Why the Drought Won’t Be Getting Better Anytime Soon — and Why This One Won’t Be the Last

The droughts gets broader and deeper, covering more than three-fifths of the continental U.S. And scientific studies show that this sort of drought could only be the beginning

  • Share
  • Read Later
Bloomberg via Getty Images

A field of dried corn plants near Percival, Iowa, on July 26, 2012. The widest drought to grip the U.S. in decades is getting worse with no signs of abating

I’m beginning to wonder what will dry up first: water supplies for the parched farmers of the Corn Belt or synonyms for aridity for the hardworking writers covering the drought? What’s clear is that the drought of 2012 shows no signs of lifting any time soon — and in fact, it’s only getting worse. More than three-fifths of the continental U.S. is experiencing at least moderate drought, while 22.3% of the country is experiencing exceptional or extreme drought, the two worst categories according to the bad-news bears at the U.S. Drought Monitor. That’s twice the area that was so classified just three weeks ago — a sign of just how rapidly this “flash drought” has deepened — and last week alone, an additional 32 million acres fell into the two worst categories. Like journalists, scientists are running out of ways to say how dry it is.

Nearly 40 million acres of corn are being grown — such as it is — in territory suffering under drought conditions rated extreme or worse. That means the bumper crop of corn that had been planned back in the spring — when a near record of 96.4 million acres of corn was sown — is sure to shrivel, putting pressure on the price of nearly every kind of food. It’ll be particularly tough for livestock producers, who depend on cheap corn for feed but who can’t depend on the kind of crop insurance that will cushion the blow for many commodity farmers. Though as my colleagues at Moneyland note, the drought will actually bring about a short-term drop in meat prices as ranchers hurry underweight animals to market rather than pay high prices to keep them fed, over the long term it will mean more for your hamburger or chicken.

(PHOTOS: Drought Across Much of U.S. Leaves Crops Withered and Landscapes Burnt)

The impact of the sustained drought goes beyond farming. Rivers in the Midwest are actually drying up, including a 100-mile stretch of the Platte River in Nebraska. In the Mississippi, which carries 60% of the nation’s grain, 22% of its oil and gas and 20% of its coal, the drought has dropped water levels so far that barges have been forced to carry less cargo as they try to navigate the shallow waters. That’s left the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge parts of the river nearly around the clock in order to free enough space to keep the barge traffic going.

Of course, for signs of just how quick weather can change, remember it was only a year ago that flooding was causing the Mississippi to crest nearly 48 ft. above its baseline in Memphis. But it would take massive amounts of rain to return even to normal in the Midwest, let alone flood waters — and forecasters are offering little hope over the next few weeks. No rain — just more brutally hot August weather.

(MORE: The Great Drying Strikes Again)

At some point, though, the drought of 2012 will break — though probably not before this year’s harvest is irrevocably damaged. But expect more severe dry spells like this one in the future. In a study published in the Aug. 5 issue of Nature Climate Change, Aiguo Dai of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., looked at what climate models say about how global warming will impact drought. The results are not good: Dai notes that model projections suggest severe and widespread droughts over the next 30 to 90 years over many land areas, owing to both reduced precipitation and increased evaporation from higher temperatures.

Dai ends his article with a warning:

[Models] suggest severe drought conditions by the late half of this century over many densely populated areas such as Europe, the eastern USA, southeast Asia and Brazil. This dire prediction could have devastating impacts on a large number of the population if the model’s regional predictions turn out to be true.

In other words, journalists might want to stock up on synonyms for hot and dry.

MORE: How the Drought of 2012 Will Make Your Food More Expensive