TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Fierce winds and extreme drought continue to fuel out-of-control wildfires in New Mexico. The fires have burned over 120,000 acres, and it’s not even fire season yet.

The NOAA satellite loop below shows what the dry weather looks like from space. Fires and smoke on the left in New Mexico and dust storms rolling southward from eastern Colorado and the Western Plains.

NOAA Satellite Loop

Reservoirs are dangerously low. Lake Mead – the country’s largest manmade reservoir – just hit an all-time record low. Lake Powell is down 40 feet from a year ago, now at only 24 percent capacity.

The megadrought, the worst the west has seen in at least 1,200 years, is getting worse. Last week, Southern California declared a water shortage emergency, which is unprecedented given that dry season hasn’t even started yet.

So why is this happening? This can be broken into two parts: short term and long term. First, let’s discuss the short term.

Since Jan. 1st, much of the west has seen it’s driest period on record.

Darker brown areas recorded the driest January to May period on record.

As a result, California snowpack is only 35 percent of normal. That’s dire because reservoirs rely on snow melt to recharge their coffers and supply water through the dry summer to tens of millions of people.

May snow cover is very low in the Western Mountains.

Now for the longer-term explanation. Eleven of the last 24 winters have featured a La Niña. That’s very unlucky and unusual. La Niña tends to lead to drier conditions in the Southwest U.S.

La Niñas have dominated since 1998

Research shows that 58 percent of this drought can be explained by natural cycles like La Niña
but the remaining 42 percent is due to human-caused climate change.

A study shows human-caused warming is responsible for significantly enhancing the drought

That’s because the warmer air is escalating evaporation, drying out the soil and vegetation, and turning what would have been an extreme drought into a historic one.

As a result of the drying, fire season is now almost 3 months longer than it used to and the future of water in the west is uncertain.