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    December 10, 2014 | 9:25 AM

    NOAA and the California Drought: Our Response

    In the past few days, a study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been getting a lot of attention in the press, which, sadly is something of a rarity for scientific reports. The short version is that the study looked at the ongoing drought in California and concluded it appears to be largely driven by natural atmospheric and oceanic variability, rather than human-induced climate change.

    So why all the ruckus? For one, the study looked at impacts to California’s rainy season over the past three years. It did not look at other factors impacting the severity of the drought. Factors like how manmade warming is affecting temperatures and exacerbating soil dryness. This oversight has led to some significant criticism from other climate researchers.

    Plus, scientists elsewhere have been studying the drought and coming to very different conclusions. The American Geophysical Union (AGU) published its own report last week detailing the rarity of the ongoing California drought. AGU’s study focused on southern portions of the state and used several methods of historic climate reconstruction, including analysis of tree rings. The report found that the current drought is perhaps the most severe in the last 1,200 years and driven by both reduced precipitation and record high temperatures. Record high temperatures like those we’re seeing more and more of, thanks to climate change.

    Returning to the NOAA study, by the authors’ own admission, the results also highlight several areas where we need more research to fully understand the factors behind California’s rainfall patterns. These include the impact of surface sea temperatures in the Pacific and other oceans on the jet stream and other atmospheric processes. Which is to say that if you start seeing articles claiming the NOAA report disproves the role of climate change in the California drought, remember that it’s much more complicated than a single headline, about a single study could handle.

    So after all the back and forth between the scientists, what’s the take away for the rest of us? First, we need more research to see the big picture behind the drought. Second, regardless of what exactly caused the drought, it’s probable that climate change is making it more severe and ultimately much more damaging to farmers, skiers, and communities across California than it would be otherwise. And that’s reason to take note – and take action.

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