By Brandon Miller and Rachel Ramirez, CNN
The West is far from the only region to experience remarkably dry weather so far this year. According to Thursday’s report from US Drought Watchmore than 61% of the contiguous United States is in a classification of Drought.
This is the largest part of the country in a state of drought since 2012the year the continental United States recorded an all-time high of 65% in September.
And in recent weeks, the drought has increased significantly. In the last month alone, the percentage of the continental United States in drought has increased from 55% to over 61%, an increase of nearly 170,000 square miles; an area larger than the size of California.
“Drought is entrenched,” Justin Mankin, assistant professor of geography at Dartmouth College and co-director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s drought task force, told CNN. “I fully expect the American West to experience drought for the rest of the year, at the very least.”
“To recover from this thing, we’re talking about multiple seasons of above-average rainfall,” Mankin added.
But in many parts of the West, rainfall has “flat” since the start of the new year, scientists told CNN.
California’s snowpack, which was 160% of normal in December, has fallen to about 90% due to no new accumulation and some mid-winter melting. A recent snow report from the state’s Department of Water Resources (DWR) showed that state reservoirs are unlikely to fill again this year.
“Barring an unforeseen miracle in March, which we don’t see coming, we’ll finish this year below average,” Sean de Guzman, program manager for snow surveys and supply forecasting, previously told CNN. in water with the DWR.
The same forecast holds for the Colorado River Basin. For the first time since it was filled more than 50 years ago, Lake Powell, the nation’s second-largest reservoir, is expected to cross a critical thresholdthreatening water supplies and putting a key source of hydroelectric generation at increased risk of being taken out of service.
The United States Bureau of Reclamation told CNN it currently expects Lake Powell water levels to reach a significant 3,525 feet above sea level within the next week. Drought contingency plans define the 3,525 foot mark as an important “target elevation” for the reservoir, below which the situation becomes dire.
While the West continues to experience much drier conditions than the rest of the country, this week’s US Drought Monitor pointed out that “the southern plains and the south continue to dry out.”
“As spring approaches and dormancy is lifted, impacts are already being felt in these areas and drought intensification is widespread with rapid expansion of areas of extreme and exceptional drought,” he noted. .
As the planet heats up, drought and extreme heat will also fuel deadly fires. Several studies have linked global warming emissions to high temperatures and increased burning area in the West, particularly California.
On the other side of the country, the Bertha Swamp Road Fire raged across the Florida Panhandle and moved through land covered in “thick, dry, dead trees and vegetation left behind by Hurricane Michael,” the Florida Forest Service said.
“The fire is one of the first impacts of the drought,” the Drought Monitor explained, noting the Florida blaze and several others across the state as well as Georgia in recent weeks. According to National Interservice Center for Firefighters, the country has seen more than double the normal number of fires and area burned. As of the end of last week, 8,349 fires have been recorded, the most so far this year in at least a decade.
Worldwide, UN scientists found droughts that used to occur only about once every 10 years now occur 70% more frequently due to climate change. In the United States alone, it drained reservoirs, triggered water shortages and prepared the landscape for deadly wildfires.
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Caitlin Kaiser, Stephanie Elam and Aya Elamroussi of CNN contributed to this report.