The West Without Water documents the tumultuous climate of the American West over twenty millennia, with tales of past droughts and deluges and predictions about the impacts of future climate change on water resources. Looking at the region's current water crisis from the perspective of its climate history, the authors ask the central question of what is "normal" climate for the West, and whether the relatively benign climate of the past century will continue into the future.
The West Without Water merges climate and paleoclimate research from a wide variety of sources as it introduces readers to key discoveries in cracking the secrets of the region's climatic past. It demonstrates that extended droughts and catastrophic floods have plagued the West with regularity over the past two millennia and recounts the most disastrous flood in the history of California and the West, which occurred in 1861-62. The authors show that, while the West may have temporarily buffered itself from such harsh climatic swings by creating artificial environments and human landscapes, our modern civilization may be ill-prepared for the future climate changes that are predicted to beset the region. They warn that it is time to face the realities of the past and prepare for a future in which fresh water may be less reliable.
"A masterful portrait of how water shaped the American West [...] Part detective story, part call to action, this book offers vital advice on how to fix the West's looming water crisis."
– Lee Billings, Scientific American
"Reads with the surprising velocity of a murder mystery and the intrigue of a rigorous, detective investigation."
– Lou Fancher, Lamorinda Weekly
"Could California run dry? As the West endures its driest year on record, having enough freshwater isn't a given – nor has it ever been, despite society's efforts to conserve and control it. Ingram and Malamud-Roam share how climate change has historically parched the landscape of the West and will lead to extreme water crises in the not-so-far future. Their foresight makes a compelling case for reducing our water footprint."
– Stanford Magazine
"Given California's importance in our economy and culture and the intensity with which climate vagaries affect that state, The West Without Water is an important and timely addition to your library whether you live in California or not."
– Anne Jefferson, Earth Magazine
"This book is an excellent introduction to climate science."
"Ingram and Malamud-Roam's book presents a remarkable mix of science, paleoclimatology, history, and poetic writing, telling the story of water in the West and how it is intimately tied to the Earth's varying climate. The authors vividly remind us of two things: first, society ignores the lessons of past climatic extremes at our peril, and second, we can no longer assume that the past is a reliable guide to the future, as human influence over the climate grows. The climate is changing, and our relationship to it must change as well. This book tells us how."
– Peter Gleick, author of Bottled and Sold and coauthor of A Twenty-First Century U.S. Water Policy
"Earth's climate has changed before, but always on a geological time scale. By burning millions of years worth of fossil fuels in a couple of centuries, humans have now forced atmospheric change onto our time scale. To make matters worse, in the American Southwest we have built a civilization on the assumption that we can get away with it. As The West Without Water eloquently and passionately reveals, we can't."
– James Lawrence Powell, author of Dead Pool
"In this intriguing account of a past more distant than any we have known, these authors offer us all the rare gift of foresight about what counts the most: the direction our society must take to sustain the richness of life on earth."
– Tim Palmer, author of Rivers of California and Lifelines: The Case for River Conservation
List of Illustrations
Part I. Floods and Droughts in Living Memory
1. From Drought to Deluge: “Normal” Climate in the West
2. The 1861–1862 Floods: Lessons Lost
3. The Great Droughts of the Twentieth Century
4. Why Is Climate So Variable in the West?
Part II. A Climate History of the American West
5. Reading the Past: The Earth’s History Books
6. From Ice to Fire: Into the Holocene
7. The “Long Drought” of the Mid-Holocene
8. Ice Returns: The Neoglaciation
9. The Great “Medieval Drought”
10. The Little Ice Age: Megafloods and Climate Swings
11. Why Climate Changes: Cycles and Oscillations
Part III. A Growing Water Crisis
12. The Hydraulic Era: Salmon and Dams
13. Future Climate Change and the American West
14. What the Past Tells Us about Tomorrow
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B. Lynn Ingram is Professor of Geography and Earth and Planetary Science at the University of California, Berkeley. Frances Malamud-Roam is an Associate Environmental Planner and Biologist at Caltrans, and visiting scholar in the Department of Earth and Planetary Science at the University of California, Berkeley.