Climate change drives drought, fueling more intense wildfires and weaker crop yields that destabilizes local and national economies. But both the federal government and states lack comprehensive policies to manage, circumvent, or prevent these costly effects of drought.
From the West to the Northeast, 39 percent of the U.S. is experiencing “moderate to exceptional” drought, affecting more than 22 percent of the population.[i] As temperatures rise, so does the rate of evaporation – moving water from soil to the atmosphere and changing precipitation patterns. More moisture in the atmosphere leads to intensification of the water cycle, ultimately “making wet places wetter and dry places drier.”[ii]
As these drought conditions persist, La Niña, a cyclical pattern in which the waters on the eastern coast of South America are colder than average, is predicted to form this winter.[iii] La Niña typically leads to drier winter weather, and in Southern California some La Niña winters have delivered less than 80% or normal rainfall.[iv]
Drought has plagued not only California, but other Western states as well. In late October, fires fueled by drought conditions raged across Colorado, resulting in the largest wildfire ever recorded within its borders, burning more 203,634 acres.[v]
According to the United States Drought Monitor, the October 22 update showed “that extreme or exceptional drought cover[ed] well over half of five states, including Utah (87%), Arizona (84%), Colorado (77%), New Mexico (67%) and Nevada (58%),” providing ideal conditions for wildfires to wreak havoc.[vi] The U.S. Forest Service estimates $2.4 billion was spent in the 2017 fire season alone — more than the Service’s entire budget.[vii]
According to a Climate Central study, one of the biggest issues facing drought-prone states is their lack of “adaptive capacity” or a “a state’s preparedness for drought and ability to recover.”[viii] For example, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Iowa are some of the most vulnerable states because of their economies’ dependence on cattle ranching and agricultural.[ix] These states lack a policy to prepare their economies to survive in drought conditions.
As the Climate Central report explained, “[d]rought is one of the costliest disasters in the U.S., causing an average of 94 deaths and an inflation-adjusted $6.2 billion in losses per year since 1980.”[x]
And drought conditions can affect every corner of the country. Conditions in Maine, for example, have been so severe that the U.S. Department of Agriculture made federal drought disaster relief available to farmers.[xi] There has also been uncertainty in grain markets – due to drought circumstances such as those in Maine – causing grain prices to soar as grain yields decline.[xii]
[i] Recent Study Shows U.S. States Vulnerability to Drought, WTJA Central Pennsylvania, (Oct. 21, 2020), https://www.wearecentralpa.com/weather/weather-headlines/recent-study-shows-u-s-states-vulnerability-to-drought/.
[iii] Paul Rodgers, La Niña: Is California Heading Into Another Drought, The Mercury News, (Oct. 22, 2020), https://www.mercurynews.com/2020/10/20/la-nina-is-california-heading-into-another-drought/.
[v] Colorado firefighters struggle to control large blaze in drought-stricken state, The Guardian, (Oct. 20, 2020), https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/oct/20/colorado-wildfires-cameron-peak-drought-boulder-denver.
[vi] Chris Dolce, Snow and Rain Coming to Southwest Drought Area. But La Niña Could be Bad News in the Long Run, The Weather Channel, (Oct. 22, 2020), https://weather.com/news/climate/news/2020-10-22-southwest-drought-worsening-winter-la-nina.
[vii] Cost of Fire Operations, U.S. Forest Service, https://www.fs.usda.gov/about-agency/budget-performance/cost-fire-operations#:~:text=With%20costs%20exceeding%20%242.4%20billion,again%2C%20exceed%20the%20funding%20available. (Last visited November 3, 2020).
[viii] Recent Study Shows U.S. States Vulnerability to Drought, WTJA Central Pennsylvania, (Oct. 21, 2020), https://www.wearecentralpa.com/weather/weather-headlines/recent-study-shows-u-s-states-vulnerability-to-drought/.
[xi] Renee Cordes, More Maine Farmers Can Apply for Federal Drought Relief, The Weather Channel, (Oct. 21, 2020), https://www.mainebiz.biz/article/more-maine-farmers-can-apply-for-federal-drought-relief.
[xii] Jack Kwakman, Drought Is Causing an Upward Trend in Grain Prices, All About Feed, (Oct. 23, 2020), https://www.allaboutfeed.net/Raw-Materials/Articles/2020/10/Drought-is-causing-an-upward-trend-in-grain-prices-659421E/.