BILLINGS, Mont. — Rainstorms grew more erratic and droughts much longer across most of the U.S. West over the past half-century as climate change warmed the planet, according to a sweeping government study released Tuesday that concludes the situation is worsening.
The most dramatic changes were recorded in the desert Southwest, where the average dry period between rainstorms grew from about 30 days in the 1970s to 45 days between storms now, said Joel Biederman, a research hydrologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Southwest Watershed Research Center in Tucson, Arizona.
The consequences of the intense dry periods that pummeled areas of the West in recent years were severe — more intense and dangerous wildfires, parched croplands and not enough vegetation to support livestock and wildlife. And the problem appears to be accelerating, with rainstorms becoming increasingly unpredictable, and more areas showing longer intervals between storms since the turn of the century compared to prior decades, the study concludes.
The study comes with almost two-thirds of the contiguous U.S. beset by abnormally dry conditions. Warm temperatures forecast for the next several months could make it the worst spring drought in almost a decade, affecting roughly 74 million people across the U.S., the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said.
Water use cutbacks, damaged wheat crops, more fires and lower reservoirs in California and the Southwest are possible, weather service and agriculture officials have warned. Climate scientists are calling what’s happening in the West a continuation of a “megadrought” that started in 1999.
While previous research documented a decline in total rainfall for much of the West, the work by Biederman and colleagues put more focus on when that rain occurs. That has significant implications for how much water is available for agriculture and plants such as grasses that have shallow roots and need a steadier supply of moisture than large trees.
“Once the growing season starts, the total amount of rainfall is important. But if it comes in just a few large storms, with really long dry periods in between, that can have really detrimental consequences,” study co-author Biederman said in an interview.
The total amount of rain in a year doesn’t matter to plants — especially if rains come mostly in heavy bursts with large run-off — but consistent moisture is what keeps them alive, said UCLA meteorologist Daniel Swain, who writes a weather blog about the West and was not part of the study.
The new findings were published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. Researchers led by University of Arizona climate scientist Fangyue Zhang compiled daily readings going back to 1976 from 337 weather stations across the western U.S. and analyzed rainfall and drought data to identify the changing patterns.
Other parts of the region that saw longer and more variable droughts included the southwest Rocky Mountains, the Colorado Plateau and the Central Plains.
The rainfall study is in line with data that shows climate change already is affecting the planet.
“Climate models project that the American Southwest is very likely to experience more frequent and more severe droughts," said William Anderegg, a University of Utah biologist and climate scientist. “This study and other recent work demonstrates that this dry down has already begun."
The weather station data that was used in the study represents “the gold standard’ for an accurate understanding of changes being driven by climate change, said Christopher Field, an earth systems scientist and director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.
States in the northwestern U.S. were largely spared from the accelerating cycles of drought. The researchers observed total annual rainfall amounts and shorter intervals between drought in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and portions of Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas.
That's consistent with predicted changes in weather patterns driven by climate change in which the jet stream that brings moisture from the Pacific Ocean shifts northward, they said.
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden announced Tuesday that he's bumping up his deadline by two weeks for states to make all adults in the U.S. eligible for coronavirus vaccines. But even as he expressed optimism about the pace of vaccinations, he warned Americans that the nation is not yet out of the woods when it comes to the pandemic.
"Let me be deadly earnest with you: We aren't at the finish line. We still have a lot of work to do. We're still in a life and death race against this virus," Biden said in remarks at the White House.
The president warned that "new variants of the virus are spreading and they're moving quickly. Cases are going back up, hospitalizations are no longer declining." He added that "the pandemic remains dangerous," and encouraged Americans to continue to wash their hands, socially distance and wear masks.
Biden added that while his administration is on schedule to meet his new goal of distributing 200 million doses of the vaccine during his first 100 days, it will still take time for enough Americans to get vaccinated to slow the spread of the virus.
But he expressed hope that his Tuesday announcement, that every adult will be eligible by April 19 to sign up and get in a virtual line to be vaccinated, will help expand access and distribution of the vaccine. Some states already had begun moving up their deadlines from the original May 1 goal.
"No more confusing rules. No more confusing restrictions," Biden said.
Biden made the announcement after visiting a COVID-19 vaccination site at Immanuel Chapel at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria. During his visit, he thanked everyone for administering the shots and for showing up to receive them.
"That's the way to beat this," Biden said. "Get the vaccination when you can."
The president also said no one should fear mutations of the coronavirus that are showing up in the U.S. after being discovered in other countries. He acknowledged that the new strains are more virulent and more dangerous, but said "the vaccines work on all of them."
Biden also announced that 150 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been shot into arms since his inauguration on Jan. 20. That puts the president well on track to meet his new goal of 200 million shots administered by his 100th day in office on April 30.
Biden's original goal had been 100 million shots by the end of his first 100 days, but that number was reached in March.
Still, he acknowledged Tuesday that his administration fell short of its goal to deliver at least one shot to every teacher, school staff member and childcare worker during the month of March, to try to accelerate school reopenings. Biden announced the target early last month and directed federal resources toward achieving it, but said Tuesday that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that about 80% of teachers, school staff and childcare workers had received a shot.
Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, also spent the day Tuesday focused on promoting the COVID-19 vaccine, each touring a vaccination center, Harris in Chicago and Emhoff in Yakima, Washington.
Harris praised the workers and those receiving their vaccine at a site set up at a local union hall, and spoke of spring as "a moment where we feel a sense of renewal."
"We can see a light at the end of the tunnel," she said.
Some states are making plans to ease their health restrictions, even as the country is facing a potential new surge in virus cases.
On Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, warned that the country is in a "critical time" because "we could just as easily swing up into a surge."
"That would be a setback for public health, but that would be a psychological setback, too," he said during an interview with the National Press Club. He noted that Americans are experiencing "COVID-19 fatigue" after more than a year of lockdowns and restrictions to public life aimed at slowing the spread of the virus.
Nearly half of new coronavirus infections nationwide are in just five states — a situation that is putting pressure on the federal government to consider changing how it distributes vaccines by sending more doses to hot spots.
New York, Michigan, Florida, Pennsylvania and New Jersey together reported 44% of the nation's new COVID-19 infections, or nearly 197,500 new cases, in the latest available seven-day period, according to state health agency data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Total U.S. infections during the same week numbered more than 452,000.
Also, most children with a serious inflammatory illness linked to the coronavirus had initial COVID-19 infections with no symptoms or only mild ones, new U.S. research shows.
The unusual post-infection condition tends to be milder in kids who were sicker with COVID-19, although more than half of affected youngsters received intensive hospital care, according to an analysis by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published Tuesday in JAMA Pediatrics.
The study represents the largest analysis to date on U.S. cases of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children and bolsters evidence that it is a delayed immune response to COVID-19. The study included almost 1,800 cases reported to the CDC from March 2020 through mid-January. Most were in kids younger than 15 but the study included up to age 20.
Coconino County is developing a new renewable energy ordinance.
The effort comes as there has been an increased demand for renewable sources of energy as an alternative to fossil fuels.
The county approved a wind project last year just south of Winslow, and it appears the county planning and zoning commission will be considering another wind project this year.
Melissa Shaw, the county long-range planner, told the Coconino County Board of Supervisors this week that the ordinance is designed to regulate new renewable energy projects and provide guidance to county staff and developers as more proposed projects come forward.
“We have seen an increase of large-scale renewable energy projects that have come in as conditional-use permits, and currently there are not specific standards within our zoning ordinance to help guide decision-makers for approving those projects,” Shaw told the board.
Last year, the state’s largest public utility, Arizona Public Service, announced a goal to transition into 100% carbon-free by 2050 and 45% renewable energy sources by 2030.
Shaw said the ordinance would impact newly proposed wind, solar and biomass facilities, the latter of which burn wood products in order to generate power.
Staff have been working on a draft of the ordinance since last year, and Shaw said they hope to have a nearly complete draft of the plan before the end of the month. At that time, Shaw said, staff can come back and seek additional input from the board of supervisors after presenting them the plan in more detail.
So far, their draft would change three sections of the county zoning code, creating a specific designation for renewable energy facilities within the county’s ordinances.
Other changes regulate noise generated by renewable energy facilities and the phenomenon called shadow flicker, which is created by wind turbines. Shadow flicker is created when sunlight shines through the spinning wind turbines, generally during the sunrise or sunset, and can become an annoyance to nearby residents.
The county would also require applicants hoping to build such a facility to produce studies of wildlife and vegetation, visual impacts and cultural resources in the area.
The ordinance also outlines what is considered a favored site or a disfavored site for such projects. The ordinance would favor building facilities away from scenic views and places of cultural importance to local tribes, and close to existing power lines.
Shaw said in developing the ordinance, county staff have gathered a large advisory group to provide input and guidance.
Visual impacts and required setbacks for facilities have been a particular point of discussion, Shaw said, as staff seek to balance those visual impacts with the real need for more production of energy using renewable sources.
Staff are also drawing on the recent joint land use study between the county, city and local military installations. That plan was developed in part to ensure that local growth and development would not negatively impact the missions of local military installations.
That could mean, for example, locating biomass facilities that produce smoke away from the naval observatory.