Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once said “We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.” Although I agree in part, since the burdens of the present and the future are always prevalent, it is unforgiveable to shirk the past. Analyzing history and propping open that historical window to peep through can only aid in understanding the contemporary.
It is important to understand the stance of this article. It is not meant to stand as a piece of evidence negating the effects of people on the climate. It’s not a historical “it happened once before” argument to insinuate climate change is a moot point, because it is a roaring point. Since 1850, when the state stood 92,597 people strong, California has only increased in population. As the population grows, so does the expenditure of natural resources and the manipulation of the environment. An apples to apples comparison of the past with the contemporary is futile because of these factors.
Lake Oroville in northern California. July 2011 (top) and Sept. 2014 (bottom).
Drought is no stranger to California. In Kostigen’s National Geographic article, “Could California’s Drought Last 200 Years?” he discusses the dance of weather extremes that plagues the golden state. Several mega-droughts the state has previously faced were created by a shift in the surface temperature of the Pacific Ocean—Pacific Decadal Oscillation. The flip-side of the weather coin from El Nino, PDO hinders precipitation and whisks the storms up north, rather than depositing them inland.
Our written record of California’s climate reach back 120 years or so—simply a blink in historical time. Some remember the drought of 1976-1977. Then, there were the dry years of 1987 to1992, and 1928 to 1934. There was a drought in 1580 AD, while Tintoretto was busy painting Danae and European map makers were still under the impression that California was an island. A drought occurred from 900 to 1400 AD during the medieval period—knowledge that can be deduced by examining tree rings, lake and ocean sediments and fossil records. Seashells can be found on the topmost areas of Californian desert mountains, evidence of water’s disappearance, and all the life that was fostered in that water.
Forests on the eastern Sierra lakes and creeks, in a study by Scott Stine of California State University regarding ancient cottonwoods in old lakebeds, sprouted and grew during two severe droughts, between 900 to 1100 and 1200 to 1350 and died when the rain returned and the area was re-flooded.
These droughts displaced indigenous people and caused mass migrations, in pursuit of water, animals and plants. The basic needs for survival are basic— they haven’t changed from the needs of the early pockets of early hunters and gathers. People were forced to move on to survive.
Leaving may seem like an illogical and impossible option for the most present-day and most populous state in the United States. During the dust bowl of the 1930’s, more than 500,000 people were displaced and left homeless, and this rocked the nation. The needs of the citizens became a great burden. Try the 38 million plus that now reside in California.
I am no scientist, but my thoughts lend me to believe that people’s carnivorous attitudes towards our natural resources can only act as a catalyst to these climate changes that may have once been a natural environmental cycle. The 38 million people utilizing the fresh water are not helping things along.
Aerial view of Corona lake in southern California. The fingers of land appearing show low water levels.
Some hypothesize that we are at the beginning of a mega-drought. Perhaps they are correct, or perhaps they simply have a hankering for “the end is near” signs. No one can predict the future, not even Doppler Radar, which rejects our hopes of rain with each sunshine-laden segment of the nightly news.
What we can do is look at the facts and decide that, short term, we are staring in the face of at least a six-year dry spell, when considering the droughts from 1987 to1992 and 1928 to 1934. On the long-term side–a century or two?
The survivalist early humans, the resourceful native populations, and the rough-and-tumble farmers of the dust bowl all had one thing in common: they looked towards the heavens each and every day. They knew about the weather’s happenings. Without water, the animals will move. Without water, the roots will dry up, the berries with shrivel. Without water, the crops will die and the topsoil will fly. It is yet to be seen if the current population of California has what it takes to wake up, shape up and realize. Our day-to-day reality does not require people to know about when the animals are moving higher into the mountains (or coming down from the mountains) for water, and very few are peering into their Farmer’s Almanacs. But at a fundamental level, we should be. Nature is knocking.