Geography professor Justin Mankin was selected as co-lead of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Drought Task Force in 2020. On Sept. 21, the NOAA released a report on the 2020-21 American West drought — which saw the American West’s lowest total precipitation and third-highest daily average temperatures since 1895. Mankin sat down with The Dartmouth to discuss his research, and the implications of the report.
What inspired you to work with the NOAA’s Drought Task Force? Have you always had an interest in climate change?
JM: My work has always focused on what we call “hydroclimate,” which is how water gets carried through the climate system and what factors physically and chemically and biologically account for that movement of water. That led me to the study of drought.
I, as a lot of professors do, need research support, and the NOAA provides a lot of public research support for different scientists in different domains. As part of my support from NOAA, they asked that I would be one of the co-leads for this body called the Drought Task Force, which is essentially a consortium of 40 or so scientists from over 30 different universities around the country, all of whom are interested and working on questions of drought.
My goal as one of the co-leads is to coordinate our research and provide resolution on really crucial questions that face our country right now. What became clear is that we needed to provide a scientific assessment of the causes and consequences of the American West drought, and when we might expect it to end, so that stakeholders and policymakers and decisionmakers can make informed decisions about how best to manage the risks of it.
What have been the most critical findings of your work?
JM: We tried to answer three principal questions about this drought: How bad is it? What caused it? And when's it gonna end?
On the first question: the drought is exceptional — truly exceptional.
We have instrumental records of weather and climate going back to at least 1895 in this part of the United States. Beyond that, we have what are called paleoclimatic records; these are records of things like temperature and precipitation and phenomena like drought. The precipitation over the 20 months from Jan. 2020 to Aug. 2021 is the lowest on record. And the temperatures — also because of the warming — were the third highest on record.
Drought is very much a reconciliation of supply and demand. It is a period in which water’s supply is insufficient to meet its various demands. The impacts of it have been really significant: massive impacts to agriculture, massive impacts to hydropower, massive impacts to our forests and grasslands, which have become tinderboxes for wildfires. It imposes massive strains on our resources, right at a time when a lot of local economies are trying to recover from something like the pandemic.
It's a really horrible, exceptional time. And it begs the question, why did it happen? Is it this whole global warming thing? Was it just random chance? There's an active investigation about whether global warming that has already occurred played a role, but we have no evidence of that scientifically at this point.
Then we can ask the same set of questions about the demands on that water — the thing that imposes the demands on water in the West is temperature. And the only way to get those high temperatures and vapor pressure deficits is to have a human influence on the climate system. The initial cause of the drought seems to have been bad luck, but the thing that made it so bad actually is attributable to us.
If the drought has a human fingerprint, is there a way for humans to mitigate the effects of the drought, or will the problem need to be solved naturally?
JM: We're talking about 80 million or so people in the American West. There are a lot of people living their life out there and imposing various demands on water. If we have a situation where supply isn't changing but atmospheric demand of that water is, it's just going to be easier to fall into drought. The only way to mitigate that is to mitigate our greenhouse gas emissions, meaning switching away from fossil fuel based energy sources and migrating our economy towards renewable energy sources.
There's also adaptation — mitigating or managing the risks associated with the drought once it occurs — and that work is ongoing. This drought has revealed that we're not well-adapted to the climate we have right now. And I think that suggests pretty clearly that we're not going to be well-adapted to the climate we know is coming.
How do you envision the report will affect future climate change efforts? What are your next steps?
JM: The last part of the report was really about this question of when will this drought end, and the conclusion we come to is that it's pretty locked in for a while. And so the next steps associated with a report are continuing to make the assessment of whether or not our predictions about the evolution and future of this drop continue to bear out. There were a huge number of questions that we couldn't answer about this drought, and so our work is ongoing, trying to resolve those questions, to improve our forecast, so that we can get a better handle on what the likelihood of drought is in the future.
Has the pandemic posed any obstacles to your research, and if so, how have you overcome them?
JM: My partner is on the faculty in the anthropology department, and we have two young children. Teaching and keeping those kids safe, with no child care, for example, was an immense challenge, and I was doing so while also answering the call from organizations like NOAA. How do you balance all those things? How do you keep all those balls in the air and do a good job? That was one of the pandemic’s big effects on my work,my research and how I interact with my research group. What does it look like to run a successful research group at the cutting edge of important questions about climate change and do so in this way where we are all truly strained?
In a lot of senses, the move to remote work didn't really change anything with the task force because we're all distributed around the country, from Hawaii to Dartmouth, and we were all meeting online anyway.
Are there actions students/local residents in the Upper Valley could take to mitigate the effects of climate warming?
JM: One thing I try to impress upon all of my students in my class is the tremendous amount of agency that we have as individuals. The largest source of uncertainty in how bad the warming problem is us. That doesn't feel particularly empowering, but I actually think it's tremendously empowering. It means that we are not fated.
The time to act is always now. So that means that, to students, I would recommend being civic-minded and thinking about their actions. And taking steps to realize their vision of a carbon neutral world at home. I think that the things that we need to be doing as individuals are not just reducing our consumption of environmental materials at home but also supporting local, state and federal-level political campaigns of folks who are aware of the problem and see it as a pressing issue.
I think having an awareness about the privilege that we, as Dartmouth people, have in the face of a crisis like climate change is also really important. Dartmouth students are well-positioned as the folks who are going to be future policymakers, technological and business leaders, who can take actions to steer their organizations in ways that will actually make effective change. I think living with that intention is the most important thing a Dartmouth student can do.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.