Blue Marble

Only Obama Can Block the Keystone Pipeline Now

| Fri Jan. 31, 2014 2:04 PM PST
Activists protest the Keystone XL pipeline outside the White House.

The decision on whether or not to allow construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport crude oil from the Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico, has always been President Obama's to make. But the environmental stakes are so high—leading climate scientist James Hansen is fond of referring to the pipeline as "game over for the climate" because it would promote the extraction of one of the dirtiest kinds of oil—that a decision has been delayed for the last few years as the State Department carries out a review of the project's likely environmental impact.

That wait ended today, as State released its Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. The report says the annual carbon emissions from producing, refining, and burning the oil the pipeline would move (830,000 barrels per day) would add up to 147-168 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. (By contrast, the typical coal-fired power plant produces 3.5 million metric tons of CO2 annually.) That sounds like a lot, but the report comes with an important caveat:

Approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed Project, is unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands or the demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States.

In other words, according to the report, those emissions are likely to happen whether the president approves Keystone XL or not. That's an important distinction, given that President Obama has already said that in order to gain approval, the pipeline must not increase carbon emissions. But there are other ways to move oil: For example, the report mentions that "rail will likely be able to accommodate new production if pipelines are delayed or not constructed." Rail transit is already underway; yesterday an ExxonMobil exec said the company had begun to use trains to pack oil out of the tar sands (despite their pretty awful safety record). But if the oil is going to be extracted (and the emissions emitted) one way or another, the case for blocking the pipeline per se becomes less clear.

There's still one more important document yet to be released by State: an investigation by the department's internal Inspector General into a potential conflict of interest by a contractor who helped produce the report, Environmental Resources Management. As Mother Jones first reported, State Department officials took steps to conceal that some ERM employees had ties to companies that would profit from the pipeline's construction. Last December, Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz) led a coalition of House members who asked the president to delay release of the environmental impact statement until after the Inspector General's report is released, which is not expected for several more weeks.

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How 2 Inches of Snow Created a Traffic Nightmare in Atlanta

| Wed Jan. 29, 2014 11:17 AM PST
Gridlock in Atlanta.

This article originally appeared on Conor Sen's personal site and was published by the Atlantic. It is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

I know what you’re thinking (I grew up outside of D.C. and Boston): "How can 2 inches of snow shut down Atlanta?"

Before I got here, I thought that too. I wonder it every time there's a run on the grocery stores before a storm, or when some other city cancels schools before a flake has even hit the ground.

And surely, the drivers play a part. I was out getting coffee around noon yesterday, just when things were starting to get bad (at the time there was, at most, a half inch of snow on the ground), and set out to drive my 2 miles home, a straight shot on a fairly major surface street. It took me around 30 minutes. Part of the reason was one of the drivers in front of me (with Tennessee plates) was going 5 miles-per-hour in a 35 miles-per-hour zone with no cars in front of them. But even with my car—2013 model, 10,000 miles on it—I was skidding at times on the gentle incline of a street that hadn't been treated with sand/salt/gravel at all.

My wife left work in Woodstock, a city 30-35 miles northwest of here, a little after noon yesterday, and took 3.5 hours to get home. She was one of the lucky ones.

Yes, Atlanta has many drivers who are inexperienced in the snow, but for a region that gets a storm (I know, I know "2 inches = storm") like this at most once every few years, how is anyone supposed to be experienced in the snow? How do you think San Francisco would handle a couple inches of snow? Going north/south on Franklin or Gough, or east/west on Fell or Oak? How do you think the N-Judah out in Cole Valley or the Sunset would handle it? This is a metro area of 6 million people, and it's time to think beyond "those silly southern drivers."

Metro areas of 6 million people need to be prepared for anything.

Which leads into the blame game. Republicans want to blame government (a Democrat thing) or Atlanta (definitely a Democrat thing). Democrats want to blame the region's dependence on cars (a Republican thing), the state government (Republicans), and many of the transplants from more liberal, urban places feel the same way you might about white, rural, southern drivers. All of this is true to some extent but none of it is helpful.

How much money do you set aside for snowstorms when they're as infrequent as they are? Who will run the show—the city, the county, or the state? How will preparedness work? You could train everyone today, and then if the next storm hits in 2020, everyone you've trained might have moved on to different jobs, with Atlanta having a new mayor and Georgia having a new governor.

Regionalism here is hard. The population of this state has doubled in the past 40-45 years, and many of the older voters who control it still think of it as the way it was when they were growing up. The urban core of Atlanta is a minority participant in a state government controlled by rural and northern Atlanta exurban interests. The state government gives MARTA (Atlanta's heavy rail transportation system) no money. There's tough regional and racial history here which is both shameful and a part of the inheritance we all have by being a part of this region. Demographics are evolving quickly, but government moves more slowly. The city in which I live, Brookhaven, was incorporated in 2012. This is its first-ever snowstorm (again, 2 inches). It's a fairly affluent, mostly white, urban small city. We were unprepared too.

The issue is that you have three layers of government—city, county, state—and none of them really trust the other. And why should they? Cobb County just "stole the Braves" from the city of Atlanta. Why would Atlanta cede transportation authority to a regional body when its history in dealing with the region/state has been to carve up Atlanta with highways and never embrace its transit system? Why would the region/state want to give more authority to Atlanta when many of the people in the region want nothing to do with the city of Atlanta unless it involves getting to work or a Braves game?

The region tried, in a very tough economy and political year (2012), to pass a comprehensive transportation bill, a T-SPLOST, funded by a sales tax. It wasn't perfect, but it was an attempt to do something. The Sierra Club opposed it because it didn't feature enough transit. The NAACP opposed it because it didn't have enough contracts for minority businesses. The tea party opposed it because it was a tax. That's politics in the 2010s. You may snicker, but how good a job has any major city done with big transportation projects over the past 30 years?

As anyone paying attention knows, Atlanta's finally moving in the right direction. The Beltline build-out is underway and reshaping neighborhoods. Downtown is finally getting some investment, and we'll see how useful it is, but it's building a streetcar that will be up and running this year, with plans in the works for extensions. More and more counties in the region are tipping from red to purple/blue (Henry, Gwinnett, soon Cobb), which should help ease some of the racial and partisan tensions associated with regionalism. Most of the development dollars in a region driven by real estate are now flowing to urban, walkable projects. There are increasingly serious conversations about extending MARTA to the north and east. We've become one of the top 3 markets in the country for electric vehicle sales.

But clearly, there's work to be done.

You Might Be Cold Right Now, But Your Planet Isn't

| Wed Jan. 29, 2014 4:00 AM PST
Snow in Georgia from Winter Storm Leon

This week, the Central, Southern, and Eastern United States have all experienced yet another bout of frigid cold and snow, one that left motorists in the Atlanta area stranded in their cars overnight. Freezing air from the Arctic has been an all too frequent visitor this month, and with this latest arrival we've seen record-low daily temperatures for Detroit (minus-9 degrees), Grand Rapids, Michigan (minus-9 degrees), and Lubbock, Texas (7 degrees), among other locations, according to Weather Underground.

There's no denying that it's cold out; and once again, that's prompting anecdotal claims that somehow, global warming is in question. Yet it's important to bear in mind that just because you're freezing—or even have seen a new daily record-low temperature in the particular place where you live—that doesn't mean that what's happening to you accurately reflects what's happening to the planet overall, or even to the United States.

In other words, don't be the white-capped guy in this XKCD comic:

So how do you avoid this particularly annoying kind of weather-induced cluelessness? Rather than thinking with your gut about cold temperatures, try thinking with your (or, science's) statistics.

Consider: If global warming is not happening, then scientists say that the planet ought to be breaking just as many hot temperature records as cold temperature records overall. In a warming climate, however, you would naturally break more hot records than cold records over time. So what kind of climate do we live in?

According to data from the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), the United States has set 1,347 daily low temperature records so far in January 2014, and tied another 304, for a total of 1,651. (A daily record refers to the highest or lowest temperature recorded in a particular place on a particular day of the year, as opposed to an all-time record, which is the highest or lowest temperature ever recorded in that place on any day.) When it comes to daily highs, by contrast, there have been only 489 new records and 237 tied records (many of them in the West and in Alaska), for a total of 726. (These records are updated regularly; our results are based on a search conducted yesterday evening.)

So based on just this month alone, record lows are indeed outpacing record highs. The data are clear: We've had a very cold month.

Yet if you zoom out and examine the long-term trend, things look different. In a 2009 paper in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, for instance, a team of climate and weather researchers analyzed the ratio of daily hot records to daily cold records from 1950 to 2006, with a careful sampling of overall weather station data. The result? They found that the ratio of hot records to cold records has been rising since the 1970s, and by the 2000s stood at about 2-to-1. That's precisely what you'd expect to see if global warming is happening. Here's a visualization of their results:

Ratio of daily record highs to daily record lows in the lower 48 United States, from Meehl et al, "Relative increase of record high maximum temperatures compared to record low minimum temperatures in the U.S.," Geophysical Research Letters, 2009.
Mike Shibao/University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

That study only runs through 2006, however. So can we bring it up to date?

The Weather Channel's Guy Walton, a coauthor on the paper cited above, keeps a regular tally of NCDC weather records, and emails out his compilation to interested parties. One limitation is that according to Walton, this approach does not control for different weather station ages or other complicating factors. In other words, these data are not as carefully scrubbed as those used in the peer-reviewed study above. Nonetheless, based on Walton's latest analysis of the data, the decade of the 2000s saw 312,746 daily record highs, compared with only 156,494 daily record lows, for a roughly 2-1 ratio overall. And if you consider the 2010s so far, Walton's data show 91,383 daily record highs, compared with only 38,881 record lows, for a ratio that is well over 2-to-1.

So in sum: January has been a cold month for the United States. But it's not reflective of the recent past, nor of what's expected over the long term.

Obama Just Doubled Down on His Climate Plan—Here's What Else He Could Do

| Tue Jan. 28, 2014 9:51 AM PST

Updated 1/28/14, 10:30 pm ET: Reminding lawmakers that the debate over climate science is "settled," President Obama used his State of the Union address tonight to reiterate his administration's commitment to adopting stringent new regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants and tougher fuel efficiency rules for heavy trucks.

But Obama also doubled down on his controversial "all-of-the-above" energy strategy. He touted the role that natural gas extraction has played in reducing US carbon emissions while also saying he would work with the fracking industry to adopt stronger environmental protections.

But even with an obstinate and unproductive Congress, these aren't the only policy options available to the president; last week, the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University released a report co-authored by former Colorado governor Bill Ritter that details 200 climate actions Obama could take without Congress.

Earlier today, we outlined a few ideas:

1. Continue the crackdown on coal pollution: This month the Environmental Protection Agency released a new draft of rules that would strictly curtail emissions of carbon dioxide from new coal-fired power plants; a second set of rules that would apply to existing plants is expected later this year. Slashing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, which account for roughly a third of country's total GHG emissions, is a major pillar of the president's climate platform, even though a lengthy review process and probable legal challenges from the coal industry mean the rules aren't likely to take effect before the end of his term. But in the absence of a national price on carbon or other legislation, regulations like this are the most significant way the president can promote a transition away from our dirtiest power sources. 

2. Fix fracking: Today, regulations for natural gas drilling companies are mainly applied by states, but the president has an opportunity to influence the industry's practices when it shows up to drill on federal land. The Colorado State report calls on the Bureau of Land Management to apply stringent rules for fracking on public land, like full disclosure of what's in the fracking chemical cocktail, zero tolerance for methane leaks from wells and pipes (a major, unregulated source of highly potent greenhouse gases), and more efficienct water-use practices. The president also needs to set a more concrete timeline for how long fracking, often described as a "bridge" fuel between coal and renewables, will continue to be a major source of domestic energy, said Bill Becker, the report's co-author and executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project.

"We recognize that natural gas is a logical transition fuel," Becker added. "But we think that should be happening a lot faster than it's happening now."

Somehow, Becker said, the president needs to reconcile his "all of the above" energy plan with his stated goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020; working with the fracking industry to cut methane leaks is a great place to start.

Donald Trump's Climate Conspiracy Theory

| Mon Jan. 27, 2014 9:53 AM PST

When chilling cold first descended in early January, we had an occasion to correct Donald Trump on climate science. To do so, we simply explained that the widely recognized phenomenon known as winter doesn't refute global warming, especially since winter is inherently limited to one hemisphere. (In a widely lampooned tweet, Trump had cited "record low temps" in arguing that "this very expensive GLOBAL WARMING bullshit has got to stop.")

Alas, Trump has now dug himself deeper into the snow drift. Here are the latest tweets:

With this, Trump joins the grand tradition of climate science conspiracy theorizing, as epitomized by Senator James Inhofe 2012 book title: The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. By using the word "hoax," Inhofe and Trump are suggesting that there is a conscious attempt to mislead us with fake, trumped up science, in the service of political goals.

So how do you refute this global warming conspiracy theory? Simple: You merely have to explain what a real global warming conspiracy would actually entail, whereupon the utter implausibility of the scenario becomes obvious.

For a global warming conspiracy to exist, you'd need scientists around the world to be in on it. Not scientists at one university, or scientists in one country. Scientists everywhere, from Australia to Japan, from China to America.

This is scarcely possible, especially in light of the incentive structure in science: Scientists advance and get promoted by publishing original research that is highly cited by other scientists. And it is hard to imagine a better citation-grabbing paper than one that seriously refuted what most scientists in a given field believe to be true. There is therefore a huge incentive for a scientist or group of scientists to upset everything we thought we knew about climate change, assuming that this could be achieved in a serious scientific paper that passes peer review and stands the test of time. A researcher who achieved such a feat would be on a parallel, as far as fame and renown goes, with someone like Alfred Wegner, who originally proposed the revolutionary idea of continental drift.

The incentives, therefore, are very much against maintaining a climate conspiracy. The incentives instead tilt towards exposing it. And that makes the 97-percent consensus on climate change among scientists publishing in the peer-reviewed literature that much more powerful.

Finally, let's take on this idea that scientists are in it for the money, which may or may not be implied by Trump's first tweet above, but is a frequent fixture of global warming conspiracy theories. According to 2012-2013 data from the American Association of University Professors, the average salary for a US assistant professor at a doctorate-granting institution was $76,822. Salaries rise as high as an average of $134,747 for full professors at doctorate-level institutions, but that's academia's most coveted level, and not everybody gets there.

Surely Trump and other conservatives who believe in the power of the free market can see that people who want the big bucks are likely to embark on a different career path.

No, Climate Change Is Not Waking Bears From Hibernation

| Thu Jan. 23, 2014 11:33 AM PST
A black bear hunkers down near a pile of garbage in Sacramento last fall.

Last week, a rogue black bear made a cameo appearance for skiers at the Heavenly Mountain Resort near Lake Tahoe. The month before, a 260-pound male bear had to be put down by wildlife officials after breaking into several cars and a home in the same area. The spate of run-ins comes as California's brutal drought lingers on, with snowpack in the Sierra Nevada at a fifth of its normal level, leading several news outlets to suggest that balmy conditions have led bears here to awaken prematurely from their annual winter slumber.

That's a nice hypothesis, but according to the California Department Fish and Wildlife, there's nothing to it. Five to 15 percent of the Tahoe area's 300 black bears stay awake every winter, said CDFW biologist Jason Holley, and "we don't have any evidence to support that there's any more this winter." In fact, Holley said, the last few months of 2013 saw fewer bear complaints than average.

SF Chron front page
The front page of a recent San Francisco Chronicle. There's no evidence that more bears are awake this year than in an average year, officials said. Clara Jeffery/Mother Jones

So why all the hullabaloo? Holley's guess is that the drought cut down supplies of the bears' natural food sources—mainly grass, berries, and insects, although they'll eat just about anything—forcing those that are normally awake anyway to wander further afield, i.e., onto your ski slope or into your backyard. Not that the bears mind much.

"They are very adaptive and very mobile, so they will usually be able to take care of their daily needs in a drought situation," Holley said. "But then they're coming down to the lake to drink a lot, coming down for food. If the drought persists, it greatly increases the odds of a negative interaction with people."

What motivates some bears to stay awake while others hibernate is still somewhat of a mystery to scientists, according to Roger Baldwin, a wildlife specialist at the University of California-Davis who has conducted extensive research on bear behavior. When small mammals (a squirrel, say) hibernate, their heart rate and body temperature drop radically, toeing death's doorstep without actually stepping over, and stay that way for several months. Black bears, on the other hand, are much less extreme: They crank down their metabolism, heart rate, and body temperature just enough to get seriously lazy, but are still with it enough to be "perfectly capable of taking a swipe at you if you crawl into the den with them," Baldwin said, so rousting them is neither uncommon nor difficult.

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These 11 Popular Sodas Tested Positive for a Potential Carcinogen

| Thu Jan. 23, 2014 4:05 AM PST

The chemical compound that gives some sodas a caramel-brown color could be a carcinogen—and according to a new study by Consumer Reports, it's in many popular soft drinks at levels that exceed what many experts consider safe. Between April and December of 2013, researchers tested 110 bottles of various brands of soda for the 4-methylimidazole, or 4-MeI for short. They found the highest levels of the substance in Goya Malta, a malt-flavored soda popular in Latin American communities, and in various Pepsi products:

Consumer Reports Chart
Click for a larger version. Courtesy of Consumer Reports

4-MeI is not federally regulated, but the International Agency for Research on Cancer lists it as a potential carcinogen (PDF). In California, products that expose consumers to more than 29 micrograms of 4-MeI are supposed to have a warning label, according to the state's Proposition 65—yet none of the sodas that the group tested carried such a label. Dr. Urvashi Rangan, a toxicologist and executive director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center, believes that one reason for the New York samples' relatively high levels of 4-MeI might be that New York doesn't have a similar warning-label rule.

The researchers found that the Coca-Cola products had relatively low levels of 4-MeI. On the other hand, some of the samples of Dr. Snap, a soda sold at Whole Foods with a "natural" label, had levels that exceeded the California warning-label threshold.

PepsiCo representatives told Consumer Reports that they don't attach the warning label to their products in California because their research shows that consumers drink only about a third of a can of their products a day, on average—an amount that contains less than 29 micrograms of 4-MeI. The other brands whose products Consumer Reports tested have not yet responded to the findings.

Rangan notes that 4-MeI is present in some foods as well: barbecue sauces, soups, imitation pancake syrup, gravy, and canned mushrooms, among others. While Consumer Reports is urging the FDA to regulate 4-MeI, in the meantime, consumers should consider avoiding foods and beverages with caramel color, Rangan says. "We just don't think coloring your food brown should give you cancer."

NASA: 2013 Tied for the 7th-Hottest Year on Record

| Wed Jan. 22, 2014 7:55 AM PST
Your anomalously hot planet in 2013.

Yesterday, NASA and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration jointly put the year 2013 in its climate context. It was a very hot one: NASA's data have 2013 in a three-way tie for the seventh-hottest year in recorded history, while NOAA's have it in a three-way tie for the fourth hottest. (The gap arises due to slight differences in how the two agencies take into account matters like the warming of the Arctic, where there are relatively few weather stations.)

But those little discrepancies don't matter that much, explains NASA's Gavin Schmidt, who is deputy chief of the agency's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. What really matters is the larger pattern, and here there's really no disagreement. "The fact of the matter is that the long-term trends are very clear," says Schmidt.

How clear? NOAA and NASA agree that with the exception of 1998 (the year of a record-breaking El Nino event), every single one of the top 10 hottest years has occurred since the year 2000. They have slight differences in their rankings, to be sure, but on that big-picture question, there really isn't any daylight between the two agencies.

Similarly, their assessments of long-term global warming show a remarkable similarity:

Global warming. NASA/NOAA

But hasn't global warming "slowed down"? Schmidt agrees that the rate of warming over the 2000s wasn't quite as rapid as during the 1990s, something scientists are still working on understanding a bit better. But at the same time, the new analysis shows that the 2000s were considerably warmer than any previous decade. And Schmidt expects the 2010s to be hotter than the 2000s, and so on. And so on.

"If you look decade by decade, it's clear that the last decade is warmer than the decade before, which is warmer than the decade before," says Schmidt. "And we don't anticipate that changing."

Believe It: Global Warming Can Produce More Intense Snows

| Tue Jan. 21, 2014 11:44 AM PST
Satellite image of the intense US blizzard of February 5-6, 2010.

We all remember "Snowmageddon" in February of 2010. Even as Washington, D.C., saw 32 inches of snowfall for the month of February—more than it has seen in any February since 1899—conservatives decided to use the weather to mock global warming. Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe and his family even built an igloo on Capitol Hill and called it "Al Gore's New Home." Har har.

Yet at the same time, scientific voices were pointing out something seemingly counterintuitive, but in fact fairly simple to understand: Even as it raises temperatures on average, global warming may also lead to more intense individual snow events. It's a lesson to keep in mind as the northeast braces for winter storm Janus—which is expected to deliver as much as a foot of snow in some regions—and we can expect conservatives to once again mock climate change.

To understand the relationship between climate change and intense snowfall, you first need to understand that global warming certainly doesn't do away with winter or the seasons. So it'll still be plenty cold enough for snow much of the time. Meanwhile, global warming loads the dice in favor of more intense precipitation through changes in atmospheric moisture content. "Warming things up means the atmosphere can and does hold more moisture," explains Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. "So in winter, when there is still plenty of cold air there's a risk of bigger snows. With east coast storms, where the moisture comes from the ocean which is now warmer, this also applies."

Why does the atmosphere hold more moisture? The answer is a key physical principle called the Clausius-Clapeyron equation, stating that as atmospheric temperature rises, there is an exponential increase in the amount of water vapor that the air can hold—leading to more potential precipitation of all types. (A detailed scientific explanation can be found here.)

Indeed, scientific reports have often noted the snow-climate relationship. An expansive 2006 study of US snowstorms during the entirety of the 20th century, for instance, found that they were more common in wetter and warmer years. "A future with wetter and warmer winters...will bring more snowstorms than in 1901-2000," the paper predicted. There is also a clear increase in precipitation in the most intense precipitation events, especially in the northeast:

Percent increases in the amount of precipitation occurring in the heaviest precipitation events from 1958 to 2007. US Global Change Research Program.

"More winter and spring precipitation is projected for the northern U.S., and less for the Southwest, over this century," adds the draft US National Climate Assessment. Precipitation of all kinds is expected to increase, the study notes, but there will be large regional variations in how this is felt.

"The old adage, 'it's too cold to snow,' has some truth to it," observes meteorologist Jeff Masters, co-founder of the Weather Underground. "The heaviest snows tend to occur when the air temperature is near the freezing mark, since the amount of water vapor in the air increases as the temperature increases. If the climate in a region where it is 'too cold to snow' warms to a level where more snowstorms occur near the freezing point, an increase in the number of heavy snowstorms is possible for that region."

In fairness, global warming is also expected to decrease overall snow cover, because intense snow events notwithstanding, snow won't last on the ground as long in a warmer world. In fact, a decrease in snow cover is already happening.

Today's snows will usher in a new northeast cold spell, not as intense as the "polar vortex" onslaught of two weeks ago but still pretty severe. But a temporary burst of cold temperatures doesn't refute climate change any more than a major snowstorm does. Indeed, we have reasons to expect that the rapid warming of the Arctic may be producing more cold weather in the mid-latitudes in the Northern hemisphere. For an explanation of why, listen to our interview with meteorologist Eric Holthaus on a recent installment of Inquiring Minds (from minutes 2 through 12 below):

None of this is to say, of course, that global warming explains single events; its effect is present in overall changes in moisture content, and perhaps, in the large-scale atmospheric patterns that bring us our weather.

Still, that's more than enough to refute conservatives who engage in snow trolling.

6 Scary Facts About California's Drought

| Sat Jan. 18, 2014 4:00 AM PST
Satellite views of the Sierra Nevada, a year apart.

"Fire season just didn't end this year."

The comment came from Scott Miller, the Los Angeles County fire inspector, in the wake of the Colby Fire in the foothills near Los Angeles. The fire is now 30-percent contained, but it serves as the latest reminder that California is facing an increasingly alarming drought—one that yesterday prompted Gov. Edmund Brown, Jr., to declare a state of emergency.

Last year was California's driest on record for much of the state, and this year, conditions are only worsening. Sixty-three percent of the state is in extreme drought, and Sierra Nevada snowpack is now running at just 10 to 30 percent of normal. "We're heading into what is near the lowest three year period in the instrumental record" for snowpack, says hydrologist Roger Bales of the University of California-Merced.

Water shortages, devastating wildfires, and growing economic impacts: All could be on the way unless more precipitation arrives, and fast. Here are some scary realities about the drought:

1. It's Bordering on Unprecedented in Some Areas. According to Christopher Burt, weather historian at Weather Underground, the City of San Francisco has received only 2.12 inches of water so far in this water year. The driest water year on record was from 1850-1851, at 7.42 inches. So as of now, San Francisco is below half of the all-time record low.

2. Time in the Rainy Season is Running Out. California doesn't get steady rain all year round. Rather, it has a rainy season each year, and we're currently in it. Typically, the rainy season runs through March; if major precipitation doesn't arrive by then, it probably won't be coming. Granted, this is also the chief source of hope right now: California can sometimes get plenty of water in February and March.

3. The Drought Could Lead to Dirtier Energy Use. Peter Gleick, president of the Oakland-based Pacific Institute, points out one less-noticed consequence of the drought: The lack of water means less available hydropower. And that has consequences: "Because renewable hydropower is among the cheapest and most versatile of electricity sources," writes Gleick, "California ratepayers will have to pay for more costly fossil fuels to make up for the difference." The result, he notes, is likely to be "billions of dollars in added energy costs and generating more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere."

4. It's Setting the Stage for a Devastating Fire Season. Hotter, drier conditions favor wildfires. Indeed, California has already seen several significant fires since the October 31 end of the traditional fire season, including December's Big Sur fire and the ongoing Colby Fire in the Los Angeles area. That's a bad sign. So is the fact that in just the first 11 days of January, the state saw 154 fires that burned 598 acres. That's way above the five-year average for this time of year.

For California, seven of the 10 largest fires in state history have occurred since the year 2000. And if these dry conditions persist throughout 2014, another new fire may be added to that list.

5. It Could Pummel Agriculture. California is an agricultural powerhouse. For crops, the state accounts for 15 percent of national sales and for livestock, 7.1 percent, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. But now farmers are likely to have considerably less water. This won't lead to agricultural collapse, but it will definitely take a toll. "There will be, in agriculture, fewer plantings, fewer harvests, and revenue of seasonal crops," says UC-Merced's Roger Bales. "There could be more expensive pumping of groundwater. And there could be just lower yields if they have less water to apply."

6. It's a Sign of What's to Come. NOAA's seasonal drought outlook projects persistent or worsening conditions in California through April:

US seasonal drought outlook. National Weather Service

Over the longer term, climate projections suggest that this risk will continue or increase. According to the draft National Climate Assessment, the US Southwest—which includes California and five other states—can expect less precipitation, hotter temperatures, and drier soils in the future, meaning that by 2060, there could be as much as a 35-percent increase in water demand. Along with that comes a 25- to 50-percent increased risk of water shortages.

So even if California gets some much needed rain in the coming months, that'll only be a short-term reprieve. Right now, the state needs to engage in some major climate adaptation planning, to get ready for a much drier future.