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Cal Poly researcher looks back at California’s mega-drought

Posted at 9:49 PM, Feb 18, 2019

Drought has long been a part of California’s history.  There is archeologic evidence that shows periods of below-normal rainfall have lasted for more than 50 years in the past.  A Cal Poly professor is looking back at those so-called mega-droughts to see what we might be able to learn about the area’s climate in the future.

Archaeology professor Terry Jones has been looking into California’s climate for most of his career. He found evidence of a 50-plus year mega-drought in our area 800 years ago that forced a change in the culture of native Central Coast residents. They responded to the incredibly dry conditions by turning away from land and to the ocean for food.

“What we see locally is that people who were able to survive the drought, there seems to have been a major push on marine resources,” said Jones.

The idea is to learn from our ancestors – hoping to get ready for what’s next.

“The question is are we really prepared for a 50-year drought?” said Jones.

It’s something meteorologists and climatologists have been talking about for years. What happens when you add climate change on top of California’s history of rainfall variability?

“It could be even hotter and even drier for even longer periods of time when you start to take in that possibility or even probability of climate change,” said Dave Hovde, Chief Meteorologist for KSBY.

Researchers like Jones are hoping looking at the past will help modern residents better understand what’s coming – whether they believe climate change is happening or not.

“Do we really have enough understanding of how severe a drought could become in California? Do we have the infrastructure set up to deal with that?” said Jones.

Much has changed since the last megadrought – even dealing with short-term water challenges has led the state to build one of the largest water storage and distribution systems in the history of modern civilization. Can it keep a water-thirsty California quenched if history repeats itself?

“If you put agriculturally dependent populations like ourselves into the same situation, the question is whether we’re adept enough to adapt quickly,” said Jones.

The fear is, we’ve become too reliant on technology.

“Technology is moving at a pace that gives us great confidence and comfort but at some point, it could be part of our undoing,” said Hovde.

Hopefully, a look back into the past will help us look forward as well.

“Catastrophic events will happen whether climate change is real or not. So this notion about doing something about things we can control – that’s something we should be doing right now,” said Hovde.

Jones is planning another round of research looking more closely at the local area to see just what kind of an effect the mega-drought had on the Central Coast.