Williams studied soil moisture levels in the West—a box that includes California, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, most of Oregon and Idaho, much of New Mexico, western Colorado, northern Mexico, and the southwest corners of Montana and Texas—using modern measurements and tree rings for estimates that go back to the year 800. That’s about as far back as estimates can reliably go with tree rings. “For this drought to have just cranked up back to maximum drought intensity in late 2020 through 2021 is a quite emphatic statement by this 2000s drought saying that we’re nowhere close to the end,” Williams said. This drought is now 5% drier than the old record from the 1500s, he said. The drought monitor says 55% of the U.S. West is in drought with 13% experiencing the two highest drought levels. This megadrought really kicked off in 2002—one of the driest years ever, based on humidity and tree rings, Williams said. “I was wondering if we’d ever see a year like 2002 again in my life and in fact, we saw it 20 years later, within the same drought,” Williams said. The drought levels in 2002 and 2021 were a statistical tie, though still behind 1580 for the worst single year.
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