Global Science Report is a weekly feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”
California’s Central Valley is one of the true wonders of the agricultural world. Prior to settlement, it was grassland in its northerly regions (around Sacramento) and desert at the southern end (Bakersfield). As a result of irrigation from water stored both in the ground and in the many rivers that drain into it, this 1 percent of the nation’s cropland produces 8 percent of our national agricultural output (by value). That doesn’t count the equally productive but much smaller Salinas Valley, which is likely where your artichokes came from.
John Christy, a fellow-lukewarmer (and a Valley native) who is also state climatologist for Alabama, has published extensively that irrigation has changed the Valley’s climate, resulting in a warming produced not by carbon dioxide but by water vapor, which tends to skew heating into the night.
Everything else being equal, increasing the surface moisture in a hot-as-heck environment (like the Central Valley) will increase atmospheric instability, and, given proper conditions, should result in increased convective (thunderstorm) activity. Add in that prevailing mid-atmospheric winds in this region blow from west to east, and you wind up running the increased water vapor uphill into the Sierras, the Wasatch, and the Rockies. That’s pretty much guaranteed to increase thunderstorm activity.
A newly published study fleshes this out with a computer model, and finds that irrigation in the Central Valley of California not only adds water to the local environment but also alters the regional climate across the Colorado River Basin, increasing summer precipitation by 15 percent and Colorado River flow by nearly 30 percent. Those are big numbers and important ones, given the water needs of some 35 million people from Las Vegas to Phoenix to L.A.