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US needs to plan for climate change-induced summer droughts

SAN FRANCISCO The western United States has experienced increasing drought conditions in recent years and conditions may worsen if global climate change models are accurate yet the country is doing little to prepare for potential catastrophe, a group of scientists said today.

The U.S. should consider a national drought policy to help achieve sustainable water for drinking, agriculture and fisheries, said the scientists at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

They also pointed out the need to manage water supplies to protect environmental values and to protect urban property from sea level rise and extreme weather events.

Though many climate change models predict warmer and wetter weather for parts of the Earth, the potential for drought in regions like the southwestern U.S. is actually greater, said Jim Coakley, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Oregon State University and a co-organizer of the AAAS symposium.

Most western rivers and streams are more dependent on snowmelt for sustained flows than regular rainfall and declining snow packs have already become an issue throughout much of the West, Coakley pointed out.

"We're already seeing snow packs dwindle and spring runoffs coming earlier and earlier," Coakley said. "The dry summers that we've experienced recently may pale in comparison to what could happen in the near future. There is a kind of domino effect as temperatures warm. Precipitation that would have fallen as snow will come as rain and run off more quickly. Spring runoffs begin earlier. Summers lengthen and evaporation increases."

During the last three decades, temperatures have risen 1-2 degrees (Fahrenheit) and many scientists believe the pace of that warming is accelerating. Drought is a reality facing many western states, yet the governmental and societal response is through ad hoc crisis management, pointed out Shaun McGrath, of the Western Governors' Association.
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Contact: James Coakley
coakley@coas.oregonstate.edu
541-737-5686
Oregon State University
16-Feb-2007


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