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.