Current U.S. Drought Is Most Severe in Decades
Record heat and below-average rainfall over the past few summers have combined to make the current U.S. drought one of the orst since the 1950’s.
As of July 2013, nearly half of the Lower 48 is experiencing drier than normal conditions or worse.
2012 was the hottest year on record for the continental U.S.
Much of the U.S. West is suffering through a drought of historic proportions. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s weekly drought monitor reported that as of July 30, more than 40 percent of the continental U.S. was in a moderate or worse drought, and more than 30 percent was in a severe or worse drought. These numbers are improved compared with earlier in 2013 and 2012, as flooding rains have drenched the Northern Plains and Midwest. Meanwhile, drought has continued to expand in the Southwest, where dry conditions have fueled devastating wildfires.
Scientists have warned that climate change can exacerbate the impacts of droughts. This year’s drought may be
providing a glimpse of the future, as projections for the 21st century call for drier and warmer conditions through much of the Southwest.
Over the past few seasons, drought has devastated livestock and crops that are essential to U.S. food production, including corn, soybeans and winter wheat. It has also reduced the abilities of some cities and counties to treat wastewater, affected shipping on a key stretch of the Mississippi River, and driven up global food prices.
In addition to reducing the greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming, Americans need to prepare for and adapt to drought to minimize its impacts.
Droughts of the Past, Present, and Future
The United States is historically susceptible to drought. Tree ring studies show 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 warmer, and in some places, drier future.
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. At the peak of the 2012 drought, an astounding 81 percent of the contiguous US was under at least abnormally dry conditions.
Scientists have warned that global warming will increase the risk of drought in some regions, particularly in the Southwest United States. Even in regions that may not see changes in precipitation, warmer temperatures can increase water demands and evaporation, putting greater stress on water supplies.
Costs at Home
In the United States, the current drought (2011-present) is the most expansive since the 1950s, and the impacts are being felt across several sectors of the economy. The total cost is estimated at $50 billion to $80 billion.
One of the most severely affected areas is agriculture. For the third year in a row, the USDA has declared a natural disaster in large portions of the Southern Plains and Texas. The hardest hit crop in 2012 was corn. The harvest of 10.78 billion bushels was only about 75 percent of what the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicted. Ranchers who couldn’t afford feed sold off their herds for the third year in a row, which could mean higher meat prices in future years until herds are replenished. Beef prices are currently above where they were last year at this time. With the core of the drought moving south and west over prime cattle-producing regions, production could remain depressed.
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.
Transportation is also affected by drought. Last year, the drought had a major impact on water levels on the Mississippi River. Most of the boats that haul barges need at least nine feet of water, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had to blast, dredge, and clear obstructions on one key stretch between St. Louis, Mo., And Cairo, Ill., to keep the clearance from dropping too low. Shippers were forced cut down their loads, rendering the region a virtual ghost town. This year, heavy rain in the Mississippi’s northern watershed has brought river levels back to above normal levels and even into flood stage.
In the Southwest, drought conditions and record heat have fueled damaging and sometimes deadly wildfires in Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico. Hundreds of thousands of acres and numerous homes have been lost, and wildfire season is just beginning. In New Mexico, wildfires broke records in 2011 and 2012. This year, large wildfires have burned more than 100,000 acres and would set records, had they not already been broken over the past two years.
Potential Global Problems
In recent years droughts have struck several major breadbasket regions simultaneously, adding to price instability. In countries already facing reduced food security, cost spikes can lead to social unrest, migration and famine. The 2012 price increase represents the third surge in global food prices in the last four years. During the 2007/2008 crisis, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated that high food prices increased the number of chronically hungry people in the word by 75 million. While the United Nations FAO price index is not yet at the levels seen during the 2008 crisis or the February 2011 peak that has been connected to the Arab Spring uprisings, there is a risk that prices will edge higher as long as the droughts persist in the United States.
How We Can Adapt
Governments and businesses must identify the vulnerabilities that droughts 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. These steps will be most effective if they are combined with reductions in greenhouse gases that can minimize the ultimate magnitude of climate change.
As with any single event, Hurricane Isaac doesn’t tell us anything about whether hurricanes are getting worse due to climate change. But Isaac’s impacts should be examined to teach us about our vulnerabilities to the types of extreme events scientists tell us climate change will make more common.
The loss of Arctic sea ice is progressing more rapidly and clearly than just about any other indicator of global climate change. As I’ve discussed previously, the minimum summer sea ice extent (i.e. the two-dimensional area of the floating ice cap) set new record lows in 2002, 2005 and 2007. Similarly, the total volume of sea ice set record lows in 2007, 2010 and 2011. For the first time since 2007, both the sea ice extent and volume have set new record lows in the same year (see figures). And what’s more, they did it with weeks remaining in the melt season, which usually ends in mid-September. So the records have been broken this year, but we don’t know yet just how low the extent and volume will go.
July 31, 2012
Contact: Laura Rehrmann, 703-516-0621, firstname.lastname@example.org
C2ES Releases New Extreme Weather Map on Eve of Senate Climate Hearing
The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) has created a new online map providing an overview of extreme U.S. weather events since 1990. The map highlights examples of extreme heat, heavy precipitation, drought, and wildfire -- four types of events with clear trends connected to climate change.
In a blog post announcing the new map, C2ES science and policy fellow Dan Huber summarizes the recent run of extreme weather:
- The last 12 months were the hottest on record for the lower 48 states by a significant margin. The “Summer in March” heat wave broke thousands of heat records across the country.
- Almost as soon as the spring heat subsided, wildfires sprang up in the West, with New Mexico’s largest wildfire on record and Colorado’s most damaging fire occurring within weeks of each other.
- The United States is mired in the most extensive drought since 1956. Nearly two-thirds of the contiguous U.S. is currently in drought and 75 percent of that area is categorized as severe. Last year, Texas had its most severe drought ever, resulting in billions of dollars in agricultural losses.
“Climate change is elevating the risk of extreme weather,” writes Huber. “It’s crucial that we take stock of what each disaster teaches us so that we understand the rising risks and are better prepared for what’s to come.”
The science behind climate change will be the focus of a hearing tomorrow (Wednesday, Aug. 1) before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee titled “Update on the Latest Climate Change Science and Local Adaptation Measures.” The hearing, set for 10 a.m. in 406 Dirksen, is the Senate’s first in this Congress focusing directly on climate change science.
For more information:
Extreme weather map: http://www.c2es.org/science-impacts/extreme-weather
Climate Compass blog: http://www.c2es.org/climatecompass
Contact Senior Communications Manager Laura Rehrmann at email@example.com to arrange an interview with a C2ES expert.
About C2ES: The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) is an independent non-profit, non-partisan organization promoting strong policy and action to address the twin challenges of energy and climate change. Launched in November 2011, C2ES is the successor to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.
Despite the very different views of the majority and minority parties in the Senate, there was in fact a fair degree of agreement among the witnesses at today’s hearing on climate science and local adaptation.
During the climate science portion of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing, both the majority and minority witnesses agreed that the Earth has warmed over the past 120 years. With the recent publication of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project by former skeptic Richard Muller, there are now four (NOAA, NASA and Hadley are the others) major global temperature records that are in agreement that the Earth has warmed 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 50 years.
Today’s Senate hearing isn’t just about the science of climate change. It’s also about the actions that need to be taken now to adapt to the reality of a changing climate. Businesses and governments each have a critical role to play in building resilient communities and economies.
Business-as-usual is already being interrupted by extreme heat, historic drought, record-setting wildfires, and flooding. Events from water shortages to floods are disrupting the supply chains for such companies as Honda, Toyota, Kraft, Nestle and MillerCoors. By the end of 2011, the United States had recorded more billion-dollar disasters than it did during all of the 1980s, totaling about $55 billion in losses.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a hearing tomorrow called “Update on the Latest Climate Change Science and Local Adaptation Measures.” This is the first Senate hearing focused directly on climate science in the 112th Congress, and we hope it won’t be the last. Climate change is happening, the news from peer-reviewed science is increasingly daunting, and the public needs to hear what credible scientists are learning about the risks and potential solutions.
Today we’re updating our online map providing an overview of extreme weather events in the United States since 1990. The map highlights memorable examples of extreme heat, heavy precipitation, drought, and wildfire, four types of events with clear trends connected to climate change.
I recently responded to a question on the National Journal blog, "Does climate change cause extreme weather like the heat waves much of the country has been enduring for the past few weeks?"