Summer for many Americans is the time to enjoy being outside. But for much of the United States, this year’s extreme drought, wildfires, smoke and heat waves have made enjoying outdoor activities nearly impossible and continue to threaten the livelihoods and health of people and ecosystems across the country. With summer 2021 barely half over, and conditions likely to worsen in coming months, these extreme conditions provide a stark reminder that the chronic impacts of climate change will be one of our greatest 21st-century challenges.
As bad as 2021 has been, the story of drought in the West doesn’t begin this year. Since 2000, severe drought has drained western reservoirs, increased ground-water extraction, promoted giant wildfires and forest die-off, and coincided with ever-intensifying heat waves. We’ve had a bit of a bad run.