLOGISTS IN THE AMERICAN WEST have been carefully recording daily observations of weather conditions for the past 150 years. They have also monitored ocean conditions over recent decades, providing insights into the critical interactions between the Pacific Ocean and its overlying atmosphere. In this way, climate scientists have assembled many seemingly unrelated observations into a larger picture that explains, at least in part, why climate in the American West changes from year to year, decade to decade, and perhaps over even longer timescales. This chapter provides an overview of the discoveries that begin to explain why climate is so variable...


    • FIVE Reading the Past: THE EARTH’S HISTORY BOOKS
      (pp. 63-80)

      ARCHAEOLOGISTS DIG UP CLUES LEFT by ancient societies—bits of broken pottery, bones, beads, chipped stones—by sifting through ancient garbage dumps and other remains of their daily lives. By methodically sifting through and analyzing the preserved remains, they can infer much about past civilizations, their daily lives, and rises and falls. Similarly, paleoclimatologists learn about the earth’s climatic history, including patterns of wet and dry, warm and cold, by looking for clues buried in glaciers, trees, fossils, corals, and sediments preserved in lakes, marshes, and the ocean.

      To begin exploring what the natural climate archives have to tell us...

    • SIX From Ice to Fire: INTO THE HOLOCENE
      (pp. 81-96)

      TODAY, WE LIVE IN A RELATIVELY COOL period that began about 40 million years ago. Over this period, the earth became increasingly cool and icy, culminating in the Quaternary Period, a dance of advancing ice sheets (glacial periods) and retreating ice sheets (interglacials) that started two million years ago. The most recent glacial period reached its maximum extent about 20,000 years ago—a period dubbed the “Last Glacial Maximum.” The average global temperature then was about 18°F lower than it is today.

      The earth is currently in a relatively warm interglacial period known as the Holocene epoch that began 11,000...

    • SEVEN The “Long Drought” of the Mid-Holocene
      (pp. 97-110)

      DURING THE MID-HOLOCENE, CLIMATE IN THE WEST shifted toward warmer, drier conditions. This climatic upheaval and prolonged drought forced many humans to leave their home terrain in search of water and food, especially in the Great Basin and what is known today as southeastern California. The inland areas were the hardest hit, and, in response, the archaeological evidence suggests that populations migrated to the coast, which offered a cooler climate, more moisture, and plentiful food.

      Along the coast, the steady rise of sea level following the last ice age slowed after the massive inflow of glacial melt waters began to...

      (pp. 111-120)

      THE WARM, DRY CONDITIONS of the mid-Holocene gradually gave way to a cooler, wetter period known as the “Neoglaciation.” It had no clearly demarcated beginning, settling unevenly over the Northern Hemisphere with considerable local variation. In Europe, notably in southern Norway and in the Swiss and Austrian Alps, the onset of this cooler period occurred 5,000 to 4,000 years ago, based on the dating of glacial moraines and of sediments that were eroded by glaciers and transported by glacial meltwaters. Glacial expansion across Iceland, beginning 5,000 years ago, and the retreat of the Eurasian tree line between 4,000 and 3,000...

    • NINE The Great “Medieval Drought”
      (pp. 121-140)

      THE COOL, MOIST CONDITIONS of the Neoglacial period ended in the late Holocene, with the climate becoming drier and warmer beginning about 1,850 years ago and continuing for more than 1,000 years. Although the general trend in climate in the modern-day western United States was toward dryness, conditions also became more variable: prolonged droughts were interspersed with sudden excursions of extreme wetness. The paleoclimate record of the past 1,800 years contains many examples of such climate swings, and, though both ends of the climate spectrum are of concern, it is the prospect of extended drought that most worries water planners...

      (pp. 141-154)

      The deep droughts of the Medieval Climate Anomaly eventually drew to a close around AD 1400. For much of the 150 years prior to this date, extreme flooding was relatively rare. In California, people who lived in the broad Central Valley and around the San Francisco Bay would have seen irregular rainfall for hundreds of years, with the winters often failing to deliver the big storms that filled the lakes and fed the mountain snowpack. Around the bay, the mounded villages were empty most years; since the drought had begun, the creeks flowing to the marshlands dried early in the...

      (pp. 155-172)

      IN THE PAST SEVERAL CHAPTERS, we have highlighted the work of paleoclimatologists and the tools that have allowed them to re-create the features and patterns of ancient climates in the American West. One reason for their success is the variety of tools and climate archives at their disposal—from the analyses of tree rings, lake levels, and oxygen isotopes as indicators of climate wetness and temperature to the interpretation of coarse sediment layers in floodplains, wetlands, and coastal sediments as indicators of past floods. In this chapter, we explore in more detail the proposed mechanisms that are responsible for past...


    • TWELVE The Hydraulic Era: SALMON AND DAMS
      (pp. 175-189)

      THE TWENTIETH CENTURY HAS BEEN called the “hydraulic era” in the American West. In fact, it took less than a century for water engineers, obsessed with providing enough water for an ever-growing population, to harness nearly every drop of naturally flowing water in California. Once sporadic and untamed, the water resources not only of the state but also throughout the American West were rapidly controlled, and the natural hydrology was re-engineered through massive public works including dams and aqueducts. Today, residents of the western states are linked to each other by an extensive web of aqueducts and pipes that bring...

    • THIRTEEN Future Climate Change and the American West
      (pp. 190-203)

      A SURE SIGN OF THE beginning of spring in the American West is the annual bloom of wildflowers: they blanket hillsides and fields, setting them ablaze with color. During the 1990s, Dan Cayan, Susan Kammerdiener, Mike Dettinger, and Dave Peterson, all climate researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey, took an interest in the fragrant lilac. They were looking for plant data that would provide a key to interpreting satellite imagery of the mountain snowpack, a critically important feature of the water supply in the West. They did not start out wanting to know more about flowers; rather, they wanted to...

    • FOURTEEN What the Past Tells Us about Tomorrow
      (pp. 204-222)

      AS SHOWN THROUGHOUT THIS BOOK, the American West faces a climatic future that is predicted to become generally warmer and drier, with deeper droughts interspersed with larger and more frequent floods. Scientists believe these shifts may have already begun, since the region is experiencing more extreme weather. Only time will tell, but greenhouse gas–induced warming may be at the root.

      Reducing the uncertainty of future climate predictions requires an in-depth understanding of the natural patterns and range of climate, including the fluctuations of conditions experienced over the millennia prior to human-caused greenhouse warming. As discussed in the preceding chapters,...

    (pp. 223-244)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 245-256)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 257-257)