Megadrought in the American south-west: a climate disaster unseen in 1,200 years

A formerly sunken boat rests on a now-dry section of lakebed at the drought-stricken Lake Mead, Nevada. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

When the Nasa climatologist James Hansen testified before Congress in June 1988 about a warming planet, the temperature in Washington DC hit a record 100F. It was a summer of unprecedented heatwaves, and 40 states were grappling with drought.

His warning was seen as a historic wake-up call – but instead of heeding the existential smoke alarm, the US removed the batteries and kept on cooking.

Nearly four decades later, the consequences of a sweltering Earth are hitting home in the US south-west and mountain west – comprising states from California to Colorado. Over the past two decades, extreme heat and dwindling moisture levels have converged to create a “megadrought” deemed the driest period in 1,200 years.

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