How Drought Affects the Economy and You

Why Drought Is the Biggest Climate Change Worry for Most Americans

••• Farmers examining drought damaged corn in South Carolina. Photo by Stephen Wilkes/Getty Images

Drought is a reduction in expected precipitation over an extended period. It occurs when a rain shortfall results in a water shortage and damage to crops and human activities.

A drought has both a direct and indirect impact. A drought directly reduces farmers' crops. An indirect effect is job and business losses in the communities around the farmers.

The definition of drought varies from place to place.

For example, six days without rain is a drought in Bali. Since drought differs so much from place to place, scientists measure it as a variance from average rainfall. They use the prior 30-year period to create the average.

Scientists measure drought with the Parmer Drought Severity Index. Normal climate conditions vary between +0.5 (wet) to -0.5 (dry). Readings below -0.4 indicate drought. Readings below -0.6 are rare.

Drought and Climate Change

Drought is most people's biggest worry when it comes to climate change. A Pew Research Study found that 50 percent of Americans said drought is the effect that concerns them most. In 2012, more than 80 percent of the United States was under abnormally dry conditions.

How does climate change create more drought? Greenhouse gas emissions trap heat, causing air temperatures to increase. Hot air absorbs more moisture, and it rains less. It also causes water from lakes and rivers to evaporate.

Hot air dries up the land, killing plants that retain moisture. Without vegetation, water just runs off the ground when it does rain. It doesn't have a chance of getting absorbed into the water table. The runoff also creates larger and more frequent floods.  

California Drought Increased Fruit, Vegetable, and Nut Prices

From 2011 to 2016, California experienced its worst drought since 1850.

High air pressure off the West Coast diverted typical winter storms. The NOAA Drought Task Force said climate change did not cause the drought, but it did create the high temperatures that worsened it. The drought ended with rainstorms in February 2017. Southern California's drought reappeared in 2018. It led to massive wildfires in Santa Barbara. 

California produces all of the U.S.-grown almonds, artichokes, lemons, pistachios, and process tomatoes. It's the worlds fifth-largest supplier of food. The soil and climate are ideal, but the water supply is not. Irrigation uses 41 percent of the state's water supply. In 2014, it resulted in higher prices for fresh fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Fruit prices rose 4.8 percent. 

The California drought cost the state an estimated $2.2 billion in 2016. Almost 17,000 farmers lost their jobs in 2014. 

Midwest Drought Increased Beef Prices

In 2012, the central Great Plains suffered the worst drought since 1895. It was worse than the driest summers of the 1930s. It added to the 2010-2011 drought suffered by the southern Great Plains. Air currents failed to bring seasonal moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. The dry air created record heat waves. Corn yields were down 26 percent, almost as bad as in the 1930s.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture declared a natural disaster over 2,245 counties covering 71 percent of the country.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had to deepen a portion of the Mississippi River by two feet. The drought had reduced the water level so much there was no longer the required nine-foot clearance.

The drought withered crops in the field. As a result, farmers had to slaughter cattle that had become too expensive to feed. By 2013, beef and veal prices rose 2.0 percent. Fresh vegetables rose 4.7 percent. In 2014, drought in the Midwest drove up beef prices 12.1 percent. In 2015, beef and veal prices rose 7.2 percent due to a drought in Texas and Oklahoma. 

1930s Drought Worsened the Depression

The Dust Bowl drought hit the Midwest in the 1930s. It was caused by shifting weather pattern over both oceans.

 The Pacific grew cooler while the Atlantic became warmer. The combination changed the direction of the jet stream. It usually carries moisture from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Plains, dumping rain when it reaches the Rockies. When the jet stream moved south, rain never reached the Great Plains. 

Widespread farming turned the drought into the Dust Bowl. Farmers plowed over 5.2 million acres of the deep-rooted prairies grass. When the drought killed farmers' crops, high winds blew the topsoil away. Dirt fell on everything, even covering houses. Dust suffocated livestock and gave children pneumonia. Dust blew all the way to Washington, D.C.

The drought and dust destroyed a large part of U.S. agricultural production. Some parts of the Midwest still haven't recovered. The Dust Bowl made the Great Depression even worse. 

The Dust Bowl could happen again. Agribusiness is draining the groundwater from the Ogallala Aquifer eight times faster than rain is putting it back. The Aquifer stretches from South Dakota to Texas. It supplies 30 percent of the nation's irrigation water. At the current rate of use, it will dry up within the century. Parts of the Texas Panhandle are already running dry. Scientists say it would take 6,000 years for to refill the aquifer. The area is home to a $20-billion-a-year industry that grows one-fifth of U.S. wheat, corn, and beef cattle. 

Ironically, New Deal agricultural subsidies are partly responsible for draining the Ogallala Aquifer. They helped small farmers stay on the land through the Dust Bowl years. Now, they pay corporate farms. Corn for cattle feed is the most significant culprit, fattening 40 percent of the nation's grain-fed beef. Cotton growers in Texas receive $3 billion a year in federal subsidies. They drain water from the Aquifer to grow cotton that's shipped to China, where it's made into the cheap clothing sold in American stores. Other subsidies encourage farmers to grow corn for ethanol biofuel. The number of production facilities in the High Plains region is being doubled. In response, farmers are increasing corn production, draining an additional 120 billion gallons a year. 

Drought and Wildfires

Thanks to rising temperatures, shorter winters, and longer summers, western US wildfire frequency has increased by 400 percent since 1970. Damaging wildfires have occurred in recent years in places like California, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico.

Drought and the Middle East Conflicts

One recent NASA study revealed that a drought that’s been affecting the eastern Mediterranean Levant region since 1998 is likely the worst in the past 900 years.

From 2006 to 2011, Syria suffered from an extreme drought that was worsened by climate change. It displaced two million Syrians as farmers moved to the cities. It helped to create the civil war and sent thousands migrating to Europe.

Drought and Immigration

Northern Africa and the Sahel, a band of farmland south of the Sahara, are also experiencing drought. Refugees from those regions are close on the heels of Syrian and Afghan migrants into Europe.

In 2014, drought in Guatemala created the conditions for coffee rust. The fungus thrives in higher temperatures, especially when heat stresses those plants. The area lost 50-90 percent of its crops. As a result, 3.5 million people required the United Nation's humanitarian aid. Between October 215 and September 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol apprehended 75,000 Guatemalans. In 2010, the Patrol stopped just 17,000.

Climate change is threatening coffee plantations from Uganda to El Salvador to Vietnam. It threatens the $19 billion a year industry, and the 125 million people who depend on it.

Drought Forecast

If climate change isn't arrested, the United States will be much drier by 2030. The Midwest will drop to -0.2 to -0.4 on the Palmer drought scale. In 80 years, areas of the United States, the Mediterranean, and Africa will experience severe drought, from -0.4 to -0.10 on the scale. 

By 2050, the American Southwest and Great Plains will experience a megadrought. The drought will last 50 years, according to scientists at Cornell University. It will be similar to droughts that occurred in the region during the 12th and 13th centuries. But it will be entirely man-made, a consequence of global warming.

Solutions to Drought

Government policies can solve the short-term drought problem. First, reverse subsidies policies that encourage thirsty crops like cotton. Instead, direct those subsidies toward crops like prickly pear. Second, promote policies that conserve water. These include waste-water recycling, desert landscaping, and low-flow appliances.

The government must stop climate change to solve drought in the long-term. Nations must limit the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the Earth's atmosphere. Once that is done, carbon emissions trading can encourage businesses to adhere to the cap. A carbon tax will punish them if they do not.