California heading toward 'megadrought'?

Southern California is in the grip of a drought that has gone on for three years.

The lack of rainfall has left the soil parched. Wildfires have destroyed property and consumed thousands of acres of vegetation.

A new study says things could get much worse.

According to scientists, these extreme conditions suggest we could be heading toward a "megadrought" in California and other parts of the southwest.

Professor Julia Cole from the University of Arizona said, "Our results suggest that in the coming century depending, of course, on exactly where you are and depending on how warm the world gets, there's something like a 20- to 50-percent change that we may experience a drought of 35 years."

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Arizona and Cornell University, says prolonged droughts occur naturally every 400 to 600 years.

"Megadrought is a drought that's just as bad … just as dry as the severe droughts of the 20th century; think 1930s dustbowl, think 1950s drought … but much longer lasting," said Professor Toby Ault from Cornell University.

Scientists say they can't predict what will happen, but they do say global warming increases the risk that California, Arizona and New Mexico will be hit by a prolonged drought.

"So we can't really weigh in on whether or not this drought will turn into a megadrought but what we can say with a lot of confidence is that even without climate change, there's some risk of megadrought," said Ault.

Though the impact could be devastating, experts say we can prepare for a megadrought.

"I think we'd really have to change the way we think about water and the way that we use water because right now we're on a path that would be unsustainable if we had a drought of 35 years," said Cole.

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