What Is a Megadrought? Here's What's Happening in the American West

Photo Courtesy: Ken James/Bloomberg/Getty Images

From record-setting heatwaves to unprecedented wildfires and storms, new and undeniable evidence of the climate crisis seems to appear in our newsfeeds daily. While we have seen communities across the country — and globe — ravaged by natural disasters, another crisis looms near, and it's, perhaps, one of the most frightening aspects of climate change. That crisis? A severe lack of water. 

While some Americans don't have reliable clean water, many others are faced with worsening drought conditions. Odds are you've heard about the drought impacting the western half of the country; after all, these conditions, in part, have turned states like California into tinderboxes. But even the East Coast has seen less precipitation in recent years. And it's no longer just a dry spell that we can ignore. In fact, experts have deemed this pressing threat a "megadrought." 

Of course, the term megadrought isn't new, but it may be the first time many of us are hearing — or paying attention to — the phrase. But recent studies have revealed that the American West is entering the fifth period of megadrought within the last 1,200 years, which has made the phenomenon more top-of-mind for folks. So, what separates a megadrought from a "normal" period of drought? And, perhaps most importantly, what can we do about it?