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The American West is bracing for a hot, dry and dangerous summer

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The American West is bracing for a hot, dry and dangerous summer


In New Mexico, where half the state faces “exceptional drought” conditions, water districts are delaying allotments to farmers and urging them to simply not plant crops if possible.

All told, nearly 85% of the West is suffering through drought conditions right now, according to US Drought Monitor. Almost half the region is now in an extreme or exceptional drought, following years of dry, hot conditions aggravated by climate change.

The proximate cause of this year’s drought is a weak summer monsoon coupled with La Niña conditions that steered storms north. But the problem goes well beyond less rain and snow falling in recent months. The Southwest has suffered through the driest period since the 1500s for two decades now, according to a study in Science last year.

Climate change accounts for 46% of the severity, pushing what would have been a moderate drought into what the scientists deem “megadrought” territory. Numerous other studies find that higher temperatures will mean “more frequent and severe droughts in the Southwest,” noted the 2018 National Climate Assessment.

“Snow melts faster. There’s more evaporation. It just changes the game in so many different ways,” says Newsha Ajami, director of urban water policy at Stanford’s Water in the West initiative.

Alarm bells

Regions are already scrambling to address the rising dangers.

In California, Governor Gavin Newsom has proposed spending more than $5 billion to meet emergency water needs and shore up regional water infrastructure, among other efforts. He also declared drought emergencies across 41 counties, covering nearly all of Northern California and the Central Valley, the state’s rich agricultural region.

In Marin, a county north of San Francisco that’s largely isolated from regional water systems, reservoirs are running ominously low following nearly record low rainfall this year. The water district is discussing the possibility of building at least a temporary pipeline across the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge to ensure the water supply, for the first time since the state’s crippling 1976–1977 drought.

Researchers, officials, and emergency responders are also bracing for another terrible fire season, which is off to an early start. The Palisades fire near Los Angeles has burned across more than 1,000 acres of dry brush in recent days, forcing more than 1,000 people to flee their homes.

“Some elements of fire season risk are predictable; some aren’t,” says Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who focuses on the atmospheric conditions that drive droughts, floods, and wildfires. “All the predictable ones are ringing alarm bells.”

The new normal

Some climate modeling finds that warming increases the variability of rainfall patterns, creating what researchers studying California’s conditions have described as a “whiplash” between more extreme periods of drought and flooding.

But years-long periods of extremes don’t naturally balance each other out, even if average precipitation levels stay the same. If regions don’t fundamentally rethink how they’re managing water, it will too often mean simply going from one type of disaster to another (see the 2012–2016 drought in California, immediately followed by flood years that triggered mudslides, washed out roads and pushed one dam near the breaking point).

“We have to shift our mindset to ‘drought is a normal thing,’” Ajami says. “And then when we have wet years, we should get excited and do a billion things to capture as much water as we can, to ensure we store enough for when we run dry again.”

That will require making better use of groundwater by cleaning up contaminated aquifers and refilling them during heavy rainfall years. Regions will also need to make far more efficient use of water once it’s in the system, reducing, reusing and recycling wherever they can.

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Donald ’67, SM ’69, and Glenda Mattes

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Donald ’67, SM ’69, and Glenda Mattes


Don Mattes started giving to the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT before he himself was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Since his death in 2020, his wife, Glenda, has carried forward Don’s passion for its work. “My wish is that no one ever has to go through the horrors of Alzheimer’s disease ever again,” Glenda says. The Matteses have also supported the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT.

Legacy sparks hope. An early key employee of Andover Controls who later ran the company’s European operations, Don visited six continents with Glenda during their 30-year marriage—often to ski or bicycle. “Don’s was a life well lived, just too short,” Glenda says. The couple made provisions in their estate plan to support the Picower Institute. After Don died, Glenda made a gift to MIT of real estate that established both endowed and current-use funds there to support research on Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other neurodegenerative diseases. Glenda is a cancer survivor, and the gift also endowed a fund in the couple’s name at the Koch Institute.

Great discoveries being made at MIT: “Don always said the best thing he got from MIT was being taught how to think,” Glenda says. “MIT is an amazing place. Picower Institute director Li-Huei Tsai and her team are doing more than looking for a treatment for Alzheimer’s. They’re looking for the root cause of the disease. I am also fascinated with the Koch’s melding of engineering and biology. The chances they are going to solve the cancer issue someday are very high.” 

Help MIT build a better world.
For more information, contact Amy Goldman: (617) 253-4082;  goldmana@mit.edu. Or visit giving.mit.edu/planned-giving.

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Investing in women pays off

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Investing in women pays off


“Starting a business is a privilege,” says Burton O’Toole, who worked at various startups before launching and later selling AdMass, her own marketing technology company. The company gave her access to the HearstLab program in 2016, but she soon discovered that she preferred the investment aspect and became a vice president at HearstLab a year later. “To empower some of the smartest women to do what they love is great,” she says. But in addition to rooting for women, Burton O’Toole loves the work because it’s a great market opportunity. 

“Research shows female-led teams see two and a half times higher returns compared to male-led teams,” she says, adding that women and people of color tend to build more diverse teams and therefore benefit from varied viewpoints and perspectives. She also explains that companies with women on their founding teams are likely to get acquired or go public sooner. “Despite results like this, just 2.3% of venture capital funding goes to teams founded by women. It’s still amazing to me that more investors aren’t taking this data more seriously,” she says. 

Burton O’Toole—who earned a BS from Duke in 2007 before getting an MS and PhD from MIT, all in mechanical engineering—has been a “data nerd” since she can remember. In high school she wanted to become an actuary. “Ten years ago, I never could have imagined this work; I like the idea of doing something in 10 more years I couldn’t imagine now,” she says. 

When starting a business, Burton O’Toole says, “women tend to want all their ducks in a row before they act. They say, ‘I’ll do it when I get this promotion, have enough money, finish this project.’ But there’s only one good way. Make the jump.”

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Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late

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Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late


All too often, the work of developing global disaster and climate resiliency happens when disaster—such as a hurricane, earthquake, or tsunami—has already ravaged entire cities and torn communities apart. But Elizabeth Petheo, MBA ’14, says that recently her work has been focused on preparedness. 

It’s hard to get attention for preparedness efforts, explains Petheo, a principal at Miyamoto International, an engineering and disaster risk reduction consulting firm. “You can always get a lot of attention when there’s a disaster event, but at that point it’s too late,” she adds. 

Petheo leads the firm’s projects and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region and advises globally on international development and humanitarian assistance. She also works on preparedness in the Asia-Pacific region with the United States Agency for International Development. 

“We’re doing programming on the engagement of the private sector in disaster risk management in Indonesia, which is a very disaster-prone country,” she says. “Smaller and medium-sized businesses are important contributors to job creation and economic development. When they go down, the impact on lives, livelihoods, and the community’s ability to respond and recover effectively is extreme. We work to strengthen their own understanding of their risk and that of their surrounding community, lead them through an action-planning process to build resilience, and link that with larger policy initiatives at the national level.”

Petheo came to MIT with international leadership experience, having managed high-profile global development and risk mitigation initiatives at the World Bank in Washington, DC, as well as with US government agencies and international organizations leading major global humanitarian responses and teams in Sri Lanka and Haiti. But she says her time at Sloan helped her become prepared for this next phase in her career. “Sloan was the experience that put all the pieces together,” she says.

Petheo has maintained strong connections with MIT. In 2018, she received the Margaret L.A. MacVicar ’65, ScD ’67, Award in recognition of her role starting and leading the MIT Sloan Club in Washington, DC, and her work as an inaugural member of the Graduate Alumni Council (GAC). She is also a member of the Friends of the MIT Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center.

“I believe deeply in the power and impact of the Institute’s work and people,” she says. “The moment I graduated, my thought process was, ‘How can I give back, and how can I continue to strengthen the experience of those who will come after me?’”

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