Follow Our Blog: The Confluence
California rancher Dan Macon knows firsthand that waiting can be an excruciating experience. As a small-scale sheep rancher in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, he has spent a lot of time waiting for rain during the state's ongoing drought. Macon's livelihood is tied to the land and particularly to water: a vital ingredient in creating the unique grasslands his animals depend on. Good-natured and thoughtful, he waits for rain and tries to get through with, as he puts it, a mix of “humor and commiseration.”
Kate Sweeny, an associate professor of psychology at University of California, Riverside, studies the kind of waiting that Macon is faced with—that is, waiting for uncertain news. As Sweeny writes, waiting for things that we can generally depend on like getting a table a restaurant is vastly different from waiting for uncertain and unchangeable news such as a medical diagnosis.
Sweeny and her colleagues have found that while waiting for uncertain news, people often focus on preparing—emotionally and logistically—for any possible outcome. People tend to shift between optimism and pessimism, and both states can help increase readiness. Optimism engenders people to take preparative, proactive actions, and pessimism helps people to prepare by protecting themselves psychologically from worst-case scenarios. Sweeny's research also addresses how people might “wait better” by distracting themselves, managing expectations, and viewing the situation from different perspectives.
Although Sweeny's work has focuses on individual experiences of waiting for things with definitive outcomes, like difficult medical diagnoses or news of a job, she also thinks her research findings would also extend to waiting for a resolution to any stressful uncertainty, like waiting for rain during a drought. The differences between waiting for something that directly impacts an individual and something like drought that, for many, has more indirect impacts are likely to be in the ease with which people can distract themselves and the ways they manage their expectations. As she said in an interview:
It is easier to distract with something distant and abstract than with something imminent and personal. We consistently find that when a clear outcome is far in the future, or not expected at all, people tend to embrace optimism rather than bracing for the worst.
In other words, the less personalized the experience, the more optimistic folks are likely to be about the outcome. In the case of drought, it may be harder for farmers, ranchers, and others whose livelihoods are personally impacted to remain hopeful.
Josh Reynolds, a veteran and licensed mental health counselor who works with military members and their families, is also well-versed in waiting. Every day, he sees people who are waiting for uncertain news about deployments or extended periods of combat: waiting is simply a part of military life. Like Sweeny, he finds people tend to prepare and keep busy while waiting for uncertain news. As he said in an interview, he finds waiting to be a paradoxical experience:
Waiting can be deeply unwelcome, and many of us resist it. We do things to regain a sense of control and avoid the discomfort of waiting. And while distracting ourselves can be helpful, it can also get in the way of experiencing and expressing the anxiety and grief of waiting, which may ultimately be counterproductive.
In other words, sometimes we distract ourselves so completely that we ignore underlying feelings that may arise in unhelpful ways.
One of the more challenging aspects of understanding the role waiting plays in something like drought is how collective emotions—common feelings that arise for groups of people as a result of shared experience—come into play. Sweeny says that there is little research that addresses waiting beyond the individual, even into scenarios like a family system dealing with a medical situation.
Because drought impacts many people at a time, it's possible that conflict can arise when a group of people use different strategies to cope with waiting. For instance, when a recent headline indicated that southern California may see a great deal of rain in the next couple of months, NASA and University of California, Irvine scientist Jay Famiglietti quickly pointed out that the article was, from his perspective, overly optimistic. These kinds of differences in framing are common to drought and other environmental issues like climate change. Sweeny notes that these challenges may be further exacerbated by the fact that different people are differently motivated by optimistic or pessimistic messages. For example, encouraging pessimists to “just think positively” can actually make them “feel worse and prepare less.”
At the same time, waiting together can be comforting. As Sweeny says, there may be more space for collective conversations with something like drought that affects a broad group of people rather than an individual. Reynolds also believes there can be something to be gained in putting the planning and future aside because “sharing the experience of waiting can allow us to connect with others and develop stronger community support systems.” Dan Macon, who has contributed to many community workshops and started a Facebook group for ranchers impacted by the drought, agrees: “Waiting for it to rain is easier when you know other people are waiting along with you.”
- Sweeny, K., P.J. Carroll, and J.A. Shepperd. 2006. Is optimism always best? Future outlooks and preparedness. Current Directions in Psychological Science 15:302-306.
- Sweeny, K. 2012. Waiting Well: Tips for Navigating Painful Uncertainty. Social and Personality Psychology Compass 6(3):258-69.
guest post from Maggi Kelly, UC Berkeley
Scientists in my native state of California were handed a gift: a trove of detailed information about the state's forests taken during the 1920s and 1930s and digitized over the past 15 years. When we compared this historical data – covering an area bigger than Great Britain – to current forests surveys, we found that California's famed giant trees are suffering due to drier and warmer conditions.
This change to the forest landscape is important not only to the people of California. Large trees are huge sinks of carbon dioxide, provide habitat for many creatures and play a vital role in the water supply by, for example, providing catchment areas for snow. Forests that are denser with smaller trees are also more likely to burn.
Studying how the structure of forests is shifting over time provides us insight into how forests — a resource we depend on for many environmental and economic reasons — could change in a world of warmer temperatures.
Saved from destruction
Researchers from the University of California at Berkeley and Davis, the Department of Forest Management at the University of Montana, and the US Geological Survey's California Water Science Center worked together on a paper on California's forests published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The historical data for our study came from the Wieslander Vegetation Type Mapping (VTM) collection, which was created in the 1920s and 1930s. It's been described in a 2000 paper as “the most important and comprehensive botanical map of a large area ever undertaken anywhere on the earth's surface.”
This botanical map was pioneered by Albert Wieslander, an employee of the Forest Service Forest and Range Experiment Station in Berkeley, California. The collection consists of 18,000 detailed vegetation plots, over 200 vegetation maps, 3,100 photographs and hundreds of plant specimens. Overall, the collection covers about 280,000 square kilometers, or just over a third of the state. Combined, the data created a detailed picture of the state's vegetation in the early 20th century — an important marker ecologists today can use for comparison.
During the 2000s, several groups, including my lab, launched efforts to digitize the plot data, maps and photograph portions of the collection. There still are some missing pieces. Indeed, the journey from paper collection to digital data has been a long one, with several cases in which documents were nearly destroyed either intentionally or by accident. It's a cautionary tale about the importance of rescued and shared historical data in ecological and geographical analysis.
In our large trees study, we wanted to look at forest structure throughout the state by comparing the 1920s and 30s data with contemporary data collected through the Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) program. The FIA program is similar to the VTM project: Forest Service crews report on the species, size, and health of trees across all forest land ownerships. Our study was comprehensive, covering the five ecological regions of the state - over 120,000 square kilometers in total – and took into account land-management and land-use history.
Denser forests with more smaller trees
We found that statewide, tree density – or the number of trees in a given area – in forested regions increased by 30% between the two time periods and that forest biomass declined by 19%. This means that there are more smaller trees filling in the forest, while the number of large trees is shrinking. (A large tree was defined as having a diameter larger than 60 centimeters or two feet.)
Also, we found that forest composition in California in the last century shifted toward increased dominance by oaks relative to pines, a pattern consistent with warming and increased water stress. It also fits the shifts in vegetation we can surmise from the paleorecord in California over the last 150,000 years.
Why this shift from fewer large trees to more smaller trees?
Water stress seems to be the best explanation for the pattern we observed. Water stress in a forest is caused by a combination of rising temperatures, which cause trees to lose more water to the air and to earlier melting of snowpacks, which reduces the amount of water available to trees. And indeed, large tree declines were more severe in areas experiencing greater increases in water deficit since the 1930s.
Large trees, in general, seem to be more vulnerable to water shortfalls. This might be because larger, taller trees have trouble getting water to the tops of the trees when water is short, a phenomenon being studied by many tree physiologists.
It might also be that these big trees – some likely 300 years old or more – grew up in a different, colder and moister climate. Regardless of the reasons for large tree decline, we likely can expect more water stress in California from rising global temperatures.
A different forest than what your grandparents saw
Apart from the fact that we tend to love and admire our emblematic large trees, they also serve very important roles in the forests. And changes to forest structure – a shift to fewer large trees and more smaller trees – are important for us to pay attention to.
Forests with large trees store more carbon; groups of larger trees provide preferential habitat for many species; forest structure impacts the way fires burn and impacts the way forests store and release water. These changes are a warning of possible changes to come. The loss of these trees, for example, would take away a massive carbon sink, change the way wildlife use these forests, and change the way they burn.
Finally, we would like to stress the importance of rescuing, curating and digitizing historic data. The changes we observed here, although large, did not happen over night – indeed, they really took two or three generations to occur.
Each generation perhaps sees the nature around them as the “normal.” Yet the forests of our grandparents and great-grandparents, observed by the Wieslander crews, were very different than ours today and they will be different again for our grandchildren. We need these historic data to document these changes and demonstrate the rate of change in the natural world.
Some key references:
- Jepson, W. L., R. Beidleman, and B. Ertter. 2000. Willis Linn Jepson's ‘‘Mapping in Forest Botany''. Madroño 47:269–272.
- Kelly, M., B. Allen-Diaz, and N. Kobzina. 2005. Digitization of a historic dataset: the Wieslander California vegetation type mapping project. Madroño 52(3):191-201
- Wieslander, A. E. 1935. A vegetation type map of California. Madroño 2:140-144
Drought has gripped much of the western U.S. this year, with a particular stranglehold in California. In 2014, the majority of the state was classified as experiencing “extreme” to “exceptional” drought. Even recent large storms, while welcome, have not made much of a dent in the state's water deficit after several hot, dry years. This drought, ongoing for three years and counting, presents several complex, important issues:
- Reliance on Snowpack: California's current water infrastructure depends largely on snowpack. But this dependency will pose significant challenges in the future. Unlike the majority of the U.S., California has a Mediterranean climate with wet winters and dry summers. It uses the Sierra mountains as a natural reservoir: The snow gathers there during the wet season and continually melts during the warmer months, supplying much of the state with water during the summers. If there isn't an adequate amount of snowpack, water storage and delivery will become huge issues. Even with recent rains, many of the reservoirs continue to hover at low levels.
- Climate Variability: We are learning more about California's climate from paleoclimate research (the study of past climates). For example, Lynn Ingram at the University of California, Berkeley found that the state previously experienced periods of prolonged drought. Professor Ingram's research suggests that we may be entering another period of dryness, the likes of which has not been seen in at least 500 years. Her research also shows that some portions of the state have undergone droughts that lasted decades. In fact, the last 150 years or so have likely been some of the wettest in California's history. And it's in that time period that most of our large dams (and other water infrastructure) was built. More recently, scientists Daniel Griffin and Kevin Anchukaitis used soil moisture to measure drought. They found the 2011-2014 period to be the driest on record in about 1200 years. These paleoclimate studies are helping us understand California's highly variable climate, which can help guide water management efforts. Predicting how long this drought will last, however, remains a challenge.
- Climate Change: In addition to climate variability, all signs indicate that global climate change is exacerbating the drought. While it's difficult to tease out cause and effect, we do know that we are seeing less snow in the mountains and less fog in the Central Valley. We are also seeing fewer big winter storms, which we rely on for our year-round water supply. In addition, 2014 is almost certain to go down as California's hottest on record, complicating the already dry conditions. For example, Griffin and Anchukaita (cited above) found that California's reduced precipitation has been compounded by increased temperatures.
- Groundwater Usage: In 2014, the agricultural community relied quite heavily on groundwater to get through the drought. They turned to groundwater because surface water allocations were greatly reduced. Many farmers pumped groundwater from old wells, dug their wells deeper, or created new wells. Research from UC Davis estimated agricultural economic losses due to the drought to be around $2 billion. These losses would have been much, much higher without groundwater. A long-term look at groundwater depletion led by Jay Famiglietti, a scientist at the University of California, Irvine and NASA, found that high levels of long-term groundwater depletion has caused land to sink in agriculturally intensive areas, such as the Central Valley. Homeowners in these areas have seen their residential wells run dry. Unable to afford digging deeper, they've replaced well water with trucked in or bottled water.
- Effects on People and Animals: Not only is California the most populous state in the U.S., it's also home to Central Valley, a major supplier of the world's food. Both city-dwellers and farmers are trying to find ways to conserve. Farmers continue to work on more efficient methods of irrigation, and urban residents are being encouraged to reduce the amount water used on landscaping, which typically accounts for 50% or more of household water usage. In addition, some areas of the state where people have been the hardest hit are also the poorest, creating cumulative stressors and threatening livelihoods. Furthermore, wildlife and ecosystems have been severely impacted by the drought. For example, the endemic Coho salmon is on the brink of extinction and tricolored blackbirds have just been listed as an endangered species.
How can California even start to cope with its drought? How can it become resilient to future droughts in an arid climate? The oft-repeated phrase that crisis is an opportunity has a ring of truth to it. Although the issues are complex, there have been some achievements: This year has seen quite a bit of movement—political and otherwise—toward developing more resilient water supplies.
- Groundwater Legislation: Earlier this year, Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation mandating “sustainable groundwater management,” though the law leaves local entities to define that idea further. While some local agencies have been managing groundwater at a regional level for some time, this will be the first coordinated, statewide effort. However, even in groundwater basins that the state has deemed high- or medium-priority areas, it will take time to establish the agencies responsible for groundwater management. They will then have until 2020 or 2022 to develop a groundwater sustainability plan, and the plan will just be the beginning of the management process.
- Spending on Water Projects: This November, Californians voted to pass a $7.5 billion water bond that will fund a variety of projects. Over a third of that bond has been allocated for water storage. The specifics of the bond spending were left quite vague. The law notes only that the funds will go to a mixture of surface storage (e.g., dams) and groundwater storage (e.g., managed aquifer recharge). Like the groundwater legislation, the water bond projects may take years—even decades—to be implemented. Research and community input will be needed to understand which projects make the most sense and to decide where they should go.
- Water Independence: Over the last decade, particularly in southern California, there has been a growing focus on “water independence.” Instead of relying on water transfers from wetter parts of the state, major urban centers such as Los Angeles and San Diego have worked to invest in water that can be supplied locally. Los Angeles, for example, is rethinking how to use storm water. The water that used to clog up the drainage system during large storms is now considered a resource, harnessed through the use of permeable pavements and rain gardens, which help to recharge groundwater after a storm.
- Adapting to Variable Water Supply: Due to the growing recognition of how variable our climate is, researchers, growers, and communities are looking toward more resilient approaches to managing water. For example, the state has developed an adaptation strategy for water, which stresses the importance of efficiency in the urban and agricultural sectors, advances the concept of integrated regional water management, and focuses on improving water and flood management systems.
- Community Awareness and Support: People are banding together to support each other through this drought. The state's universities have been holding workshops and offering training opportunities for communities hit hard by drought, agriculture and ranching. People are starting to realize the scale of change necessary and are joining together in non-traditional alliances. Journalist Brett Walton noted that the success of a water recycling effort in Southern California over the last 20 years was not just a technological feat, but a testament to human partnership.
The million dollar question now is how wet 2015 will be. Most predictions are pretty dire. There were hopes that the El Nino weather pattern might pull us out of the drought, but they seem to be fading. Even in the midst of a series of storms, state water managers note that we would need 150 percent of our average precipitation to recover from the drought. Long-range weather predictions are notoriously tricky. Although we hope for rain, we are actively planning for another dry year, as we should be.
As Wallace Stegner wrote, “One cannot be pessimistic about the West. This is the native home of hope.” Regardless of whether this particular drought continues, it's clear that droughts will always be a part of life in California. Preparing for that reality is one of the most hopeful actions we can take.
- Severe Drought Has U.S. West Fearing Worst by Adam Nagourney and Ian Lovett, The New York Times
- Zero Percent Water by Alan Heathcock
- Depleting the Water by Lesley Stahl, 60 Minutes
- When the Snow Fails by Michelle Nijhous, National Geographic
- California drought: Scientists puzzled by persistence of blocking ‘ridge' by Gloria Goodale, The Christian Science Monitor
- California drought: Past dry periods have lasted more than 200 years, scientists say by Paul Rogers, San Jose Mercury News
- California Drought Saps Water Reserves Above and Below Ground, Says Satellite Data by Brett Walton, Circle of Blue
- Amid drought, California and other Western states gird for a landmark year in forest fires by Reid Wilson,Washington Post
- The Connection Between California's Drought and Climate Change by Molly Samuel, KQED Science
- California Drought Most Severe Dry Spell in at least 1,200 Years by Alex Emslie, KQED Science