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Climate change contributing to record-setting heat, drought in Las Vegas

Climatologists discuss record heat and drought
Climate change contributing to record-setting heat, drought in Las Vegas
Climate change contributing to record-setting heat, drought in Las Vegas
Climate change contributing to record-setting heat, drought in Las Vegas
Posted at 7:24 PM, Jun 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-18 23:17:12-04

LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — It's been a historically hot week and it's only mid-June. So, what do we have in store for the rest of the summer? 13 Action News spoke with two climatologists to find out if this is the new normal in Southern Nevada and how much of this heat is tied to climate change.

Matthew Lachniet, a climate scientist at UNLV, and Dan McEvoy, a regional climatologist with the Desert Research Institute and the Western Regional Climate Center, agreed that it's difficult to directly blame this week's historic heatwave on climate change, but they believe it is a contributing factor.

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"The heatwave itself is most likely a natural phenomenon, in the sense that we have a high-pressure cell, a heat dome forming over the western United States, and that’s bringing the high temperatures," said Lachniet.

"And we know we can get these high temperatures without the influence of humans. However, we do also know that Nevada has been warming over the last century by a couple of degrees already. And so, when we’re looking at the current heatwave of reaching 116°, well maybe it might’ve only been 114 or 113° without that human influence," he continued.

"In other words, the human influence and climate change are adding towards those heat highs that we’re seeing over this current heatwave," said Lachniet.

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"The weather pattern right now that’s associated with these high temperatures is a range of high pressure over the western U.S. And so, the pattern itself is common for the summer months around you, that high-pressure pattern. So that in itself, that weather pattern, is not necessarily associated with climate change," said McEvoy.

"What we do think is associated with climate change," McEvoy added, "is the strength of this ridge of high-pressure, is stronger than what we’ve seen in the past. And we know that anthropogenic emissions, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, is increasing the temperatures and is the main cause of human caused climate change."

Much of the west is also dealing with a historic drought, with Southern Nevada right in the middle of it. Lachniet and McEvoy say it's easier to attribute our current drought to climate change.

"We know that the warming temperatures cause more demand for water," said Lachniet. "So, if you have a warm climate and you evaporate more soil water away, and also less of that precipitation falls as snow and instead as rain, it's more difficult for that rain to make it in the Colorado River. There very likely is an imprint, a human influence on the current drought that we’re witnessing over the last 20 years because temperatures are higher."

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"The part that we’re very sure of that is contributing to the drought is the increased temperatures from climate change. That part is pretty easy to pin down," said McEvoy. "The part that’s a little more challenging is the precipitation variability. The precipitation signal in the climate change records, in terms of trends of drying or wetting, is not as clear-cut as we see with our graphs of temperature just going up, whereas in some places in the west there’s not much trend upward or downward. So, downward would be drying of precipitation and that trend isn’t exactly clear."

"What we have seen recently and what climate models do show we will see more of in the future is more rapid changes from extremely wet to extremely dry, this idea called precipitation whiplash, where you can have one year that’s extremely wet and you’re more likely to have an extremely dry year following that and this bouncing up and down from extremes. We do expect more extremes under climate change and we’re already seeing more of that," McEvoy continued.

If you're wondering what you can do to help mitigate climate change and the warming we're experiencing, climatologists encourage you to think long-term.

They say the more carbon we emit into the atmosphere, the hotter the atmosphere will get, so any way you can reduce your carbon footprint will help. They're also counting on lawmakers to make policy changes that will create widespread change.