DroughtThe African Sahel: Devastated by drought
Recent events: Major droughts since 2000
What causes a drought?
Aftermath: The effects of drought
The human factor
The technology connection
For More Information
A drought (pronounced DROWT) is an extended period where the amount of rain or snow that falls on an area is much lower than usual. A drought usually lasts at least one season and sometimes continues for years. It may affect an area the size of several states or greater. During a drought, the amount of water used by plants, animals, and people is much greater than the precipitation, which is the amount of water that falls to the ground in the form of rain or snow. Rivers and lakes may dry up. Droughts happen almost everywhere in the world, although some areas experience drought more frequently than others.
There is no universal definition of drought based on rainfall amounts, since what is considered usual varies from region to region and climate to climate. In Australia, which is a dry climate, a drought is defined as a year in which precipitation is less than 10 percent of average. In the United States—most of which has a temperate, humid climate—drought is defined as a period at least twenty-one days long during which rainfall over an extensive area is less than 30 percent of average. In places with distinct wet and dry seasons, such as India, a drought is defined as a year in which precipitation is less than 75 percent of average. The severity of a drought is determined by the amount of rainfall, the water levels in rivers and lakes, the duration of the dry spell, and the size of the area affected.
Droughts lead to crop losses, soil erosion, death of livestock, and even famine (long-term shortages of food that can lead to hunger, malnutrition, and death). Human beings sometimes make drought conditions worse by stripping the land of vegetation and placing heavy demands on the water supply.
The longest-lasting and most devastating drought in recent times occurred in the Sahel region of Africa in the last half of the twentieth century. The Sahel (Arabic for "margin" or "shore") is a strip of semiarid land in northern Africa, sandwiched between the Sahara to the north and the wetter grasslands to the south. It extends from the continent's west
WORDS TO KNOW
- air mass:
- a large quantity of air throughout which temperature and moisture content is fairly constant.
- air pressure:
- the pressure exerted by the weight of air over a given area of Earth's surface. Also called atmospheric pressure or barometric pressure.
- an underground layer of spongy rock, gravel, or sand in which water collects.
- describes a climate in which almost no rain or snow falls.
- blocking system:
- a whirling air mass containing either a high-pressure system (a blocking high) or a low-pressure system (a blocking low), that gets cut off from the main flow of upper-air westerlies.
- the weather experienced by a given location, averaged over several decades.
- desert climate:
- the world's driest climate type, with less than 10 inches of rainfall annually.
- the process by which semiarid lands turn into desert (also called land degradation). It is caused by prolonged drought, during which time the top layers of soil dry out and blow away.
- an extended period where the amount of rain or snow that falls on an area is much lower than usual.
- a community of plants and animals, including humans, and their physical surroundings.
- El Niño:
- means "the Christ child" in Spanish. A period of unusual warming of the Pacific Ocean waters off the coast of Peru and Ecuador. It usually starts around Christmas, which is how it got its name.
- the wearing away of a surface by the action of wind, water, or ice.
- global water budget:
- the balance of the volume of water coming and going between the oceans, atmosphere, and continental landmasses.
- heat cramps:
- muscle cramps or spasms, usually afflicting the abdomen or legs, that may occur during exercise in hot weather.
- Heat exhaustion:
- a form of mild shock that results when fluid and salt are lost through heavy perspiration.
- heat stroke:
- a life-threatening condition that sets in when heat exhaustion is left untreated and the body has exhausted its efforts to cool itself. Also called sunstroke.
- heat wave:
- an extended period of high heat and humidity.
- La Niña:
- Spanish for "little girl," a period of unusual cooling of the Pacific Ocean waters off the coast of Peru and Ecuador. It often follows an El Niño.
- a climate in which very little rain or snow falls.
- the process by which plants emit water through tiny pores in the underside of their leaves.
- upper-air westerlies:
- global-scale, upper-air winds that flow in waves heading west to east (but also shifting north and south) through the middle latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere.
coast almost to its east coast. The Sahel ranges in width from 200 to 700 miles (320 to 1130 kilometers) and covers more than 2.5 million square miles (5.1 million square kilometers). It runs through the countries of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, and Sudan. A similar semiarid belt exists in Ethiopia and Somalia. The Sahel region constitutes about 20 percent of the landmass of Africa, and the nations within this region are among the poorest in the world.
The ecosystem of the Sahel is the most fragile in all of Africa. The primary vegetation includes low-growing grass, thorny shrubs, and a few varieties of trees.
During the last thirty years of the twentieth century, the Sahel suffered from desertification—the process of turning the land into desert. In the beginning of desertification, the soil slowly loses its ability to grow plants. Next comes a period of rapid soil breakdown. In the final stage of desertification, the soil becomes unable to hold nutrients or retain enough water to support plant life. Desertification is a long process and is difficult to reverse.
The major cause of desertification in the Sahel has been a series of droughts that lasted for years. Human activity, such as intensive farming and grazing large numbers of livestock, has also contributed to desertification.
Drought is common
Throughout history the Sahel has experienced frequent droughts. The region receives an average of just 4 to 20 inches (10 to 50 centimeters) of rain per year, mostly in the southern areas during the months of June, July, and August. Because the area is also hot during this period, about 90 percent of the water that falls to the ground returns to the atmosphere through evaporation and transpiration. With the water balance so unsteady in normal times, even a small decrease in rainfall over a season may result in water shortages and crop failures.
After a relatively rainy period in the 1950s and early-to-mid 1960s, a drought started in 1968 and lasted until 1973. During that period, crops died throughout the region, and a famine took the lives of some 250,000 people and 3.5 million grazing animals. Many more people would have died if not for a massive amount of help from other countries.
After a few years of normal rainfall, relatively dry conditions prevailed from 1976 through 1981. Then drought struck the region again from 1983 through 1985 and in the early 1990s. Throughout the dry years, desertification continued its march southward from the Sahara. Overall, between the years 1935 and 1985, a portion of the Sahel, roughly equal in size to the combined size of France and Austria, turned into desert.
By the end of the 1990s, however, normal precipitation levels had returned to the Sahel. While desertification was continuing in some places, much of the Sahel had recovered to the point that local food production needs were being met.
The influence of the people
Although the problem of desertification in the Sahel started because of the long periods of drought, population growth and bad use of the land intensified the problem. Because of the lack of rainfall and high temperatures in the region, the soil is thin, sandy, and fragile. Most of the land is covered with grass and is best used by people who move from one area to another with small herds of animals, or by small-scale farmers.
In years past, Sahel-dwellers grew crops only on a particular piece of land one season at a time. They would then leave that piece of land undisturbed for several years so that the soil could regain its nutrients. During that time, cattle would graze on the crop stubble and fertilize the soil with their wastes.
In the latter half of the 1900s, however, the population of the Sahel increased greatly. Increasingly more land was used for growing crops, which thinned the soil and reduced its fertility. As a result, farmers could not let part of the land sit undisturbed for several years; instead, they had to plant every available piece of land every year in order to produce enough food to survive.
A series of unusually rainy years in the 1950s and 1960s also encouraged more farming in the Sahel. Shortsighted government officials, not anticipating that a drought might return, urged farmers to cultivate greater areas of land. Land previously undisturbed or used for grazing was cleared. The trees and brush were taken for firewood, and the soil was plowed for crops.
Changes in methods of grazing livestock also contributed to desertification. The traditional practice of moving livestock from one area to another to eat the grass changed as small towns were built up around water wells. Thus, the livestock would eat grass only in one area and the land in the surrounding area was stripped bare of grass and other plants. As a result, it became hard and barren within just a few years.
Dry lands that have been stripped of vegetation take a long time to recover. Even when rains do fall, very little water penetrates the earth. Most of the rain runs off the ground, washing away the topsoil and leaving a wasteland. Moreover, the wind causes more erosion when there are no plants and their roots to hold the soil in place.
Millions of people forced to move
During the periods of drought from the late 1960s through the mid 1980s, more than ten million farmers and shepherds from the Sahel moved to cities and towns. They built shanties on the outskirts of already overpopulated urban areas and tried to earn a living. For example, in Mauritania, one of the countries hit hardest by the drought, refugees increased the population of the town of Nuakchott from 20,000 in 1960 to 350,000 in 1987.
The migration of people from country to city has done more than create population pressures on cities; it has disrupted centuries-old ways of life and tribal bonds. Omar Mahmoud, a former herdsman who moved to an urban shantytown in the early 1970s, was trying to live by raising vegetables on a small, dusty plot of land. He told a National Geographic reporter, "I don't know much about this work. My life is being with my animals, but now they are all gone. Forty head of cattle, forty sheep. Sixty goats."
Foreign aid has mixed results
Foreign governments and international relief agencies began providing emergency aid to the Sahel in the late 1960s. While this assistance prevented mass starvation in many areas, and a few projects helped slow the pace of desertification, many of the projects were costly and poorly managed; they also did not have much effect on the problems.
Many relief-agency projects involved the planting of trees or grasses in an effort to stabilize the soil and prevent further erosion. In some cases planners planted too few trees, which did not provide enough stability for the soil. In other cases, the planting of trees was not coupled with instructions about the importance of the trees to the people's survival. As a result, many people cut down the trees for firewood. Some agencies made the mistake of providing seeds for crops such as eggplant that were unfamiliar and distasteful to the people living in the region.
In one notable success story, however, the relief agency CARE began a project in the Majja Valley in Niger. They planted a double row of trees along a 230-mile-long (370-kilometer-long) stretch of land. The trees, which have been maintained by local villagers, stop the wind from eroding the soil during dry times and protect crops from the wind during the rainy season.
What can be done in the Sahel?
Scientists have different opinions about what can be done to save the Sahel from drought in the future. Some feel the people must be moved out of the area and the farmlands replaced with forests to prevent future problems. Others feel the people themselves can solve the problems without being moved by exchanging ideas, building water supplies, and planting trees. Everyone seems to agree that a big part of the solution is to develop a society in the Sahel where there are fewer people dependent on the land for their survival and more people doing other jobs.
Between 1999 and 2002, the United States experienced a drought that was among the worst of the past 40 years. During these years of drought, parts of the United States experienced the driest conditions in more than 100 years of record keeping. The year 2001 was the second-hottest on record in the United States, second only to 1998, which saw record temperatures due to El Niño (an extraordinarily strong episode of the annual warming of the Pacific waters off the coast of Peru and Equador).
The consequences of the 1999 to 2002 drought were significant and far reaching. Heat and water restrictions hampered U.S. crop production. Rivers lost water, and fish died by the thousands. People, especially elderly people living in cities, died in their homes from the heat. Wildfires raged and caused millions of dollars worth of damage.
Drought is defined as an extended period of unusually dry conditions. However, drought conditions can and do exist even in years not officially termed "drought" years. In August 2006, for example, the National Weather Service published drought statements for thirty American cities from Talahassee, Florida, to Denver, Colorado, to Duluth, Minnesota.
Even in the absence of an official drought, hot and dry conditions create the risk of wildfires, crop destruction and river evaporation. Many cities throughout the United States experience water shortages during the summer months. City governments sometimes respond by imposing bans on water use for irrigation purposes in order to conserve precious water supplies.
Droughts occur when rain-producing clouds fail to form, and there is little, if any, rainfall. Several factors can bring on those conditions. In temperate regions, including much of the United States, the primary cause of drought is the prolonged presence of a high-pressure system called a blocking high. In many parts of the world, the weather condition known as El Niño (and its sister, La Niña), which occurs about every five to seven years, also influences rainfall amounts. The removal of vegetation can also contribute to drought in some regions.
The main cause of drought in the United States is the prolonged presence of a high-pressure system over a given area. High-pressure systems generally produce clear skies and little rain. As air descends beneath a high-pressure system, the moisture within it evaporates. Low-pressure systems, in contrast, are associated with cloudiness. The air beneath them rises, and the moisture within the air condenses and forms clouds.
Systems of high and low pressure typically alternate over a given location as they are pushed along by upper-air winds. Those winds circle the globe along a wavy, west-to-east path. Sometimes, however, an air mass (a large quantity of air throughout which pressure, temperature, and moisture content is fairly constant) gets cut off from the main flow of upper-air winds. If that air mass has high pressure, it is called a blocking high; if it has low pressure, it is called a blocking low. The presence of a blocking system typically brings about an extended period of one type of weather.
A blocking high may remain stationary for several weeks. In addition to producing dry conditions, the blocking high may produce exceedingly hot weather. The surface air heats up because the upper-air circulation, which moderates temperatures by alternating warm and cold air masses, passes around the area.
El Niño and La Niña
In some parts of the world, drought is driven by El Niño (pronounced el NEE-nyo). El Niño is a current of warm water in the tropical Pacific Ocean. Every few years, the water that flows from the western Pacific and settles off the coast of Peru and Ecuador is unusually warm and remains for an extended period of time.
Air pressure across the Pacific Ocean is linked to El Niño. In normal conditions, air pressure is higher over the eastern Pacific, near South America, and lower over the western Pacific, near Australia. (High pressure is typically associated with clear skies, while low pressure is typically associated with cloudy skies and rain.) The difference in pressure between the two areas makes the winds blow from east to west, and toward the equator. The winds carry warmth, moisture, and rainmaking clouds toward Australia and Indonesia.
During an El Niño year, the air pressure in the western Pacific rises while the air pressure in the eastern Pacific lowers. As the warm water in the eastern Pacific evaporates into the air and forms clouds, the normally dry coastal South American nations get more-than-average rainfall, causing flooding and erosion. At the same time, Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and other lands of the western Pacific experience less-than-average rainfall and sometimes drought.
Question: Is global warming causing droughts?
As Earth's climate changes, drought becomes a more regular part of human existence. Many U.S. states now experience drought conditions regularly, and the U.S. experienced its worst drought in almost half a century between 1999 and 2002. Scientists believe that global temperatures are on the rise, but could this be contributing to the increase in drought conditions?
Recent scientific data indicates that the global average temperature increased by about 1°F in the last century. Scientists refer to this process as global warming, which is partly caused by increase of certain gases, called greenhouse gases, in Earth's atmosphere. Many scientists think that temperatures will rise even more in the decades to come, and some are worried that increased temperature will cause more frequent, severe, and prolonged droughts.
There are many factors that cause drought, and droughts have plagued humanity for centuries. Certainly global warming is not the only factor that contributes to drought. However, warmer temperatures increase the evaporation of water from Earth's surface, which contributes to and worsens drought conditions.
Often in the wake of El Niño comes La Niña—a period of unusual cooling of the ocean water off the coast of Peru and Ecuador. La Niña's effects on rainfall patterns are practically the opposite of El Niño's. One consequence of La Niña is that drier than usual conditions prevail in many parts of the United States. La Niña also means drought for the South American coast and flooding for the western Pacific region.
While drought does not produce the sensational pictures of destruction seen in other natural disasters, its economic impact is often greater and longer lasting. According to the Nebraska-based National Drought Mitigation Center, the average yearly economic damage done by droughts in the United States is greater than the economic damage done by floods and hurricanes combined. Droughts cost the United States between $6 billion and $8 billion per year, while the annual cost of floods and hurricanes are $2.4 billion and $1.2 billion, respectively.
The water cycle
The water cycle (also called the hydrologic cycle) is the continuous movement of water between the atmosphere and the Earth's surface (oceans and landmasses). On one side of the equation is precipitation—rain and snow—and on the other side is evaporation—the process by which liquid water at the surface converts to a gas and enters the atmosphere.
From 85 to 90 percent of the moisture that evaporates into the atmosphere comes from the oceans. The rest evaporates from the soil, lakes, and rivers that make up the continental landmasses. Even plants emit water through tiny pores in the underside of their leaves in a process called transpiration.
Some of the moist air above oceans is carried over land by the wind. Clouds form and drop rain and snow on the ground. When precipitation hits the ground, it either sinks in or runs off, depending on the surface composition. On soft ground, most of the water sinks into the soil to be absorbed by plant roots or to seep down into underground aquifers. Some of it runs off into streams and rivers. If the water strikes a hard surface, like rock or pavement, most of it runs directly into streams or artificial drains. Eventually this water also flows into rivers.
The oceans lose water in this portion of the cycle—more water evaporates from them than returns as precipitation. The oceans get this water back when the rivers empty their water back into the oceans. Thus the global water budget—the volume of water coming and going from the oceans, atmosphere, and continental landmasses—is kept in balance.
If the water cycle is kept in balance, that means that global precipitation levels remain fairly constant. So why do droughts occur? The answer is that rain and snow do not consistently fall in equal amounts in any given place. Moisture may evaporate from one place, travel through the atmosphere, and fall to the ground as rain in another. It is possible, then, for a given location to get lots of rainfall one year and almost no rainfall the next.
The impact of droughts varies widely, depending on the severity and length of the drought and its location. Among the consequences of drought are shortages of water, livestock and wildlife death, crop loss, soil erosion, wildfires, and dust storms. Famine is the most drastic consequence of drought and is most likely to occur in poor nations where food supplies are already scarce and governments have little money for importing food or drilling wells.
Reduction in water levels
One direct consequence of drought is a shortage of water. Wells run dry, and water levels drop in lakes and rivers. The first water supply to be affected is aquifers, which are underground water reservoirs made of porous rock, gravel, or sand. Aquifers feed lakes and rivers; the top of an aquifer is higher than the bed of the lake or river it feeds. When water is plentiful and an aquifer is full, water runs over into a surface body of water. During drought, however, the level of the aquifer falls below the floor of the lake or river, and the aquifer ceases to replenish the surface body of water. In severe drought, aquifers go dry, and lake and river levels become very low. Wells (holes drilled into aquifers that provide people with water) also may run dry, in which case it becomes necessary to continue drilling to tap sources of water deeper underground.
The lowering of water levels in lakes and rivers has several consequences. For one, fish and other forms of aquatic life may die. If bodies of water become too shallow for boats to operate, the water recreation industry suffers economic harm. If barges and ships cannot carry goods down waterways, the increased cost of shipping materials over land gets passed on to consumers. In addition, the amount of electricity produced by hydroelectric power stations (facilities at which the energy of the moving water is converted into electricity) decreases when rivers flow less forcefully.
The reduction in water levels that results from a drought are felt long after the rains resume. First, enough rain has to fall to recharge dried-out aquifers. This process typically takes a year or more. Only when the aquifers are full will the water begin its slow journey to rivers and lakes.
Migration and famine
When drought is serious enough to affect food and water supplies, people in the affected region are forced to move to another area or subsist on donated food. In Africa, Asia, and Australia—regions where there have been droughts lasting several years—the loss of crops and cattle has caused widespread human suffering. A severe drought in northern China in 1876, for instance, caused crop failures that led to the deaths of millions of people. As many as five million people died in Russia as a result of a drought along the Volga River basin in 1921.
Experiment: How rainfall affects soil
During a drought, rainfall is extremely scarce. To understand some of rain's effects, try this experiment. Get two large disposable aluminum baking pans. Fill one with some dirt from a garden or yard. Use a pair of scissors or an awl to poke six or eight small holes in one end of the pan that is full of dirt. Put the empty pan under the side of the dirt-filled pan that has holes in it. Lift up the opposite end of the pan (you can use books to hold it up), and then use a watering can to pour water onto the dirt at the elevated end of the pan. Notice what happens to the dirt when the water comes into contact with it, and pay attention to the color of the water as it runs into the second pan.
Droughts also have indirect impacts, such as increased prices for food, energy, lumber, and other products; unemployment (in the agricultural, forestry, and fishing industries); and the closing of businesses in the affected area. The loss of crops that results from drought does not just affect the pocketbooks of farmers. It also means a reduction in revenues for merchants who provide goods and services to farmers.
While drought on Earth is older than human existence, human activity in recent years has contributed to the frequency and severity of droughts. The primary way in which people bring about drought is by stripping the land of vegetation. Denuded land not only suffers more than covered land during times of drought, but the lack of vegetation also contributes to the occurrence of drought. The major ways in which people encourage drought are through farming intensively, overgrazing cattle, and cutting down trees for timber or fuel.
The concept of surviving a drought has different meanings depending on the location and severity of the drought. For some people, especially those in poor nations, surviving a drought means subsisting on donated food or migrating to wetter regions. In wealthier nations, where food is more abundant, people learn to change their behaviors to adapt to chronic drought rather than aiming merely to survive it. Coping with drought may entail conserving water and keeping cool in hot weather.
Desertification, also called land degradation, is the process of turning an area into desert. Approximately 25,000 square miles (64,750 square kilometers) of Earth's surface is turned into desert each year. Reversing desertification is a lengthy and difficult process.
While drought is the primary cause of desertification, humans can make the problem worse by removing a land's natural vegetation. Exposed soil is susceptible to erosion by wind and rain. In the absence of roots to bind the soil together and trees and shrubs to slow the wind, heavy rains create deep ravines and gullies in the land, and the wind blows away the topsoil.
The enforcement of travel restrictions across political boundaries in Africa and Asia in the twentieth century has been one of the leading causes of human-induced land degradation in those areas. Prior to the restriction of travel across national borders, nomads roamed with their herds in search of vegetation. New policies forced herdsmen to settle in particular areas, and wells were drilled to meet their water needs. As a result, the settled areas have been overgrazed and stripped of vegetation, and the water levels of the reservoirs feeding those wells have greatly decreased.
Vegetation loss and the cycle of drought
The clearing of vegetation also acts as a deterrent against cloud formation and rain—in essence creating a cycle of drought. When water evaporates from leaves, that water condenses to form clouds, which can cause precipitation. In the absence of plants, the air is dry and does not form clouds. When it does rain, the lack of vegetation also means the surface is less able to retain the water. The water runs off and erodes the soil, which means even fewer plants can grow—making the cycle repeat and grow worse.
Overuse of groundwater
Another practice that creates many problems during droughts is the overuse of groundwater. Groundwater is water from rain or melted snow that seeps into underground aquifers. Pumps are used to tap groundwater for community needs. If the rate of ground-water usage is not reduced during dry periods, aquifers can become depleted, thus contributing to the lowering of lake and river levels.
When aquifers become depleted they may collapse, causing the ground around them to sink—thus forming sinkholes. A sinkhole is a large depression in the Earth's surface; often shaped like a funnel, it is typically 50 feet (15.3 meters) in diameter and up to 100 feet (30.5 meters) deep.
In the United States, water conservation measures are typically required in times of drought; nonessential uses of water, such as car-washing and lawn-watering, are banned. Some communities have programs in place to recycle wastewater (from sources such as bathtubs and dishwashers) for use on small farms and domestic gardens.
There are many ways people can reduce water consumption. For example, people can take showers instead of baths. A bath typically uses 30 gallons (114 liters) of water, whereas a five-minute shower, at a flow of 5 gallons (19 liters) per minute, uses 25 gallons (95 liters) of water. An economy showerhead reduces the flow to 2.5 gallons (9.5 liters) per minute and would use only 12.5 gallons (47.5 liters) for a five-minute shower. If each person in a family of four takes a bath every day for a week, the family uses 840 gallons (3,180 liters) of water. If the family installs an economy showerhead, and each person takes a five-minute shower each day instead of a bath, however, they will use just 280 gallons (1,060 liters) of water. This would save 560 gallons (2,120 liters) of water a week.
Another water-saving device is a low-flow toilet. This type of toilet uses less than 2 gallons (7.6 liters) per flush, as compared to the 5 gallons (19 liters) per flush used by a conventional toilet. Some states in drier regions of the United States have laws requiring the installation of reduced-flow showerheads and toilets in new construction.
Some people conserve water by collecting rainwater and using it for watering the garden. When rainfall is minimal, bath water can be used on the garden. Another method of saving water is installing plumbing that routes bath water or water that has been used for washing dishes to the toilet, for flushing.
Community water-saving initiatives have been shown to work. In Tucson, Arizona, where conservation is mandated, residents use an average of 160 gallons (606 liters) of water per day. In Phoenix, by comparison, where water-conservation measures are not required, residents use an average of 260 gallons (984 liters) per day.
Drought in Australia
Australia experienced a serious drought in the early twenty-first century. The drought, the worst in two decades, began in March 2002. Like the U.S. drought of the same year, the Australian drought produced record-breaking low amounts of rainfall.
The consequences of the Australian drought have been dire. Livestock and crops were particularly hard hit. Because the country had less to export, its trade deficit soared to its highest point in years. Bush fires caused damage and destruction throughout the country.
The heat factor
Heat waves (extended periods of high heat), which are frequently associated with drought and actually worsen the effects of drought, are among the leading causes of death during droughts. Under drought conditions there are few, if any, clouds to block the incoming solar energy. The sunlight heats the land and robs it of existing moisture by causing rapid evaporation. The loss of moisture, in turn, makes the air even hotter. When the ground is dry, all incoming solar energy heats the land (as opposed to being absorbed in the process of evaporation) and is transferred directly into the air.
Hot weather adversely affects human health by raising the body's temperature. High body temperature can lead to dehydration, heat exhaustion (a form of mild shock that results when fluids and salt are lost through heavy perspiration), and heat stroke (a life-threatening condition that sets in when heat exhaustion is left untreated, and the body has used up its efforts to cool itself). People engaged in physical activity in hot conditions, particularly if they don't drink enough water, may fall victim to one or more heat-related illnesses.
How to survive a heat wave
The following suggestions can help you stay healthy during hot weather:
- Avoid overexertion, especially during the hottest part of the day. The coolest part of day, and the safest time for strenuous activity, is between 4 am and 7 am.
- Wear loose, lightweight, light-colored clothing. This type of clothing allows air to circulate while protecting the skin from the Sun's heat and damaging rays. The light color reflects, rather than absorbs, sunlight.
- Remain indoors as much as possible. If you don't have air conditioning, stay on the first floor, out of the sunshine, and keep the air circulating with electric fans. Each day that the air is very hot, try to spend some time in an air-conditioned environment.
- Drink plenty of fluids, even if you don't feel thirsty. Water is best. Avoid drinks with caffeine or alcohol, since they actually draw fluids out of the body, which may lead to dehydration.
- Eat frequent, small meals. Avoid foods high in protein since the digestion of protein increases your body's temperature.
- Avoid overexposure to the Sun. When skin is sunburned, its ability to dissipate heat is hampered.
- If you are taking medication that affects your blood circulation, ask your doctor how that medication affects your ability to tolerate heat.
- Groups of people most susceptible to heat-related illness include elderly people, small children, people with chronic illnesses, overweight people, and people with alcohol dependency. People in those groups should be especially cautious during a heat wave.
Heat also places added stresses on the body's circulatory system. For elderly people or people with serious illnesses, that added stress can prove fatal. The most common causes of death in hot weather are cardiac arrest, stroke, and respiratory distress.
Heat waves take more lives than any other type of weather calamity. They kill approximately one thousand people per year, on average, in the United States, and a far greater number in other less-developed countries. In contrast, winter storms or cold kill approximately 130 to 200 people per year, on average, in the United States; floods kill 100 to 160; tornadoes kill 80 to 130; and hurricanes kill 40 to 60 people.
Several technological innovations are used to monitor and respond to droughts. Earth survey satellites provide data about water levels in surface bodies of water and the moisture content of the soil. Irrigation systems, dams, drought-resistant crops, and soil management techniques are all used to make the effects of drought less severe.
Drought prediction, however, remains something of a mystery. Droughts are hard to foresee because they are produced by the absence of events in the atmosphere; notably, the absence of rain clouds and precipitation. Other weather phenomena, such as hurricanes, thunderstorms, and blizzards, all have recognizable patterns of clouds and precipitation and show up on weather sensing instruments.
At the end of the twentieth century, researchers were looking at data on the cycles of El Niño and La Niña, as well as trends shown in satellite images, for possible keys to predicting future droughts.
Earth survey satellites
Starting with the launch of Landsat 1 in 1972, a series of Landsat Earth survey satellites have continually monitored drought conditions by providing information on moisture levels in the soil, as well as the depths of lakes and rivers. Two Landsats continue to transmit information: Landsat 5, launched in 1984, and Landsat 7, launched in April 1999. The satellites orbit Earth about fifteen times every day at an altitude of 438 miles (705 kilometers). Each satellite is capable of observing almost every continental surface on the globe in an eighteen-day period. It can determine moisture content in areas as small as ten football fields.
Moisture content in the soil and evaporation rates (both measured by satellites) are reliable indicators of drought. Researchers combine this information with data on precipitation, temperature, and other factors to predict the length and intensity of a drought.
The images returned by Landsat satellites are also used for monitoring deforestation, receding glaciers, and crop growth. They are used to locate mineral deposits and to observe patterns of strip mining, logging, and damage due to insect infestations and fire.
One way that farmers protect the soil from the impact of drought is by planting rows of trees or shrubs, called windbreaks, at intervals throughout their fields. Windbreaks, which run crossways to the direction that the wind usually blows, slow the wind and keep it from blowing away the soil.
In some regions with low levels of rainfall, farmers find success through fallow farming, which is the practice of letting one-half of the land lie fallow, or idle, every other year, while planting the other half. During the growing season, the farmer plows the fallow land to unearth weeds. Plowing also creates spaces in the soil that can trap water and raise the moisture content of the soil. When the previously fallow land is planted the following year, seeds are more likely to germinate rapidly, and crops will have an early growth spurt.
Another way that farmers guard against the effects of drought is by planting drought-resistant crops (plants that thrive even in dry conditions). These crops are relatively small and quick to grow. One crop that is drought-resistant is sorghum (pronounced SOAR-gum). During dry periods, sorghum stops growing and reduces transpiration (the loss of water through its leaves); it resumes growing when rain comes. Another example of a crop that does well in dry conditions is alfalfa, the roots of which extend down 6 feet (1.8 meters) or more and tap into groundwater.
Irrigation is the transportation of water from reservoirs or wells to areas where crops are growing. Since the beginning of civilization, farmers have practiced irrigation as a means of improving their ability to grow crops. Irrigated farmland, in general, is twice as productive as nonirrigated farmland. In 2000, more than 900 million square miles (6 billion square kilometers) of farmland around the world were irrigated. About one-third of the world's food supply comes from irrigated land.
Irrigation, however, has its drawbacks. For one thing, it is expensive; the drilling of wells and purchase of irrigation equipment and fuel, and in some cases the water, is costly. Many farmers relying on irrigation have found themselves buried in debt. Irrigation is also wasteful. In hot, dry weather, up to one-third of water sprayed out of crop sprinklers evaporates before reaching the ground. Irrigation that relies on groundwater also presents the danger of depleting aquifers. This is particularly hazardous in coastal land, because if the water table falls below sea level, seawater will seep into the aquifer and cause the groundwater to become salty, which destroys the soil.
The construction of river dams is a common method of storing water and lessening the impact of drought (as well as preventing flooding). A dam is a barrier that blocks a river and controls the flow of water. When a river is dammed, the water backs up in the area behind the dam, creating an artificial lake or reservoir (pronounced REH-zer-vwar). Pipes carry the water from the reservoir to factories, homes, and farms. This ready supply of water is especially useful during times of drought. As the 1990s came to a close, there were more than 60,000 dams in use worldwide.
Large dams—defined as those that are more than 492 feet (150 meters) high, or holding back more than 19.6 million cubic yards (15 million cubic meters) of water—have a significant impact on the surrounding community and environment. When a dam is constructed in a valley, it floods the area upstream, putting homes, farmland, and even whole villages underwater. In the process, it displaces the people who inhabit the area. Dams also disrupt a river's natural cycle of flooding. When a river floods a valley, it deposits a layer of silt that enriches the soil. After the river is dammed, the fertile soil is lost. (The soil upstream is buried beneath the reservoir, and the soil downstream remains exposed but becomes less fertile over time.) Dams also disrupt the balance of the river ecosystem, destroying the habitat of birds, fish, and other animals, as well as many species of plants.
Allaby, Michael. Droughts. 2nd ed. New York: Facts on File, 2003.
Burby, Liza N. Heat Waves and Droughts. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 1999.
Collier, Michael, and Robert H. Webb. Floods, Droughts, and Climate Change. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2002.
Stewart, Gail B. Drought. New York: Crestwood House, 1990.
Walker, Jane. Famine, Drought and Plagues. New York: Gloucester Press, 1992.
Ward, Diane Raines. Drought, Flood, Folly and the Politics of Thirst. 1st ed. New York: Riverhead, 2002.
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Drought Watch. U.S. Geological Service. 〈http://water.usgs.gov/waterwatch/?m=dryw〉 (accessed August 17, 2006).
NOAA's Drought Information Center. 〈http://www.drought.noaa.gov/〉 (accessed August 17, 2006).
U.S. Drought Monitor. University of Nebraska, Lincoln. 〈http://www.drought.unl.edu/dm/monitor.html〉 (accessed August 17, 2006).
Drought is a feature of climate that is defined as a period of below-average rainfall sufficiently long and intense to result in serious environmental and socioeconomic stresses, such as crop failures and water shortages, in the affected area. Droughts can occur in any climatic region, but their characteristics vary considerably among regions. What droughts in all climatic regions have in common is their gradual onset, which—in contrast to other natural hazards—makes their beginning and end difficult to identify. Defined primarily as natural phenomena, droughts have not received much attention in the social sciences. Only since the 1990s, with the increasing appreciation of the linkages between the environment and society, have droughts begun to be viewed as an issue of interest also for the social sciences.
Drought is caused by the sinking motion of air in a high-pressure cell, which results in decreasing relative humidity of the air and little or no precipitation. Most climatic regions are temporarily under the influence of high pressure; droughts occur only when atmospheric circulation patterns that cause the high pressure persist or recur persistently over an unusually long period of time. Because of the global nature of atmospheric circulation, explanations for anomalous circulation patterns extend far beyond the drought-affected area. Thus global patterns of atmospheric pressure systems and sea surface temperatures have been invoked to explain the occurrence of periodically recurring drought events in some parts of the globe. Most prominent among those global patterns is the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), a coupled ocean-atmosphere anomaly that originates in the Pacific basin but has repercussions on the climatic conditions in areas as far apart as southern Africa, India, and Brazil. Anthropogenic processes that lead to changes in land cover, such as deforestation and overgrazing, affect local-scale moisture recycling and can induce local reductions in rainfall. Although simulation models have shown the possibility of substantial reductions in rainfall resulting from land-cover change, anthropogenic disturbances large enough to explain more than local-scale reductions in rainfall have not been observed.
The effects of drought on environment, economy, and society are manifold. In order of the increasing severity and scope of their impacts, four types of drought are commonly distinguished: A meteorological drought manifests itself in a shortfall of precipitation or changes in precipitation intensity and timing, possibly aggravated by other climatic factors, such as high temperatures and winds. Risks associated with this type of drought include wildfire hazard and reduced water infiltration into the soil. If the drought persists long enough to result in significant soil water deficits and plant water stress, it crosses the threshold into an agricultural drought. Lower crop yields and quality, as well as increased soil erosion and dust emission, are possible impacts expected from this type of drought.
Because various crops differ in their water demand, a farmer’s choice of crop type can either buffer or exacerbate the effects of an agricultural drought. A drought is classified as a hydrological drought once the precipitation shortfall affects surface and subsurface water supplies. Hydrological droughts usually lag behind the occurrence of meteorological droughts because of the time needed for precipitation deficits to reach the surface and groundwater levels of the water cycle. Their impacts, which consequently are also out of phase with those of a meteorological and agricultural drought, include reduced stream flow, below-normal reservoir and lake levels, loss of wetlands, and declining water quality. Although climate is the primary factor of a hydrological drought, humans contribute to its effects by changes in land and water use, such as urbanization and the construction of dams. Finally, a socioeconomic drought occurs when the supply of economic goods and services, including water, forage, food, and hydroelectric power, can no longer be met for drought-related causes. Farmers and ranchers, who depend on agricultural and pasture productivity, are the first to suffer losses. Then follow industries depending on agricultural production. As a result, consumers may have to pay more for their food and other weather-sensitive products and services.
The socioeconomic effects of a drought vary not only in proportion to the severity of the climatological event but also depending on the vulnerability of the affected population. Monetary costs arise for any economy hit by drought, such as to cover for lost crops, crop insurance payouts, and fire damage; but only in the most vulnerable populations of the developing world are drought effects—food insecurity, famine, health problems, and loss of life and livelihoods—often paired with economic, social, and political difficulties. Subsistence farmers and pastoralists in particular suffer from crop and livestock losses, as well as from increased food prices. Droughts force many of them to migrate from rural to urban areas, increasing pressure on resources there.
Scientists and decision-makers have devised a number of ways to deal with drought, which can be grouped into drought monitoring, forecasting, and mitigation. Meteorologists around the world carefully monitor meteorological and hydrological variables (precipitation patterns, soil moisture, stream flow) over time to determine the onset and end of a drought. Satellite remote sensing technology has contributed immensely to quantitative monitoring over large geographic areas. Understanding the complex physical aspects leading to droughts is a prerequisite for making increasingly reliable and credible drought predictions. Empirical studies have shown that drought results from a complex interplay of different climatological factors, which makes forecasting difficult. In the tropics, where scientists have made significant advances in understanding the climate system, the potential for seasonal drought predictions is promising, particularly with respect to droughts related to ENSO. Multiyear droughts as well as droughts outside the tropics still cannot be predicted with a level of accuracy that is without risk for the users of those predictions. Knowing the frequency, duration, and spatial extent of past droughts, however, helps in determining the likelihood and potential severity of future droughts.
In addition to the assessment of meteorological processes, drought mitigation also requires an understanding of the vulnerabilities of different population groups to drought. Mitigation tools range from early warning systems, which monitor both meteorological conditions and vulnerable populations (e.g., the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, operating in Africa, Central America, and Afghanistan), to various forms of weather-related crop insurance schemes (e.g., in the United States and Australia among others), emergency water supply augmentation (e.g., tapping new water resources), and water demand reduction (e.g., by means of economic incentives for water conservation, improvement of water use efficiencies, breeding for drought tolerance, diversification to less weather-dependent economic activities, and public water conservation awareness programs). As droughts are expected to become more frequent and more extreme with global warming, it is imperative to improve drought mitigation efforts and increase future drought preparedness.
Major drought events in modern history include:
- China, 1877–1878: Provinces across northern China were depopulated as grain stocks ran out as a result of severe droughts. Millions of people perished from starvation.
- Soviet Union, 1921–1922: A fierce drought hit the Ukraine and Volga regions. The death toll reached almost five million people, more than the total number of casualties in World War I (1914–1918).
- United States, 1930s: The Dust Bowl drought, which ravaged the American and Canadian Great Plains in the 1930s, is considered one of the major droughts of the twentieth century. Coinciding with the Great Depression, it had major impacts on the United States and Canada, including a mass migration from the Great Plains to the western coast in search of better living conditions.
- West Africa, 1970s: The West African Sahel region experienced droughts of unprecedented spatial extent and duration, which created a famine that killed a million people and affected the livelihoods of more than fifty million. The great Sahelian droughts were also blamed for widespread environmental degradation of this dryland region.
- Ethiopia, 1984–1985: A severe drought, exacerbated by the government’s censorship of news of the emerging crisis, brought about famine and forced millions to leave their homes, triggering the world’s worst refugee crisis to date.
In 2005 Australia experienced a major drought coupled with above-average temperatures, with the southern agricultural areas particularly hard hit. In 2006 drought conditions prevailed across much of Europe—for Spain the most serious drought in more than a century—and caused water shortages for agricultural and tourism sectors. At the same time, China faced its worst drought in fifty years, with crop failures and deaths of cattle causing huge economic losses.
SEE ALSO Agricultural Industry; Disaster Management; Famine; Food; Human Ecology; Irrigation; Natural Disasters; Water Resources
Kogan, Felix. 1997. Global Drought Watch from Space. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 78 (4): 621–636.
National Drought Mitigation Center. University of Nebraska–Lincoln. http://www.drought.unl.edu.
Vogt, Jürgen V., and Francesca Somma, eds. 2000. Drought and Drought Mitigation in Europe. Dordrecht and Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Wilhite, Donald A., ed. 2000. Drought: A Global Assessment. London and New York: Routledge.
Wilhite, Donald A., ed. 2005. Drought and Water Crises: Science, Technology, and Management Issues. Boca Raton: Taylor and Francis.
Stefanie M. Herrmann
Drought is characterized by various combinations of unusually low precipitation, low humidity, high temperatures, and high wind velocities. Extended
droughts can reduce water supplies to the point where they are inadequate to support the demands of plants, animals, and humans.
Drought is a temporary condition that occurs in moist climates. This is in contrast to the conditions of normally arid regions, such as deserts, that normally experience low average rainfall or available water. Under both drought and arid conditions, individual plants and animals may die, but the populations to which they belong survive. Both drought and aridity differ from desiccation, which is a prolonged period of intensifying drought in which entire populations become extinct. In Africa and Australia, periods of desiccation have lasted two to three decades. The loss of crops and cattle in these areas caused widespread suffering. Extensive desiccation may lead to desertification in which most plant and animal life in a region is lost permanently, and an arid desert is created.
Unlike a storm or a flood, there is no specific time or event that constitutes the beginning or end of a drought. Hydrologists evaluate the frequency and severity of droughts based on measurements of river basins and other water bodies. Climatologists and meteorologists follow the effects of ocean winds and volcanoes on weather patterns that can cause droughts. Agriculturalists measure a drought’s effects on plant growth. They may notice the onset of a drought long before hydrologists are able to record drops in underground water table levels. By observing weather cycles, meteorologists may be able to predict the occurrence of future droughts.
In addition to its duration, the intensity of a drought is measured largely by the ability of the living things in the affected vicinity to tolerate the dry conditions. Although a drought may end abruptly with the return of adequate rainfall, the effects of a drought on the landscape and its inhabitants may last for years.
Many factors affect the severity of a drought. Plants and animals are vulnerable to drought when stored water cannot replace the amount of moisture lost to evapotranspiration. Some plants and animals have mechanisms that enable them to tolerate drought conditions. Many desert annuals escape drought simply by having a short life span. The rest of the time they survive as dessication-resistant seeds. Some plants, such as cacti, evade drought by storing water in their tissues, while others, like mesquite trees, become dormant. Still others, such as the creosote bush, have evolved adaptations such as reduced leaf size and a waxy coating over the leaves that protect against water loss. Many animals that live in areas prone to drought have developed drought survival techniques. Snakes and lizards forage and hunt at night, avoiding the desiccating effects of the sun’s rays. Other animals have adaptations that allow them to survive without drinking, obtaining all of the water that they need from their food sources.
Studies of tree rings in the United States have documented droughts occurring as early as 1220. The thickness of annual growth rings of some tree species, such as red cedar and yellow pine, indicates the wetness of each season. The longest drought identified by this method began in 1276 and lasted 38 years. The tree ring method identified 21 droughts lasting five or more years during the period from 1210 to 1958. The best-known American drought was the Dust Bowl on the Great Plains from 1931 to 1936, with 1934 and 1936 being the two driest years in the recorded history of the United States. The Dust Bowl encompassed an area approximately 399 mi (644 km) long and 298 mi (483 km wide) in parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma. More recently, the United States experienced severe to extreme drought in over half of the country during 1987–89. This drought was the subject of national headlines when it created conditions conducive to extensive fires in Yellowstone National Park during 1988.
Droughts have also had impacts in other regions of the world. A drought in northern China in 1876 dried up crops in an extensive region. Millions of people died of starvation. Russia experienced severe droughts in 1890 and 1921. The 1921 drought in the Volga River basin caused the deaths of up to five million people— more than had died during World War I, which had just ended. India normally receives most of its rain during the monsoon season, which lasts from June to September. Winds blowing in from the Indian Ocean bring most of the country’s rainfall during this season. The monsoon winds did not come during two droughts in 1769 and 1865. An estimated 10 million people died in each of those droughts, many from diseases like smallpox, which was extremely contagious and deadly because people were already weakened from lack of food. More recent severe droughts occurred in England (1921, 1933–34, and 1976), Central Australia (1945–72), and the Canadian prairies (1983–5).
Almost the entire continent of Africa suffered from droughts in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Ethiopia, usually considered the breadbasket of eastern Africa, experienced drought in the early 1980s. A dry year in 1981 resulted in low crop yields. Three years later, another dry year led to the deaths of nearly a million people. Drought conditions again threatened eastern Africa in 2002. An estimated 15 million people in Ethiopia, three million in Kenya, 1.5 million in Eritrea, and three million in Sudan could faced starvation as a result of the drought. According to the World Health Organization, drought is the cause of about half of all deaths from natural disasters.
Between 1968 and 1973, the Sahel region in eastern Burkina Faso suffered a great drought. An estimated 50, 000–200, 000 people died as a consequence. While the causes of these great African droughts are unknown, research is beginning to indicate that droughts could result from a combination of global and local climate patterns. Satellite imagery links El Ninö conditions and vertical ocean mixing patterns to dry weather in Sahel. In addition, desertification may be a positive feedback mechanism driving the climate towards drought conditions. In regions where there are few surface water reservoirs, such as the Sahel, the major source of precipitation is transpiration from plants. As plants become sparse in drought conditions, this source of water for precipitation is diminished. The diminished precipitation further decreases the growth of vegetation.
Since 1994, drought and famine in North Korea have been worsened by the political situation. The government of North Korea has allowed its people to starve rather than negotiate with South Korea and famine relief organizations. Over 50% of the children in North Korea are suffering from malnutrition and lack of water, and innumerable children have perished. The drought may accelerate political problems in the region if starving refugees flee to other countries.
Drought is a natural phenomenon and cannot be eradicated. Consequently, methods to mitigate its devastating effects are crucial. Crop and soil management practices can increase the amount of water stored within a plant’s root zone. For example, contour plowing and terracing reduce the amount and velocity of water runoff after rainstorms. Vegetation protects the soil from the impact of raindrops, which causes both erosion and soil crusting (hardening of the soil surface that prevents rain from percolating into the soil where it is stored). Both living plants and crop residues left by minimum tillage reduce soil crusting so the soil remains permeable and can absorb rainfall.
Other farming practices that lessen the impact of drought on crop production include strip cropping, windbreaks, and irrigation. Windbreaks or shelter-belts are strips of land planted with shrubs and trees perpendicular to the prevailing winds. Windbreaks prevent soil, with its moisture-retaining properties, from being blown away by wind. Plants can also be specifically bred to adapt to the effects of weather extremes. For example, shorter plants encounter less wind and better withstand turbulent weather. Plants with crinkled leaves create small pockets of still air that slow evaporation.
From a social standpoint, drought severity is influenced by the vulnerability of an area or population to its effects. Vulnerability is a product of the demand for water, the age and health of the population affected by the drought, and the efficiency of water supply and energy supply systems. Drought’s effects are more pronounced in areas that have lost wetlands that recharge aquifers, are dependent on agriculture, have low existing food stocks, or whose governments have not developed drought-response mechanisms.
Aquifer— A formation of soil or rock that holds water underground.
Arid climate— A climate that receives less than 10 in (25 cm) of annual precipitation and generally requires irrigation for agriculture.
Precipitation— Water particles that are condensed from the atmosphere and fall to the ground as rain, dew, hail or snow.
Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Penguin, 2004.
Drought does not happen suddenly. It evolves in a region when weather conditions produce declining rainfall amounts that cause vegetation to dry, soil moisture to be reduced, and surface water sources to decline and ultimately to dry up. The length of a drought depends entirely on weather conditions. It can be only a few weeks in duration or it can last years to become a serious weather-related catastrophe. Satellite images of vegetation in a region can provide evidence of long-term drought conditions where they exist. As vegetation dries up, wildfires become more frequent and intense.
About 10% to 15% of global land areas were considered to be undergoing moderate to severe drought conditions in the 1970s. That number rose to around 30% by 2002. Changing climate conditions that have increased global temperatures are considered by atmospheric scientists to be the cause for at least half of the increase in droughts around the world. All climate models used by the scientists indicate that global warming will increase. Scientists also are predicting more severe drying conditions if the concentration of greenhouse gases increases in the atmosphere.
Historical Background and Scientific Foundations
Historical records of weather events have been developed from studies of tree rings, ice core samples from glaciers, and studies of sediment layers in lakes. However, systematic instrumental records of weather events go back only a little over 100 years. Over the past 50 years, climatologists have discovered the relationship between regional climate events, such as droughts, and much larger interactions between the atmosphere and oceans.
The occurrence of major droughts is believed to be related to ocean-atmosphere oscillation cycles, such as the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle. It was not until the 1980s that climatologists saw that El Niño, (an upwelling of warm water in the Pacific Ocean) and La Niña (an upwelling of cold water in the Pacific Ocean) were related to the see-saw atmospheric pressure changes known as the Southern Oscillation. The ENSO cycle affects climate across North America. Similar oscillation patterns in other atmosphere-ocean systems are now considered to contribute to weather conditions that cause major droughts around the world.
Global warming is impacting the oscillation cycles and affecting the location and severity of droughts. Warming temperatures will increase evaporation from ocean surfaces. The extra atmospheric moisture is expected to increase average rainfall overall but not uniformly around the world. Warmer temperatures also will cause the land to dry more quickly where rainfall is less plentiful. Although some regions will experience greater rainfall, other regions will suffer more severe droughts. The percent of land area that suffers severe droughts is expected to continue to rise.
WORDS TO KNOW
DIPOLE: A system that has two equal but opposite characteristics separated by a distance.
EL NIÑO: A warming of the surface waters of the eastern equatorial Pacific that occurs at irregular intervals of 2 to 7 years, usually lasting 1 to 2 years. Along the west coast of South America, southerly winds promote the upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water that sustains large fish populations, that sustain abundant sea birds, whose droppings support the fertilizer industry. Near the end of each calendar year, a warm current of nutrient-poor tropical water replaces the cold, nutrient-rich surface water. Because this condition often occurs around Christmas, it was named El Niño (Spanish for boy child, referring to the Christ child). In most years the warming lasts only a few weeks or a month, after which the weather patterns return to normal and fishing improves. However, when El Niño conditions last for many months, more extensive ocean warming occurs and economic results can be disastrous. El Niño has been linked to wetter, colder winters in the United States; drier, hotter summers in South America and Europe; and drought in Africa.
GREENHOUSE GASES: Gases that cause Earth to retain more thermal energy by absorbing infrared light emitted by Earth's surface. The most important greenhouse gases are water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and various artificial chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons. All but the latter are naturally occurring, but human activity over the last several centuries has significantly increased the amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide in Earth's atmosphere, causing global warming and global climate change.
LA NIÑA: A period of stronger-than-normal trade winds and unusually low sea-surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean; the opposite of El Niño.
SAHEL: The transition zone in Africa between the Sahara Desert to the north and tropical forests to the south. This dry land belt stretches across Africa and is under stress from land use and climate variability.
SOUTHERN OSCILLATION: A large-scale atmospheric and hydro-spheric fluctuation centered in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. It exhibits a nearly annual pressure anomaly, alternatively high over the Indian Ocean and over the South Pacific. Its period is slightly variable, averaging 2.33 years. The variation in pressure is accompanied by variations in wind strengths, ocean currents, sea-surface temperatures, and precipitation in the surrounding areas. El Niño and La Nin˜a occurrences are associated with the phenomenon.
TREE RINGS: Marks left in the trunks of woody plants by the annual growth of a new coat or sheath of material. Tree rings provide a straightforward way of dating organic material stored in a tree trunk. Tree-ring thickness provides proxy data about climate conditions: most trees put on thicker rings in warm, wet conditions than in cool, dry conditions.
The Standard Precipitation Index (SPI) was developed in 1993 to provide early warning of drought conditions and to assess the extent of a drought. SPI values are determined from data collected on precipitation in a specific region for a specified length of time. The SPI index is keyed to reflect local drought conditions. If low precipitation conditions persist for three to six months, agriculture is impacted. Longer low precipitation periods can result in reduced groundwater supplies and increased potential for severe wildfires. The severity of wildfires depends on the terrain of the region and the type of vegetation.
An older, more complex assessment tool for drought conditions is the Palmer Drought Severity Index, developed in the United States in 1968. It is based on a supply-and-demand concept for water use in addition to precipitation measurements. The Palmer index is used by relief agencies to determine where emergency assistance may be needed due to extreme drought conditions. The Palmer index also classifies excess rainfall conditions.
Impacts and Issues
Severe droughts have social and economic consequences. In the 1930s, a seven-year drought in the Great Plains of the United States created such desperate conditions that millions of people migrated to other regions of the country, such as California, to find better living conditions. A writer for the Washington Evening Star coined the term “Dust Bowl” to describe the effects of this severe Great Plains drought. North America is one of the regions that has historically had severe droughts.
Climate change is expected to intensify droughts in all the regions that already experience periodic droughts. In addition to North America, parts of Africa and Australia are already experiencing exceptionally dry conditions. The Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation issued a report in January 2007 warning the Sydney, Australia, region to expect temperatures to rise 9°F (5°C) above the global average in the next 20 years.
Sydney, Australia, could experience severe droughts nine out of every ten years by the second half of the century. The region is already dry and bush fires are frequent, but that scenario is expected to worsen, since scientists predict rainfall will decrease by 40% by 2070. Periodic extreme storms are predicted for the Australian coast to add to the country's inhospitable climate, if climate change continues as current studies predict.
Australia's climate is under the influence of three ocean-atmospheric systems: the El Niño/Southern Oscillation in the Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean Dipole, and the Antarctic Circumpolar Wave for the Southern Ocean. The Indian Ocean Dipole is a year-to-year climate pattern that involves alternating warmer and colder ocean surface temperatures in the Indian Ocean. The three systems create a complex weather model for Australia.
IN CONTEXT: U.S. SCIENTISTS CALL FOR NATIONAL DROUGHT POLICY
In a February 2007 meeting, members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) called upon the United States to adopt a national drought policy that plans for global climate change. The researchers asserted that parts of the United States, including some of the nation's most densely populated urban centers and agriculturally productive areas, needed long-term solutions for water management, desertification prevention, and drought adaptation. The group of scientists focused on the western United States, citing the region's recent history of drought and its decades-long battle over freshwater resources, especially those from the Colorado River.
Scientists note that the western United States has long experienced periods of drought, but that global climate change may increase the frequency, length, and severity of future droughts. Past droughts have highlighted the region's precarious balance of high water-needs but vulnerability to water scarcity. Water shortages during regional droughts have affected farms, fisheries, and residential households. Increased urban development in arid areas has increased demand for freshwater in areas where it is naturally scarce, requiring complex water-sharing agreements with more water-rich neighboring states. Furthermore, most of the population of the western United States is on or near the Pacific Coast, making large population centers vulnerable to sea-level rise and freshwater and soil salination, compounding the anticipated long-term effects of climate change in the region.
The AAAS researchers, calling for a national drought policy, noted that droughts are currently responded to on an ad-hoc basis, addressing issues only as they arise. The group asserted that current drought assistance programs, agricultural regulations, and land and water-use laws may prove insufficient to cope with the effects of climate change. Although some states have addressed the effects of climate change through land and resource management laws, federal leaders have been hesitant to adopt policies that acknowledge specific threats of global climate change. As of November 2007, no national policy taking into account the AAAS recommendations had been proposed.
Africa is another region already suffering from droughts that are thought to be tied to global warming. The Sahel region across Africa, from just below the Sahara desert in the east to the Atlantic coast on the west, and bordered by the wet tropical regions to the south, is being impacted by climate change. That region of Africa is influenced by the temperatures in the Indian Ocean. The Sahel region has had periods of adequate rainfall, but has suffered from drought in more recent years. The African droughts have created serious human crises that are frequently publicized in United Nations articles.
Southern Africa also is a drought-prone region likely to suffer more droughts if present climate changes continue. The gloomy outlook for droughts in southern Africa was highlighted by Lloyd's of London, the world's oldest insurer. In May 2007, Lloyd's cited global warming as the cause for drought that is increasing in many parts of the world, and particularly in southern Africa. Lloyd's has formed a partnership with other major groups, including Harvard University's Center for Health and Global Environment and the Insurance Information Institute, to study the severity and consequences of natural disasters that may arise in the future in many regions of the globe as a result of climate change.
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“Climate Change ‘Will Dry Africa.’” BBC News, November 29, 2005. < http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4479640.stm> (accessed September1, 2007).
“Drought and Wildland Fire.” UCAR:The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. < http://www.ucar.edu/research/climate/drought.jsp> (accessed September 1, 2007).
Drought is characterized by low precipitation compared to the normal amount for the region, low humidity , high temperatures, and/or high wind velocities. When these conditions occur over an extended period of time , drought causes low water supplies that are inadequate to support the demands of plants, animals, and people.
Drought is a temporary condition that occurs in moist climates. This is in contrast to the conditions of normally arid regions, such as deserts, that normally experience low average rainfall or available water. Under both drought and arid conditions, individual plants and animals may die, but the populations to which they belong survive. Both drought and aridity differ from desiccation, which is a prolonged period of intensifying drought in which entire populations become extinct. In Africa and Australia , periods of desiccation have lasted two to three decades. The loss of crops and cattle in these areas caused widespread suffering. Extensive desiccation may lead to desertification in which most plant and animal life in a region is lost permanently, and an arid desert is created.
Unlike a storm or a flood, there is no specific time or event that constitutes the beginning or end of a drought. Hydrologists evaluate the frequency and severity of droughts based on measurements of river basins and other water bodies. Climatologists and meteorologists follow the effects of ocean winds and volcanoes on weather patterns that cause droughts. Agriculturalists measure a drought's effects on plant growth. They may notice the onset of a drought long before hydrologists are able to record drops in underground water table levels. By observing weather cycles, meteorologists may be able to predict the occurrence of future droughts.
In addition to its duration, the intensity of a drought is measured largely by the ability of the living things in the affected vicinity to tolerate the dry conditions. Although a drought may end abruptly with the return of adequate rainfall, the effects of a drought on the landscape and its inhabitants may last for years.
Many factors affect the severity of a drought's impact on living organisms. Plants and animals are vulnerable to drought when stored water cannot replace the amount of moisture lost to evaporation . Plants and animals have several mechanisms that enable them to tolerate drought conditions. Many desert annuals escape drought altogether by having a short life span. Their life cycle lasts only a few weeks during the desert's brief, moist periods. The rest of the time they survive as dessication-resistant seeds . Some plants, such as cacti, evade drought by storing water in their tissues, while others, like mesquite trees, become dormant. Still others, such as the creosote bush, have evolved adaptations such as reduced leaf size and a waxy coating over the leaves that protect against water loss. Many animals that live in areas prone to drought like snakes and lizards forage and hunt at night, avoiding the desiccating effects of the sun's rays. Other animals have adaptations that allow them to survive without drinking, obtaining all of the water that they need from their food sources.
Studies of tree rings in the United States have identified droughts occurring as early as 1220. The thickness of annual growth rings of some tree species , such as red cedar and yellow pine, indicates the wetness of each season. The longest drought identified by this method began in 1276 and lasted 38 years. The tree ring method identified 21 droughts lasting five or more years during the period from 1210 to 1958. The earliest drought recorded and observed in the United States was in 1621. The most well-known American drought was the Dust Bowl on the Great Plains from 1931 to 1936. The years 1934 and 1936 were the two driest years in the recorded history of U.S. climate. The Dust Bowl encompassed an area approximately 399 mi (644 km) long and 298 mi (483 km wide) in parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma. More recently, the United States experienced severe to extreme drought in over half of the country during 1987–89. This drought was the subject of national headlines when it resulted in the extensive fires in Yellowstone National Park in 1988.
Droughts have also had enormous impact in other regions of the world. A drought in northern China in 1876 dried up crops in an extensive region. Millions of people died from lack of food. Russia experienced severe droughts in 1890 and 1921. The 1921 drought in the Volga River basin caused the deaths of up to five million people—more than had died during World War I, which had just ended. India normally receives most of its rain during the monsoon season, which lasts from June to September. Winds blowing in from the Indian Ocean bring most of the country's rainfall during this season. The monsoon winds did not come during two droughts in 1769 and 1865. An estimated 10 million people died in each of those droughts, many from diseases like smallpox , which was extremely contagious and deadly because people were already weakened from lack of food. More recent severe droughts occurred in England (1921, 1933–34, and 1976), Central Australia (1945–72), and the Canadian prairies (1983–5).
Almost the entire continent of Africa suffered from droughts in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Ethiopia, usually considered the breadbasket of eastern Africa, was hit by a brutal drought in the early 1980's. A dry year in 1981 resulted in low crop yields. Three years later, another dry year led to the deaths of nearly a million people. Drought conditions again threatened eastern Africa in 2002. An estimated 15 million people in Ethiopia, three million in Kenya, 1.5 million in Eritrea and three million in Sudan could face starvation as a result of drought. According to the World Health Organization, drought is the cause of death for about half the people who are killed by natural disasters.
Between 1968 and 1973, Sahel (a region in east Burkina, a country in western Africa) suffered a great drought. An estimated 50,000–200,000 people died as a result. While the causes of these great African droughts are unknown, research is beginning to indicate that droughts could result from a combination of global and local climate patterns. Satellite imagery links El Niño and vertical ocean mixing patterns to dry weather in Sahel. In addition, desertification may be a positive feedback mechanism driving the climate towards drought conditions. In regions where there are few surface water reservoirs such as Sahel, the major source of precipitation is transpiration from plants. As plants become sparse in drought conditions, this source of water for precipitation is diminished. The diminished precipitation further decreases the growth of vegetation.
Since 1994, drought and famine in North Korea have been worsened by the political situation. The government of North Korea has allowed its people to starve rather than continue talks with South Korea and famine relief organizations. Over 50% of the children in North Korea are suffering from malnutrition and lack of water, and countless numbers have perished. The drought may accelerate political problems in the region if starving refugees from North Korea flee to China and South Korea.
Because drought is a natural phenomenon, it cannot be eradicated. Consequently, methods to mitigate its devastating effects are crucial. Crop and soil management practices can increase the amount of water stored within a plant's root zone. For example, contour plowing and terracing decreases the steepness of a hillside slope and thus, reduces the amount and velocity of water runoff. Vegetation protects the soil from the impact of raindrops, which causes both erosion and soil crusting (hardening of the soil surface that prevents rain from percolating into the soil where it is stored). Both living plants and crop residues left by minimum tillage reduce soil crusting so the soil remains permeable and can absorb rainfall.
Other farming practices that lessen the impact of drought on crop production include strip cropping, windbreaks, and irrigation . Windbreaks or shelterbelts are strips of land planted with shrubs and trees perpendicular to the prevailing winds. Windbreaks prevent soil, with its moisture-retaining properties, from being blown away by wind. Plants can also be specifically bred to adapt to the effects of weather extremes. For example, shorter plants encounter less wind and better withstand turbulent weather. Plants with crinkled leaves create small pockets of still air that slow evaporation.
From a social standpoint, drought severity is influenced by the vulnerability of an area or population to its effects. Vulnerability is a product of the demand for water, the age and health of the population affected by the drought, and the efficiency of water supply and energy supply systems. Drought's effects are more pronounced in areas that have lost wetlands that recharge aquifers, are dependent on agriculture, have low existing food stocks, or whose governments have not developed drought-response mechanisms.
Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2001.
Defreitas, Stan. The Water-Thrifty Garden. Dallas: Taylor Publishing Company, 1993.
White, Donald A., ed. Drought: A Global Assessment. New York: Routledge Publishers, 2000.
KEY TERMS. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
—A formation of soil or rock that holds water underground.
- Arid climate
—A climate that receives less than 10 in (25 cm) of annual precipitation and generally requires irrigation for agriculture.
—Water particles that are condensed from the atmosphere and fall to the ground as rain, dew, hail or snow.
Of all natural disasters, drought is the most subtle. Often, farmers cannot tell there is going to be a drought until it is too late. Unlike flash floods, drought is slow to develop. Unlike earthquakes, with destruction to the exterior environment , drought does its damage underground long before dust storms rage across the plains.
Technically, drought is measured by the decrease in the amount of subsoil moisture that causes crops to die or yield less (agricultural drought) or by a drop in the water level in surface reservoirs and below ground aquifers, causing wells to go dry (hydrological drought). Agricultural plus hydrological drought can lead to sociological drought. In this condition, drought effects food and water supplies to the extent that people have to rely on relief donations or are forced to migrate to another area.
Droughts are worldwide, repetitive, and unpredictable. Scientists believe there is a drought somewhere on the earth at any time. Nor are droughts recent developments; analysis of rock cores, glacial ice cores, and tree rings reveal prehistorical and historical droughts, some of which lasted for several decades. Tree rings in California, for example, record a 40-year-drought 300 years ago.
The direct cause of drought is a continued decrease in optimal rainfall. But what causes clouds not to form over an area, or the winds to carry rain-bearing clouds elsewhere, is complex. Climate change will alter the location of increased and reduced rainfall, so that some places that have always been well-watered will experience drought.
Some scientists believe that El Niño-La Niña events in the western Pacific Ocean are main drivers in the cause of droughts around the world. El Ni ño , an eastward flow of warm surface waters, creates a high pressure zone over the equator that results in a change in the high and low pressure zones in other parts of the world. This affects the flow of the jet stream and results in a disturbed rainfall pattern, causing, for example, excessive rain in California and drought in southwestern Africa, among other places. The La Ni ña , which usually follows El Niño, is an upwelling of cold deep waters in the western Pacific Ocean. It causes disturbed pressure zones that result in droughts in the Midwest, among other places.
Drought prediction is still in its infancy. Although scientists know that El Niño-La Niña events cause droughts in specific areas, they cannot yet predict when El Niño will occur. Weather satellites can measure subsoil moisture, a good indicator of incipient drought, but other factors also contribute to drought.
Lack of rain, for example, in the Sahel , is exacerbated by man-made environmental problems, such as cutting down trees for fuel and not allowing the soil to lie fallow, which conserves soil moisture. Overgrazing by animals such as cattle, goats, and sheep also contributes to the denuding of topsoil , which blows away in the wind, a condition known as desertification . Drought then becomes a cycle that feeds on itself: lack of trees reduces the amount of water vapor given off into the atmosphere ; lack of topsoil reduces water retention. The result is that local rainfall is reduced, and the rain that does fall runs off and is not absorbed. Lack of rain has been the reason for five years of consecutive drought in Texas. The total amount of profit loss from 1998 until 2002 is estimated at $3.7 billion dollars.
Of all the water on the earth, less than 3% is fresh water. A lot of water is lost in evaporation, especially in arid climates, not only during rainfall but when it is stored in surface reservoirs. Rainwater or snowmelt that seeps into below-ground permeable rock channels, or aquifers, is pumped into wells in many communities. High-tech pumps have contributed to an increased drain on aquifers; if an aquifer is pumped too quickly, it collapses, and the ground above sinks. To increase water bank supplies, some communities recharge their aquifers by pumping water into them when they are low.
The only new water introduced into the hydrologic cycle is purified ocean water. Desalinization plants are expensive to build and maintain and often require burning fossil fuels or wood to run. Future plans include perfecting retrieving solar energy and wind energy .
Currently, farm irrigation uses most of the world's fresh water supply, but as city populations grow, they are expected to become the biggest consumers, and urban conservation measures will become imperative. Some communities already recycle wastewater for small farms and domestic garden use. Drought-causing industrial pollutants that "freeze" the water supply by rendering it toxic are being reduced and resolved under federal law. Reduced or low-flow shower heads and toilets are required in new construction in some states.
Distributing water from more to less abundant supplies by laying pipes and installing pumps within a state or a country requires money and management. If water is fed across state or international boundaries, legal and political negotiations are necessary.
During severe drought, sociologists find that people must either adapt, migrate, or die. Death, however, is usually caused by other factors such as war or poverty, as in the Sahel, where relief food supplies have been hijacked and sold at high prices, or where people in remote villages must walk to the distribution centers.
Some migrations have been permanent, as in the migration to California during the Midwestern Dust Bowl in the 1930s. Others are temporary, as in the Sahel region, where people migrate in search of food and water, crossing country lines.
Most people adapt in drought by making the most of their resources, such as building reservoirs or desalination plants or laying pipes connecting to more abundant water supplies. Farmers often invest in high-tech irrigation techniques or alter their crops to grow low-water plants, such as garbanzo beans.
Drought has also been the inspiration for inventions. The American West at the turn of the twentieth century gave rise to numerous rainmakers who used mysterious chemicals or noisemakers to attract rain. Most inventions failed or were unreliable, but out of the impetus to make rain grew silver iodide cloud-seeding, which now effects a 10–15% increase in local rainfall in some parts of the world.
[Stephanie Ocko ]
Drought is an extended period of exceptionally low precipitation. A drought can feature additional weather characteristics, including high temperatures and high winds.
Although low precipitation (rain, snow, or sleet) marks both droughts and deserts, the two are different. A desert is a region that experiences low precipitation as an everyday occurrence. A drought, on the other hand, is a temporary condition in which precipitation is abnormally low for a particular region. Droughts may occur at any time in any part of the world and last anywhere from days to weeks to decades.
The U.S. National Weather Service recognizes three categories of drought. A dry spell occurs when there is less than .03 inch (.08 centimeter) of rainfall during a minimum of 15 consecutive days. A partial drought occurs when the average daily rainfall does not exceed .008 inch (.02 centimeter) during a 29-day period. An absolute drought occurs when there is no measurable rainfall over a period of at least 15 days.
The intensity of a drought may be measured by the ability of living things in the affected area to tolerate the dry conditions. Some plants quickly fall prey to droughts while others, such as cacti and mesquite trees, survive dry conditions by either storing water in their tissues or by going dormant (a state in which growth activity stops). Although a drought may end abruptly with the return of adequate rainfall, the effects of a drought on the landscape and its inhabitants may last for years.
Droughts have taken place around the world throughout history. Some scientist theorize that droughts brought about the migrations of early humans. From 1876 to 1879, severe droughts in China caused the deaths of millions of people from lack of food. In 1921, a drought along the Volga River basin in Russia led to the deaths of almost five million people, more than the total number of deaths in World War I (1914–18).
The best-known American drought occurred on the Great Plains region during the mid-1930s. Labeled the Dust Bowl, the affected area covered almost 50 million acres in parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma. During this period, dust storms destroyed crops and buried agricultural fields with drifting sand and dust. As depicted by American writer John Steinbeck in his award-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath, many farm families had to abandon their land.
Drought and famine have severely affected areas throughout Africa. Beginning in the late 1960s, in the Sahel region south of the Sahara Desert in northern Africa, a prolonged drought contributed to the deaths of an estimated 100,000 people. The region was struck again by drought in the mid-1980s and early 1990s. War and drought in Ethiopia in the early 1980s brought about the starvation of an estimate one million people and the forced migration of hundreds of thousands of others.
Drought combined with social unrest continued to afflict many countries at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The African nations of Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and Sudan were all hit hard by a massive drought that began in the late 1990s. Conflicts like the
border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia slowed the delivery of famine aid. Devastating civil wars also worsened the effect of drought in the countries of Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The unrelenting droughts were the worst those countries had seen in decades.
The El Niño weather phenomenon typically brings about droughts in various parts of the world as it disrupts normal weather patterns. Perhaps one of the worst such droughts occurred in Southeast Asia as a result of the 1997–98 El Niño period. The monsoon rains that normally drench the area each September were delayed. Consequently, the jungle fires set by farmers to clear land were not damped by the usual rain, but instead raged out of control, propelled by hot winds. The smoke from the fires hung over Southeast Asia like a thick, dirty blanket. It quickly became the worst pollution crisis in world history. At least 1,000 people died from breathing the toxic air; several hundred thousand more were sickened.
Human impact on droughts
Soil that lacks humus (nutrient-rich material resulting from decaying plants) and the binding property of plant roots cannot absorb or retain moisture properly. Dry, crusty soil is easily moved by winds. The overgrazing of farm animals, the overcultivation of farmland, and the clear-cutting of forests all contribute to such soil conditions, adding to the severity of droughts.
[See also Erosion; Hydrologic cycle ]
Drought occurs when weather conditions are unusually dry over a period of time. Drought can occur in all climatic regions of the world, but tends to be worse and more frequent in semiarid places. The main consequence of a drought is a water shortage, which may soon have an adverse effect on human activities and well-being. Crop damage is one obvious early impact of a drought, leading to poverty and famine in vulnerable parts of the world like Africa.
Meteorologists can try to predict drought by monitoring rainfall and analyzing weather patterns. Water conservation measures may offset some of the harmful effects of a drought. It appears that droughts are becoming more widespread and more frequent, probably because of the effects of global warming. The existence of drought should focus attention on water as a precious resource that should never be wasted.
Historical Background and Scientific Foundations
The hydrological cycle is a natural process where water is recycled and purified. It evaporates into the air from lakes, rivers, or the ocean and eventually falls back down as precipitation in the form of rain or snow. Any disturbance of the hydrological cycle may lead to a period of reduced, or no, precipitation known as a drought. Precipitation depends on water vapor being carried by wind from a water source. But if these moisture-containing winds are replaced by dry winds, or become part of an anticyclone system, then the weather becomes dry and the sky persistently cloudless, setting the scene for a drought.
A drought may be short-lived or it may last for many years. A drought lasting for less than 14 days is generally known as a dry spell. Droughts tend to be cyclical. In the United States, they tend to occur every 22 years, with the midwestern states being most severely affected. The famous drought of 1933–1935, known as the Dust Bowl, affected 50 million acres in the Great Plains area bringing disaster to farmers through failed crops. This drought followed more than a decade of wind-driven soil erosion in the region, driven by intense agricultural cultivation and loss of natural windbreaks. In 1970 there was a severe drought in California lasting around 18 months. Temperatures soared and wildfires broke out in the dry conditions, causing millions of dollars worth of damage.
Drought can be defined in four different ways. Meteorological drought refers to how much precipitation has departed from its normal level for that region. In absolute terms, a drought in a particularly wet region would not be defined as such in a dry region. An agricultural drought occurs when the amount of water in the soil is no longer adequate to meet the needs of a particular crop. There is therefore a great deal of value in planting drought-resistant crops in drought-prone regions. Hydrological drought occurs when the surface and subsurface water supplies fall below what would normally be expected. A socioeconomic drought is one that has a clear impact on human activity, causing economic losses, health problems, or social unrest.
Impacts and Issues
The impact of a drought depends on how severe the lack of precipitation is, how long it lasts, and the size of the area affected. Droughts tend to be worse in semiarid places and those affected by human-made activity. Natural ecosystems often survive a drought through their adaptation to local dry conditions whereas domestic animals and introduced crops do not.
WORDS TO KNOW
DRY SPELL: A short period of drought, usually lasting less than 14 days.
HYDROLOGIC CYCLE: The overall process of evaporation, vertical and horizontal transport of vapor, condensation, precipitation, and the flow of water from continents to oceans.
RESERVOIR: The collection of naturally occurring fluids in the porosity of a subsurface rock formation.
Water is essential to life and most human economic and social activities. Drought causes crop damage, hunger, and disease through decreasing water supplies. It can also cause soil erosion, desertification, and the spread of forest fires. Drought is sometimes a factor in war. For instance, Arab pastoralists and African farmers co-existed peacefully in the Sudan until water scarcity created tensions. This is a factor in the genocide in the Darfur region.
Global warming appears to be increasing the frequency of drought and will do so in the future. Researchers for the National Center for Atmospheric Research say that the percentage of Earth’s land area affected by serious drought has more than doubled since the 1970s. To offset the impact of drought, water conservation must become a top priority.
Cunningham, W.P., and A. Cunningham. Environmental Science: A Global Concern. New York: McGraw-Hill International Edition, 2008.
National Weather Service Forecast Office. “What Is Meant by the Term Drought? http://www.wrh.noaa.gov/fgz/science/drought.hph?wfo=fgz (accessed February 22, 2008).
Think Quest. “Drought.” http://library.thinkquest.org/16132/html/drought.html (accessed February 22, 2008).
The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. “Drought’s Growing Reach: NCAR Study Points to Global Warming as Key Factor.” January 10, 2005. http://www.ucar.edu/news/releases/2005/drought_research.shtml (accessed February 22, 2008).
Drought is a temporary hazard of nature occurring from a lack of precipitation over an extended period of time. Drought differs from aridity, a permanent feature of climate restricted to regions of low rainfall. Rainfall deficiencies caused by a drought create a severe hydrologic imbalance resulting in considerable water shortages.
The beginning of a drought is typically determined by comparing the current meteorological situation to an average based on a 30-year period of record. This "operational" definition of drought allows meteorologists to analyze the frequency, severity, and duration of the aberration for any given historical period and aides in the development of response and mitigation strategies.
Characteristics of drought are highly variable from region to region, depending on atmospheric factors such as temperature , wind , relative humidity , and amount of sunshine and cloud cover. High temperatures and lots of sunshine can increase evaporation and transpiration to such an extreme that frequent rainfall is incapable of restoring the loss. Meteorological definitions of drought, therefore, may deviate from operational definitions and are usually based on the length of the dry period and the degree of dryness in comparison to the daily average.
Drought is more than a physical phenomena; an extended period of dryness can have a significant socioeconomic impact. Drought presents the most serious physical hazard to crops in nearly all regions of the world. The agricultural sector is usually the first to be affected by dryness, since crops are heavily dependent on stored soil water. In addition to a decline in agricultural products, a shortfall in the water supply can disrupt availability of other economic goods such as hydroelectric power. The 1988–89 Uruguay drought resulted in a significant decline of hydroelectric power because the dryness disrupted the streamflows needed for production.
See also Hydrologic cycle