Another Record-breaking Drought: A Sign of Things to Come?

In a record-breaking year for weather, the news just keeps getting worse.  The first six months of 2012 were the warmest on record for the lower 48 states, and the 12 consecutive months between July 2011 and June 2012 were the warmest 12-month period on record.  The month of June also was dramatically warmer than the average for much of the country. 

  • Source – National Climatic Data Center

Last week, the National Climatic Data Center, the government body charged with keeping track of weather data, announced that 55 percent of the contiguous U.S. was in a state of moderate to extreme drought at the end of June.  These drought conditions cover a larger area than at any time since 1956 when 58 percent of the contiguous U.S. faced moderate to extreme drought conditions. 

  • Source – National Climatic Data Center

These record-breaking drought conditions are causing widespread devastation to agricultural crops and livestock, have led to water restrictions in afflicted communities, and have impacted commerce on the Mississippi River.  Nebraska has even ordered some farmers to stop irrigating crops because surface water supplies are too low.  In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has declared almost 1,300 counties in 29 states as disaster areas, making farmers in these counties eligible for low-interest emergency loans. 

As crop yields dwindle from the dry conditions, prices for corn, soybeans, and food are rising.  Corn is the main ingredient in feed for cattle, chicken, and pigs so increases in the cost of animal feed will subsequently result in higher prices for meat.  Increases in the prices of other commodities, like wheat and soybeans, also will likely be passed on to consumers.  All told, this drought could have a $50 billion economic impact.

According to recent research, we should get used to drier conditions as climate change drives temperatures higher.  Scientists have concluded that conditions that led to the devastating 2011 drought in Texas are distinctly more probable now than they were just 40 to 50 years ago.  In addition, rapid warming since the 1970s due to greenhouse gas emissions has significantly contributed to the widespread drying observed worldwide.  And higher temperatures in the future are only expected to lead to continued drying over much of the world, including most of the U.S.

The impacts of climate change on our health, livelihoods, communities, and economy are already being felt—and will only intensify as carbon pollution continues to be released unabated.  States and cities across the country increasingly are taking steps to address these risks, but many are not, including those currently grappling with severe drought. 

What more will it take for officials in these areas to start acting?              

About the Authors

Ben Chou

Policy Analyst, Water program

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