How the drought in California is affecting our parks

We've seen two years of drought and a constant slow warming across the Sierra Nevada, and 2013 was the driest year since the state started measuring rainfall in 1849. Paleoclimatologist B. Lynn Ingram says that, according to the width of old tree rings, California hasn’t been this dry for about 500 years. But how does the drought affect our national parks, the wildlife, and how we enjoy nature?

1. More and larger forest fires. California is especially vulnerable to forest fires, and this year, there were much more than usual. An especially damaging one was in August, when the Rim Fire ravaged Yosemite National Park, leaving a barren moonscape that researchers say is larger than any burned area since the Little Ice Age, which began in 1350. For years forest ecologists have warned that Western wildfires will only get worse.

2. Bears waking up from hibernation earlier. In cities and towns surrounding the Sierra Nevadas, there have been increased sightings of bears, possibly because the drought cuts down on bears’ food sources. They're out and about as much as three months ahead of schedule!

3. Fish migrations disrupted. Salmon and steelhead trout are in danger as low water levels in many rivers may prevent them from migrating and spawning.

4. Less snow. That means no skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing in winter. Instead, you can go hiking or horseback riding.

5. Plant flowering disrupted. In Southern California, the iconic Joshua Trees of Joshua Tree National Park recently produced larger flowers than residents have ever seen, possibly because of a biological urge to produce more seeds to survive with less rain. While the huge blooms were beautiful, they’re a sign that the trees, which have been in decline, are struggling to survive.

6. Decline of the desert tortoise. The Agassiz’s desert tortoise tolerates the desert... but not droughts this extreme. They might die of starvation or dehydration. Also, the drought had killed off annual plants and triggered a crash in populations of rodents that eat them. As a result, coyotes, which normally thrive on kangaroo rats and rabbits, turn to the lumbering tortoises for sustenance.

I only touched on a few species that are impacted by this year's drought, but in reality, entire ecosystems are being threatened. Let's hope we get some rain soon, and let's all do our part in conserving water, in the meantime! What impacts of the drought have you noticed? Please share your observations and comments below!

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