In pictures: How blistering heatwave is fuelling extreme ‘mega drought’ in US

A searing heatwave is fuelling an extreme “mega drought” in the western US and prompted warnings about water shortages and wildfires.

Blistering temperatures, which have topped 50C (122F) in the desert resort city of Palm Springs, California, have also put the country’s fragile power grid under intense pressure as people crank up air conditioning in a bid to counter the scorching heat.

An aerial view shows low water levels at Lake Oroville, which is the second largest reservoir in California
Image:Lake Oroville, California’s second largest reservoir is around two-thirds empty
An aerial view shows houseboats anchored in low water levels at Lake Oroville, which is the second largest reservoir in California
Image:Low reservoir levels threaten water and power shortages
A view of Elizabeth Lake, that has been dried up for several years, as the region experiences extreme heat and drought
Image:The western region of the US has experienced the highest level of hot weather in history

The energy problems have been further exacerbated by rapidly falling water levels at reservoirs, threatening the shutdown of hydroelectric power plants.

This has led California to ration energy to cope with the spike in demand.

At Lake Oroville, the state’s second largest reservoir, the water level is hovering near 35% capacity, according to the authorities.

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The Hoover Dam’s Lake Mead near Las Vegas, Nevada, which generates electricity and supplies water to about 25 million people, is at its lowest level since the 1930s.

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A tidemark on the lake’s shoreline marks how much the level has dropped over time.

The severe drought has also caused problems across major parts of the US farm belt, threatening recently planted crops in Iowa, Minnesota and the Dakotas.

Low water levels due to drought are seen in the Hoover Dam reservoir of Lake Mead near Las Vegas
Image:The Hoover Dam’s Lake Mead is at its lowest level since the 1930s
Low water levels due to drought are seen in the Hoover Dam reservoir of Lake Mead near Las Vegas
Image:A tidemark on Lake Mead shows how far the water has fallen

Climate change has been blamed as a major cause of the extreme weather, which has sparked massive wildfires.

Wildfire historian Stephen Pyne, who is a professor at Arizona State University, said large-scale blazes had become a serious problem in the past two years due to the continuous drought in the western part of the country.

He said: “We are in the midst of a long drought and over the last couple of years a very deep drought.

“Many people are now referring to this as a ‘millennial drought’ or a ‘mega drought’.

“So everything out there is abnormally dry and essentially everything is available to burn.”

A view of Elizabeth Lake, that has been dried up for several years, as the region experiences extreme heat and drought
Image:The western region of the US has experienced the highest level of hot weather in history
Crops line a parcel amid dry land on Thursday, June 17, 2021, near Sanger in unincorporated Fresno County, Calif. California officials say the drought gripping the U.S. West is so severe it could cause one of the state's most important reservoirs to reach historic lows by late August. (AP Photo/Noah Berger).
Image:The severe drought is threatening farmers’ crops
Dry land is visible, at a section that is normally under water, on the banks of Lake Oroville
Image:The baked, cracked earth usually lies beneath the waters of Lake Oroville

He pointed out that if the drought continues in Arizona and California, the scale of mountain fires this summer may be much larger than last year.

Wildfires scorched more than 6,500 square miles (17,000 square km) of land in 2020, destroying hundreds of Californian homes during a particularly fierce fire season.

Smoke plumes rise from a blaze as a wildfire rages on in Arizona
Image:It has been warned the current conditions could cause much larger wildfires this year
Smoke plumes rise from a blaze as a wildfire rages on in Arizona,
Image:The scorching heat and parched landscape has led to massive blazes

In the past week, Arizona, Nevada and other areas have experienced the highest level of hot weather in history, and about 43 million people are under a high temperature warning.

Prof Pyne said: “What we’re seeing with climate change is that it is acting on and exaggerating all kinds of climatic conditions.

“So it’s just making things worse. We’re seeing more frequent fires, more severe fires.

“We’re seeing them on a scale, not just in terms of area of largeness, but intensity plus area combining.”

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Mark Gibson

Graduates in Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois 1990. Move to Los Angeles California in 2004. Specialized in Internet journalism.

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