While it’s no surprise that much of the west has been experiencing drought-like conditions in recent years, an unexpected side effect is higher carbon emissions, according to National Geographic. During periods of drought, we often hear about problems like increased wildfires, arid farms, dust storms, and shriveling lakes and rivers, but it’s probably a surprise to hear that droughts can lead to higher emissions.
As National Geographic reports, “Low river flows drastically hampered the amount of carbon-free electricity that could be produced by the thousands of hydroelectric power plants dotted along rivers and reservoirs across the West.” A group of researchers has recently studied just how bad that aftermath is. National Geographic shares more:
They figured out that an extra 100 megatons of carbon ended up in the atmosphere because utilities had to use carbon-emitting power sources instead of hydroelectric power during drought, added up over the 15 years they studied. That’s the equivalent of adding about 1.4 million cars to the road for every one of those years.
In a normal year, a little more than 20 percent of the electricity produced across the western U.S. comes from hydroelectric plants. But that number fluctuates with the ebb and flow of water. And when water is scarce, the amount of energy produced by those plants plummets.
But people need lights and heat and air conditioning in a drought as much (and sometimes more) than they do in times of water plenty. If energy utilities can’t get the power they need from hydroelectric sources, they have to fill that gap with something else. Most of the time, the researchers found, the utilities fell back on carbon-emitting sources like natural gas and coal to fill their power needs.
You can read the full story on National Geographic.
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