By Center for Climate and Energy Solutions
Current U.S. Drought Is Most Severe in Decades
The U.S. Drought Monitor shows the extent of current drought conditions.
Click on the map to go to a site with a full report and statistics.
Record heat and below-average rainfall have combined to make the current U.S. drought the worst since 1956.
Nearly 80 percent of the Lower 48 is experiencing drier than normal conditions or worse.
July was the hottest month on record for the continental U.S.
Corn and soybean prices hit record highs in July.
Much of the United States is suffering through a drought of historic proportions, illustrating the risk of extreme weather posed by climate change. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s weekly drought monitor reported that as of the end of August, almost 62 percent of the continental U.S. is in a moderate or worse drought, and more than 38 percent is severe or worse. These levels were surpassed only during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and a severe drought in the mid-1950s.
Scientists have been warning for years that climate change is increasing the risk of drought, particularly in southern and western portions of the country, and this year’s dry
conditions are consistent with predictions of escalating risk.
The drought has devastated crops that are essential to U.S. food production, including corn and soybeans. It has also reduced the abilities of some cities and counties to treat wastewater, increased shipping costs on one key inland waterway, and driven up global food prices.
Although new rainfall has offered a respite to parts of the Midwest, the forecast for the rest of the year calls for above-average temperatures in most of the country, coupled with normal rainfall, in the drought-affected areas.
In addition to reducing the greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming, Americans need to begin adapting to an increased risk of drought and extreme temperatures.
Rising Risk of Drought
The United States is historically susceptible to drought. Tree ring studies have shown major droughts in the distant past, while some more recent dry periods are still within living memory, such as the Dust Bowl or the drought of the 1950s. These historic examples should serve as guideposts to highlight our vulnerabilities to drought as we move into a drier future.
Scientists have long warned that global warming is increasing the risk of drought, particularly in the Southwest United States. In 2002, parts of the Midwest and Rocky Mountains were hit by drought, while California suffered through a three-year drought toward the end of the decade. In 2011, Texas experienced its driest 12 months ever. At one point, 80 percent of the state was rated at an “exceptional” level of drought. These examples are consistent with the rising risk of drought due to climate change and offer insights into what we can expect from future droughts.
Costs at Home
In the United States, the current drought is the most expansive since 1956, and the impacts are being felt in several areas of the economy.
One of the most severely affected areas is agriculture. The forecast for this year’s corn crop is at a five-year low. Next year’s corn supply is projected to fall to its lowest in nearly 20 years. Soybean inventories are expected to be the lowest since 2003-04. Corn and soybean prices hit record highs in late July due to the anticipated shortage.
Farmers across the country are facing the prospect of losing the crops they depend on for their livelihood. Ranchers who can’t afford feed are selling off their herds, which could mean higher meat prices in future years until herds are replenished. Inevitably, when there is a widespread crop failure, much of the burden falls on the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation, which is owned and subsidized by taxpayers.
At the municipal and county level, some wastewater treatment plants haven’t been able to discharge water into rivers that have flows under the minimum level. Many cities also have water restrictions, such as limits on watering lawns, to preserve remaining water supplies. On the Mississippi River, low water levels have restricted barge traffic, forcing operators to ship lighter, less efficient loads.
Potential Global Problems
With US production almost sure to be down this year, corn and soybean prices have reached record highs on global markets. Normally, global exporters could make up the difference but due to simultaneous droughts in some of the world’s other major agricultural regions, such as the area surrounding the Black Sea, the shortage could persist until next year. In 2010, Russia limited grain exports due to drought and this year, Ukraine is considering similar action, which could further push up global prices.
As global drought risk increases, the chances of droughts striking several major breadbasket regions at once also increases, adding to price instability. In countries already facing reduced food security, cost spikes can lead to social unrest, migration and famine. This year’s price increase represents the third surge in global food prices in the last four years. During the 2007/2008 crisis, the FAO estimated that high food prices increased the number of chronically hungry people in the word by 75 million. While the United Nations Food and Griculture Organization price index is not yet at the levels seen during the 2008 crisis or the February 2011 peak that helped set off the Arab Spring uprisings, there is a risk that prices edge higher as long as the droughts persist.
How We Can Adapt
As the climate continues to warm, these droughts offer a glimpse of the kinds of events that will become more common. Our governments and businesses must identify the vulnerabilities that these events expose, and take steps to improve resilience. Actions like using water more efficiently and developing more drought-resistant crops will help prepare us for both future droughts and climate change, but continued adaptation, combined with steps to reduce greenhouse gases will be required to cope with the consequences of climate change.