National Geographic News
Photo of the cracked-dry bed of the Almaden Reservoir on Friday, Feb. 7, 2014, in San Jose, Calif.

The cracked-dry bed of the Almaden Reservoir near San Jose shows the strain of California's megadrought. The governor has declared a drought "state of emergency."

  Photograph by Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP

Thomas M. Kostigen

for National Geographic

Published February 13, 2014

Two years into California's drought, Donald Galleano's grapevines are scorched shrubs, their charcoal-colored stems and gnarled roots displaying not a lick of life. "I've never seen anything like this," says Galleano, 61, the third-generation owner of a 300-acre vineyard in Mira Loma, California, that bears his name. "It's so dry ... There's been no measurable amount of rain."

California is experiencing its worst drought since record-keeping began in the mid 19th century, and scientists say this may be just the beginning. B. Lynn Ingram, a paleoclimatologist at the University of California at Berkeley, thinks that California needs to brace itself for a megadrought—one that could last for 200 years or more.

As a paleoclimatologist, Ingram takes the long view, examining tree rings and microorganisms in ocean sediment to identify temperatures and dry periods of the past millennium. Her work suggests that droughts are nothing new to California.

Photo of Lake Mendocino, one of two major water storage lakes on the Russian River, nearly empty on January 24, 2014.
Photograph by George Rose, Getty
Lake Mendocino, a major water storage lake near Ukiah, California, is nearly dry.

"During the medieval period, there was over a century of drought in the Southwest and California. The past repeats itself," says Ingram, who is co-author of The West Without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts, and Other Climate Clues Tell Us About Tomorrow. Indeed, Ingram believes the 20th century may have been a wet anomaly.

"None of this should be a surprise to anybody," agrees Celeste Cantu, general manager for the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority. "California is acting like California, and most of California is arid." (Related: "Behind California's January Wildfires: Dry Conditions, Stubborn Weather Pattern.")

Unfortunately, she notes, most of the state's infrastructure was designed and built during the 20th century, when the climate was unusually wet compared to previous centuries. That hasn't set water management on the right course to deal with long periods of dryness in the future.

Given that California is one of the largest agricultural regions in the world, the effects of any drought, never mind one that could last for centuries, are huge. About 80 percent of California's freshwater supply is used for agriculture. The cost of fruits and vegetables could soar, says Cantu. "There will be cataclysmic impacts." (Related: "Epic California Drought and Groundwater: Where Do We Go From Here?")

Photo of a dog on an abandoned farmhouse on February 6, 2014 near Bakersfield, California.
Photograph by David McNew, Getty
Farms, like this one near Bakersfield, California, have been unable to sustain crops or livestock due to the driest conditions in decades.

What's causing the current drought?

Ingram and other paleoclimatologists have correlated several historic megadroughts with a shift in the surface temperature of the Pacific Ocean that occurs every 20 to 30 years—something called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). The PDO is similar to an El Nino event except it lasts for decades—as its name implies—whereas an El Nino event lasts 6 to 18 months. Cool phases of the PDO result in less precipitation because cooler sea temperatures bump the jet stream north, which in turn pushes off storms that would otherwise provide rain and snow to California. Ingram says entire lakes dried up in California following a cool phase of the PDO several thousand years ago. Warm phases have been linked to numerous storms along the California coast.

"We have been in a fairly cold phase of PDO since the early 2000s," says Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center, "so the drought we are seeing now makes sense."

That said, scientists caution against pinning the current drought on the PDO alone. Certainly ocean temperatures, wind, and the weather pattern in the Pacific have contributed to the drought, says Nate Mantua, of NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service in Santa Cruz, California, where the PDO pattern was first discovered and named. "But it's more nuanced than saying the PDO did this." After all, as its name suggests, the PDO is decades in the making.

A graphic explaining the PDO index.
NG Staff

What can Californians expect?

Yet it's only natural to want hints of what's to come. "Water managers need to know how much water they can expect in their lakes and reservoirs," says Fuchs.

Ultimately, how long the current California drought will last is anyone's guess. Cantu says the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority is stymied by that uncertainty. "We need to import water, and we need to know how much we can move around," she says. Some 4.5 million people rely on that southern California water supply, including ranchers and farmers like Galleano.

He says it would be nice to know if he is going to be able to grow any grapes at all in 2014. Asked how he would deal with a long bout of dryness, Galleano says he'd just have to "drink the wine."

63 comments
Carlo Rossi
Carlo Rossi

WE GOT PLENTY TO EAT HERE ALWAYS WILL!


If You Ain't Got The Do Re Mi

Lots of folks back West, they say, is leavin' home every day
Beatin' the hot old dusty way to the Central Florida line
'Cross the desert sands they roll, gettin' out of that old dust bowl
They think they're goin' to a sugar bowl but here's what they find

Now the police at the port of entry say
"You're number fourteen thousand for today"


Oh, if you ain't got the do re mi folks you ain't got the do re mi
Why you better go back to beautiful San Diego
San Jose San Francisco by the sea
Central Florida is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see
But believe it or not you won't find it so hot
If you ain't got the do re mi


You want to buy you a home or a farm that can't deal nobody harm
Or take your vacation by the Southernmost Florida Keys
Don't swap your old cow for a car, you better stay right where you are
You better take this little tip from me

'Cause I look through the want ads every day
But the headlines on the papers always say

If you ain't got the do re mi boys you ain't got the do re mi
Why, you better go back to San Diego
San Jose San Francisco by the sea


Central Florida is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see
But believe it or not you won't find it so hot
If you ain't got the do re mi


Goody Wuthrie

Benjamin De Vries
Benjamin De Vries

We are building the prototype of a low power, low cost water condenser in July in CA. The only thing that has held me back is a critical lack of FUNDING for 15 years. Don't believe someone else will do it, YOU must be the change you want to see. It is unfortunate the frogs in the pot can't see what's coming. I did.

Lexi Mize
Lexi Mize

Need to get Silicon Valley producing nanoscale desalination technology, "sip on a chip." Solar powered micro pumps and desalination tech could provide rivers of clean water. If only the State would back such an effort. Just think what Elon Musk could do if he put his mind to solving this problem...

Rev David Froemming
Rev David Froemming

California is connected to the activity on the rest of this planet, as some responders have already noted.  Connected to my state of Wisconsin is the frack sand industry and our dependency on fossil fuel, and the propaganda of that industry to make the rest of us, outside of California, more reluctant to move ahead with green technology, instead of advancing climate change.  Instead of allowing the scarcity of produce and prices from ruined agriculture in California, and scapegoating other people around the world, we need to look in the mirror and see what is driving our own economy in this time of globalization, and how we ourselves - like the state of Wisconsin under the Koch Brother/Walker machine drive the devastating climate change we are now in.  Big outside money now pours into Wisconsin to protect the fossil fuel industry and it's re-writing of state-laws to suppress voting, to allow frack sand mining industries rights to all lands and properties, to name just a few of their vast number of political power moves.  Connect the dots.  Pay attention to the money flowing here, destroying the climate in your backyard.  Your consciousness matters.  The future of our children and grandchildren depend on it.

Yolanda Breidenbaugh
Yolanda Breidenbaugh

Thank you for this interesting article.  I have a daughter that lives in California.  We visited there in December and she had mentioned the severity of the drought.  I do hope the officials in charge will be able to take needed steps to ameliorate the situation for all concerned.  If California suffers, we all suffer.

Sani Fornus
Sani Fornus

Another reason why California should strive to limit population growth by discouraging foreign immigration, legal and illegal. I doubt this will happen as the Democratic political hacks who run the state (into the ground) are more interested in pandering for votes than constructively working to solve the very real problem of water scarcity.

Jean Brocklebank
Jean Brocklebank

I am troubled by what I have read, not about the drought (I live in California), not in the content of the National Geographic article, but rather in the content of the comments posted to this online forum.  What happened to critical-thinking and rational discourse?


I imagine that the article's author, Thomas M. Kostigen, is simply shaking his head and wondering why he bothered to pen such a well-written and factual piece.  Perhaps the kind of ignorance displayed by most of these comments is what one expects in online forums.


As to the subject at hand, droughts in California are not a function of Fukushima.  Transporting water from the north or the east is not a solution to water woes.  Learning to live within the bio-geophysical limits of any region will take some doing for all but it is the only solution to the problems humans face.


James Lamond
James Lamond

You guys want to know what caused it then???? think back 2-3 years, what major event happened ay....The Fukushima nuclear power plant, went rogue during the Tsunami/earthquake. Billions of Nuclear particles were let out and the wind patterns carried them high into the atmosphere and into the oceans of the pacific sea...those particles have damaged the atmosphere above the western coast of America...not only has it damaged the upper atmosphere but it has been falling on to the environment, burning it on a microscopic scale, that microscopic nuclear fusion can dramatically increase water evaporation, even stop rain clouds from forming properly. But wait, have you yet to look at the west coast health system, and the increased rate of rapid growth cancers...seemingly coming out off the blue...random blood noses and such...your being slowly cooked alive!!!! Get out of that area of the country, the fall out will get worse and you will get more sick and your body cells will become more mutated due to the radiation. The Government has been lying to you, that explosion at the plant released a lot, they have not contained the meltdown of the reactor, its burnt straight through the concrete base of the plant. Its burnt down all the way to the water table of the earths crust, this is causing, water evaporation, and steam build up, which is causing the earth to crack open and emit pressurized superheated radioactive steam, into the atmosphere...this has been happening on a regular basis at the plant, they can stop the reactor from over heating anymore, its beyond their control! The more radiation you absorb into yourself and molecular cell structure the more damage is done to you permanently you will die if you stay there leave the west coast of America now!!! Leave it now!!!! Your lives are in serious danger.

ken wright
ken wright

Montecito California:  Home to  Billionaires, Oprah, and other wealthy royalty.


Will be out of water.   Sand, coming out of the taps, in July.   Humm....


Polar Ice caps melting.... Great barrier reef dying, more animals on extinction list today then in man's history...  Ocean getting to acidic..... storms of epic proportions.


Nah....... Nothings happening.....  Look for yourself, decide for yourself.... 

THe answers are obvious.  Just LOOK.

The Chembow
The Chembow

Although climate change is a part of nature, we must not ignore man's contribution to California's drought in the form of weather modification, or geoengineering. The spraying of heavy metal aerosols occurs daily in California and has increased dramatically in the past two years. When aluminum sulfate in injected into the atmosphere, it prevents rain because of the introduction of too many condensation nuclei. I have personally witnessed and photographed the destruction of cumulus clouds by aerosols. In layman's terms, this phenomenon is known as chemtrails. It is also causing the severe weather to the east. There are several reasons that this is happening, but it IS happening and must be stopped. You can get a lot more information about climate engineering at geoengineeringwatch.org. Furthermore, if the world is warming, which it is, then there would be more precipitation, not less, according to Dane Wigington of Geoengineeringwatch.org. I wish that more publications would discuss this issue, which is the biggest elephant in the room when it comes to climate change!

James Meaders
James Meaders

I'm left wondering if the huge pollution plume they showed on ABC News (satellite view) coming out of China has had the effect of cooling the Pacific ocean? 


Lee Grove
Lee Grove

All those Federal Reserve funded hedge funds that bought everything "under the sun" in California--doubling the price and immediately relisting the properties--are about to see their stolen riches literally evaporate as real estate prices approach zero over the coming years--or months...

Abiodun Babalola
Abiodun Babalola

With New York temperature at 3 degree Celsius, California is experiencing drought at 24 degree Celsius. Interesting America

peter hodges
peter hodges

No one knows what caused these mega droughts...or what caused the Medieval Warm Period or Little Ice Age for that matter. 

 Note the Little Ice Age was coined here in the Sierra Nevada. Our glaciers originate only from the last 700 years. 

 It may be early to forecast a 200 year drought, the PDO has recently been a 30 year cycle.  Indeed a more sober look at the data will show no mega droughts ala the dustbowl 30's (PDO was positive), but much greater variation.  A few very wet years followed by a few very dry years. 

 That is what happened in the 70's and that is what has in fact occurred in 

 the last few years...huge back to back winters followed by dry ones.


All that said, these authors and Scott Stine, to whom the credit for most of the research goes, are correct in that we will one day face the decade and century scale drought.


Ingeborg Spirig
Ingeborg Spirig

Water shortage,Do not wunder, we will have more problems. By miss use and waste of water Unfortunatly every one wants to grow and make more Money..!!

LIKE in FLORIDA, pump the water to protect the  Citrus and Straberys from the cold!!!  

 Create lots of Sink- holes, by draining our fresh water.(drinking water)

 At would be smarter if the Goverment  suptitude the Farmers, and We the  

  People go 1 year with out   the Fruit and SAVE Florida from disrepair .!!


drbill esq
drbill esq

We really need to start working on solving the water problems.  We have to much water in the east and not enough in the west.  The solution sounds easy.  Instead of building more oil and gas pipelines why not build some water pipelines.  The Romans did it two thousand years ago, so why can't we.

abel nichols
abel nichols

They said go west young man go west now its come back east a little...... that will screw up things real good.

Glenn Cunningham
Glenn Cunningham

Droughts, Snow storms, forest fires, freezing temperatures.... all a sign that the planet is under siege. Never mind global warming, CO2.... there's tooooooo many frigging people on this planet!!!! We need to penalize areas like Asia, Africa and India for irresponsible population growth!

Ray Daws
Ray Daws

Time to think about a water pipeline from British Columbia, Canada to California instead of an oil pipeline.

Michael Aird
Michael Aird

You people all talk like someone else should be providing for your stupidity.  California is a desert.  If you want to live in the desert, do without.  We, from the rest of the country, have been subsidizing California through public works projects so you can undercut ag, recreation, etc. from the folks footing the bill.  You don't like this answer,r tough.  Just think about this point folks, I'm considered a liberal!

Benjamin De Vries
Benjamin De Vries

@Lexi Mize  We are building the prototype of a low power, low cost water condenser in July. If you see mr. Musk you can ask him to give us money and why he didn't for 15 years. Don't believe someone else will do it, YOU must be the change you want to see.

James Lamond
James Lamond

@Jean Brocklebank I gave the warning it your time to head it, Radiation is not in high quantities on earth...and when it does happen the environment copes the brunt of it.. start your research before you slash and cut down some ones logical explanation...would you really think your government would tell you everything? You should use some rational thinking of your own and look for multiple answers before you should listen to what your told on the "news" you know what propaganda means right....America....is the biggest propaganda nation in the world..it plays its own citizens like a expert harpist...

Randall Laymond
Randall Laymond

@James Lamond Nice last name. They don't even talk about the meltdown on our news ever here. Or radioactive anything, just one time they had a short story about the Japanese debris washing ashore on the west coast. this is the first time since then that I feel safe to lay in the sun. that is when summer comes if it comes? The Worlds weather seams to be in a state of odd meltdown.

James Lamond
James Lamond

the radioactive particles have risen up into the atmosphere people, you know that cause devastating consequences on our natural UV ozone and other atmospheric barriers from the suns rays and its own radiation pulses. This slowly degrading area of atmosphere has increased the heat out front of the western coast of America, this heat in turn causes massive amounts of air pressure...its forming a barrier against the cold winds, and stops rain bearing clouds from going in the normal directional route that it use to go through, the pressurised barrier is pushing them northwards to wards the north part of America and near Canada, cold climates and increased rain bearing clouds in that area of caused the grand and terrible blizzards you have been having. These are just going to get worse and worse, they are warning you right now saying its the worse drought in 200 or 500 years....they are telling you, that this problem is unfixable and you should leave the cities...unless the government brings in more water...from where though? and with that radiation still in the air and on the land and in the food you eat and water you drink...you will kill yourselves off if you don't flee... Wake up, this is not climate change this is a devastation caused by a man made disaster on a scale that CAN NOT BE FIXED ANYMORE! THE FALLOUT IS GOING TO GET WORSE AND WORSE DO YOU UNDERSTAND!!!!!

James Lamond
James Lamond

@ken wright Can't be stopped bro, its is the warming of the atmosphere and such, but it as only gotten worse since the Fukushima reactors went into meltdown, that horrific amount of radioactive nuclear particles are damaging the northern environment around America and the pacific...its to far gone man, the radiation is in the water...its killing off the fish...birds...corals...humans....

Susan Silberberg
Susan Silberberg

@James Meaders  


Note the length of this study, as well as its name.  Rationally, the effect can have nothing to do with China's very recent, yet egregious, pollution.

David Findley
David Findley

@drbill esq Because we need the oil and gas pipelines.  One does not cancel out the other.  In any case water pipelines would not even come close t solving the problem.  Ask yourself the question:  Where would the water come from that would be in these water pipelines.

David Findley
David Findley

@Glenn Cunningham Give it a rest.  What would you suggest - stopping families at  2 children?  Hmmm...seems China is already doing that.  Would you emulate China?  Some years ago someone did something about population growth.  His name?  Adolf Hitler.

Peter Hall
Peter Hall

Sorry, I couldn't disagree more. 1. It is citizens in the US and Europe who are mainly contributing to climate change 2. Contrary to popular belief that Asians and Africans have dozens of children, this is not true. Their average families have come down to just over 2 only slightly more than the West 3. The Chinese particularly have dramatically curtailed population growth.

Actually. We need to penalise people who drive cars, when they could catch a bus, fly when they could catch a train, have heated pools when they could swim in the sea and use a new plastic bag every time they go to the shops.

Kristin Mineah
Kristin Mineah

@Ray Daws  Time to think about new energy sources (you know....those ones whose patents were bought up by mega-corporate entities and shelved?  Tesla come to mind...) and start using the water we have responsibly.  Don't say it isn't possible....it is, but it requires coming out of our collective stupor and paying attention to what's really happening on our planet.

Craig King
Craig King

@Ray Daws  Nah, nuclear powered desalination plants are Californias best option.

Patrick Trottier
Patrick Trottier

@ Ray: No thanks... the US is already taking fresh water from the Great Lakes against US - Canda agreement... but I can see the US invading Canada some day based on their agressive / military behaviors... 

@ drbill - the US and Canada is NOT one county... Canada is very, very different in culture, education, social norms, history  and how Canadians think an dinteract with the rest of the world...see how the US thinks... one country??? LOL

dennis gauss
dennis gauss

And what would be the price per gallon.....$4.50   ???

Curt Altschul
Curt Altschul

@Michael Aird  You're comment about California being a desert is patently wrong.  A desert, by definition, receives less than 2" of rain per year.  Within the boundaries of CA there is ONE desert called Death Valley.  


The Central Valley of CA AVERAGES around 20" of rain per year which is not enough to support agriculture and population.  As a result, around 1400 water storage reservoirs have been built in CA to STORE the other source of water which is the snow melt from the Sierra Nevada mountains.  


BUT, for YOU to charge California with being guilty of subsidy by others is so far off base it is incredible.  Los Angeles DOES take water from the Colorado River which is the southeastern border of the state.  


However, the Central Valley and the Sacramento-San Joaquin valley ONLY use water from those reservoirs and do you know what is done with that CALIFORNIA water?  Almost 50% of the entire nation's produce is grown with water paid for by California, NOT by you or anyone else.  


You do NOT subsidize California.  So here is the deal (sort of blackmail) ... you sell us water and we'll sell you food.


Better check your information, Michael.  

Susan Silberberg
Susan Silberberg

@David Findley @drbill esq  


Actually, the one often does cancel out the other, as too many have found out in the East, due to fracking--that is, unless you enjoy flames in your tap water.

dave newman
dave newman

@Peter Hall  dont forget that ppl live a hell of a lot longer now than half a century ago...

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