“With your permission,” began a letter to the editors of this magazine published in 1855 (pdf), “I will lay before you numerous and scientific readers what I imagine to be the cause of drought. I believe it is caused by the burning of coal; that the smoke arising therefrom is injurious to vegetation, to the soil, to the air and to the clouds.” The editors replied, haughtily but justifiably, “Our correspondent has not given us a single reason for his belief in coal smoke being the cause of drought….”
Here we are, 160 years later, debating whether a by-product of the burning of coal and other fossil fuels—carbon dioxide—is to blame for historic dry spells such the California’s severe drought. As our correspondent Dan Baum writes in the August issue, scientists disagree about whether climate change is responsible for California’s problems, but no matter the cause, this drought looks like much more than a temporary hardship—it could fundamentally reshape the culture and economy of the state.
California is not the only place experiencing drought and other weather extremes, of course. In recent years extreme weather has been an increasingly frequent topic for expert discussion in this magazine. Here’s a selection of recent SA pieces on drought, severe weather, climate and the challenges they pose.
1. “The Jet Stream Is Getting Weird,” by Jeff Masters (December 2014)
Why extreme summers and winters of the past four years could become the norm
2. “The Coming Mega Drought,” by Peter H. Gleick and Matthew Heberger (January 2012)
The southwestern U.S. looks a lot like Australia before its nine-year dry spell
3. “After the Deluge,” by John A. Carey (December 2011)
A spate of floods, droughts and heat waves is prompting city and state leaders to take bold steps to protect their people and property
4. “Casualties of Climate Change,” by Alex de Sherbinin, Koko Warner and Charles Ehrhart (January 2011)
Shifts in rainfall patterns and shorelines will contribute to mass migrations on a scale never before seen
5. “A Puzzle for the Planet,” by Michael E. Webber (February 2015)
Our future rides on our ability to integrate energy, water and food