Megadrought: 20 to 50 percent chance by century's end

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There is a 20 to 50 percent chance California will see a so-called "megadrought" within the next century, according to new research.

The study looked at how climate change might affect the West and Southwest's natural pattern of prolonged dry spells.

It found that the likelihood of a decades long dry spell will increase significantly as the planet warms.

Related: 'Mega-drought': Could California's drought last years? A century?

In the past, California has seen a 35 year or longer drought once or twice every thousand years.

Toby Ault, the study's lead author, said that by using dozens of climate prediction models, his team found these once rare phenomena will be come more common.

"The dice are loaded," Ault said. "On average things are expected to be drier and because of that we can get very unlucky and we can get very long dry spells."

Ault added that these droughts could leave the West as parched as the during dust bowl but for a longer stretch of time.

Related: West loses 63 trillion gallons of groundwater to drought

The research was conducted by a team from Cornell University, The University of Arizona and the US Geological Survey and will appear in an upcoming issue of the American Meteorological Society's Journal of Climate.

USC researcher Sarah Feakins was not involved with this study but thinks the researcher’s conclusions are valid if maybe a little conservative.

"It's just something to be aware of that our climate system can do a lot more than we've seen it do in the last 150 years," Feakins said.

She said some records even suggest the West experienced a 500 year drought 2000 years ago. 

Related: SCPR's coverage of California's drought

Bill Patzert, a climatologist NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, agreed that California can expect more megadroughts in the near future.

He said similar dry spells hampered the once thriving Anasazi populations that lived in the Southwest hundreds of years ago.

Patzert hopes this study will be a wake up call for water managers across the region.

"If we don't prepare for something that looks like a megadrought, that would be extremely short sighted," he said.

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