May 18, 2017

Agents of Change: Daniel Swain

Why California’s drought points to a very different-looking future

By OMCA Staff

Daniel Swain is a climate scientist in Stanford University's Department of Earth System Science and author of the California Weather Blog. OMCA spoke to him in 2016 about what Californians can expect from our climate in the future.

Is drought the new normal for California?

Certainly, California is no stranger to drought. But what we see now is that the likelihood of another drought like the one we’re experiencing has increased dramatically due to climate change. Temperatures have already risen, and they increase the risk of extreme drought, regardless of precipitation levels.

So the lack of rain isn’t the most important factor?

It’s hard to say what will happen with precipitation. It’s easier [to predict] temperature, and we know temperature alone can drive the likelihood of drought higher. That’s why we have a high confidence that the future holds more drought. At the moment, the best evidence is that on average, California won’t get a lot wetter or drier, but that the character of that precipitation is changing. The risk of seeing extremely dry years and extremely wet years is going up.

What does California look like in the future, then?

One thing that’s already visible is our changing relationship with water. We’re already seeing a lot of efficiencies on the individual level: fewer green lawns, more low-flow fixtures. But the larger-scale changes we need have more to do with agriculture, which takes up 70 to 80 percent of our water usage. What do we plant and where—and what do we do in the bad years? Also, we’re not talking about living with perpetual drought: The risk of drought is going way up, but we’re also likely to get a lot of really wet years, and that presents problems, too. So thoughtful management of floodplains and groundwater aquifers should be a key part of how we plan for the future. It likely won't be a barren wasteland, but it will be a different California.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Inside Out, the Oakland Museum of California's Member magazine.