Across most of the United States, and parts of Canada and Mexico, things are hot, dry, and uncomfortable. Crops are withering in the ground. Farmers are struggling. Food prices are on the rise. And there is no end in sight.
Just about every year, some region of North America experiences drought conditions. 41 percent of the US were in drought this past week. (Take a look at current statistics here.) Annual losses from drought average $6 to $8 billion, with some major drought events impacting the economy by up to five times that amount. Occasionally — once every 20 to 30 years or so — these droughts last more than a couple of months and affect more than a small geographical area, rising to the level of a national disaster.
In the history of the 20th Century, there were at least three major drought events that reached emergency proportions, and a handful of others that were devastating on a smaller regional scale.
The Dust Bowl: 1933-1940
The Dust Bowl drought of the 1930s couldn’t have come at a worse time. At the height of the Great Depression, when farmers were forced to produce more and more just to keep up with their mounting financial burdens, a series of punishing droughts dried up America’s heartland. The moisture-deprived soil that had once grown much of the nation’s food crumbled and was picked up by the wind to form massive dust clouds that blocked out the sun for days at a time. Farmers, unable to pay their debtors, lost their land and moved westward in search of greener pastures. By the time the 1930s were over, 2.5 million people had migrated from the Plains states, many of them to California.
The Six-Year Drought: 1951-1956
The Depression and World War II were still fresh in Americans’ minds when the next major drought hit during the 1950s. Once again affecting the Great Plains, the Six-Year Drought came during a time of relative prosperity. Nevertheless, a 10-state area stretching from the Texas panhandle to the Rocky Mountains experienced its second major drought in less than 20 years. Temperatures above 100° F weren’t uncommon, and Dallas saw more than 50 such days during the summer of 1953. Some areas were hit even harder this time around than they had been during the Dust Bowl. By 1956, 244 of Texas’ 254 counties had been declared federal disaster areas.
The Three-Year Drought: 1987-1989
Thirty years after the six-year drought ended, another drought took hold, this time affecting areas farther north than the previous two had. Lasting three years and covering 30% of the nation, the 1980s drought appears less extreme on paper than its two predecessors. However, it was not only the most costly drought, at $39 billion in related losses, but also the most costly natural disaster of any kind in US history.
Are We Experiencing a New Dust Bowl?
As the US enters a second season of drought conditions for much of the south central portion of the country, with dry conditions now spreading across much of the country, could we be on track for another drought of Dust Bowl proportions?
The parallels with the 1930s, with the nation in the grip of an ongoing economic downturn, are certainly undeniable, and the effects of an extended drought could be just as devastating. Unfortunately, there is currently no real way to know how long a drought will last until after it has ended.
Climatologists who have studied historic droughts using tree rings, lake basins, and other natural indicators say droughts like those seen in the 1930s and 1950s tend to occur two to three times per century, which means the 20th Century saw a normal amount of major droughts.
In fact, the last 500 years have seen at least one drought that was more extreme than anything we’ve experienced in the last century. A severe three-year drought during the 16th Century, when colonists from Europe were first settling in North America, is thought to have been responsible for the disappearance of the so-called “Lost Colony” of Roanoke Island in present day North Carolina, and also caused difficulty for the Jamestown settlement in Virginia. Scientists don’t know yet how frequently droughts of this magnitude occur.
No matter how long the current drought lasts, the impacts are already being felt. Even areas that are fortunate enough to have rain will likely experience the effects when the cost of everything from an ear of corn to a pound of beef to a tank of gas rises over the coming weeks and months. Economists say the true cost of the current drought may not even be apparent for another year or more.
Let’s all pray for rain.
Jaime McLeod is a longtime journalist who has written for a wide variety of newspapers, magazines, and websites, including MTV.com. She enjoys the outdoors, growing and eating organic food, and is interested in all aspects of natural wellness.