How the US Megadrought is Affecting Air Quality

Anyone living in the US already knows about the US megadrought and how it is impacting water supply and growing crops, but have you thought about how it’s affecting the air quality as well?

Before we get into the impacts of the drought on air quality, let’s quickly talk about what’s causing the drought and what we can do to mitigate the effects.

What is a Megadrought?

A drought is a period of unusually dry weather, generally due to low precipitation levels which disrupts nature by damaging crops, causing water shortages, and more. By comparison, a megadrought is a drought that continues for a significant period, typically decades.

In 2022, a UCLA study found this is the most extreme megadrought in the last 1,200 years. The longer a drought lasts, the worse its effects will be on the surrounding ecosystem and everyone who depends on it.

What’s Causing the Megadrought in the US?

According to the 2022 UCLA study mentioned previously, the US megadrought can be attributed to two primary causes: higher temperatures and low levels of precipitation. Both high temperatures and low rainfall were particularly prevalent between the summer of 2020 and 2021.

But that begs the question, what caused those two things?

For one, higher temperatures are caused by increased greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, primarily driven by human activities such as burning fossil fuels, deforestation, and animal agriculture. For example, deforestation causes areas to be hotter because trees help cool the environment through shade and a process called evapotranspiration.

In addition to that, various factors can contribute to low precipitation levels, including the increased temperatures. NASA reports that additional factors that can lead to low precipitation levels include changes in the jet stream, ocean temperature changes, and landscape changes.

Additionally, human activities are a major cause for these problems. For example, city expansion and the related excessive water consumption all directly relate to increased temperatures. Simply put, using more water causes worse droughts.

In fact, a 2013 study found 92 percent of freshwater use can be attributed to the agriculture industry. Nearly one-third of humanity’s freshwater is used for animal products - meat, eggs and dairy. According to the Water Footprint Network, animal products are some of the most water-intensive foods.

How Droughts Also Affect Air Quality

The megadrought has some obvious impacts on the ecosystem, particularly when it comes to agriculture, but have you thought about how droughts affect air quality?

As a result of the US megadrought, water levels in the western US reservoirs have hit record lows, negatively impacting the amount of energy generated at dams. And so, to solve this, fossil fuel power plants are filling the gap.

This, in turn, is further leading to increased greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, which are both negatively impacting the overall air quality.

4 Tips on Surviving a Megadrought in the US

If you’re located in a region suffering from a megadrought, there are some ways you can help. Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Practice water conservation: Water conservation is one of the biggest things you can do living in the US to help mitigate the problems associated with the US megadrought. Water conservation efforts will likely continue to advance and may include measures such as retrofitting older housing stock and commercial buildings with low-flow water appliances.
  • Plant different crops: In agriculture, which is the primary user in most areas, expanded efforts may be implemented to deploy water-saving irrigation technologies while farmers might shift to less water-thirsty crops.
  • Collect rainwater: It’s also essential for communities to attempt to collect more rainwater and reuse more wastewater whenever possible. Of course, always check your local laws because in places like Colorado, there is a capacity to how much rainwater you can collect.
  • Avoid air-polluting activities: Due to the impact of the drought on air quality, it’s also essential to reduce air-polluting activities to decrease risks associated with air quality illnesses. You can reduce air pollution by driving less, switching to electric (think more than just your car) and planting more trees locally.

Worried about your air quality as a result of the drought?

Monitor the particulate matter levels around the world with our free, real-time PurpleAir Map or join PurpleAir's mission to make air quality data accessible to everyone by investing in an air quality monitor for your home.

Together, we can be informed and make changes in our daily habits and the community to improve air quality.