Scientists and historians are calling the current dry spell—which began to manifest itself during the year 2010 over the southern United States and then spread to the north and west—as the worst drought since the 1950s. The current drought has exceeded, in most measures, the 1988 North American drought, and is on track to exceed that drought as the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. Low snowfall amounts in winter coupled with intense summer heat, particularly over the Southwestern States, are the primary cause for the current drought-like conditions.
But drought, like other weather phenomena, fluctuates. Over the past few years, some regions that were suffering from prolonged drought conditions saw a sudden reversal in the arid conditions. For example, on July 17, 2012, as much as 81 percent of the United States was categorized as having abnormally dry conditions. But during the spring of 2013, heavy rainfall helped to alleviate the drought over the Midwest and Southeast United States. In fact, parts of the Midwest went from severe drought, to excessive rainfall, to widespread flooding problems within a matter of weeks, a pattern that Dr. Jeff Masters, Director of Meteorology for the online service, Weather Underground referred to as “weather whiplash.”
In March 2015, about 60 percent of the United States was experiencing abnormally dry conditions. This included parts of the Tennessee and Mississippi Valleys, as well as the Dakotas and Minnesota. The areas that were suffering from “exceptional drought” conditions, included northern Texas, western Nevada, and much of central and southern California.
According to the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) certain weather and climate extremes, such as more frequent or severe floods and droughts, are predicted to be more likely with climate change. However, the role of climate change in the current drought is uncertain. Conditions have been as bad or worse than the current drought numerous times in our instrumental record, maintained by NOAA. According to a 2012 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in some regions including central North America, droughts have become less frequent, less intense, or shorter in duration since about 1950. Conditions over the Great Plains and Midwest have been as bad or worse than the current drought numerous times according to long-term weather records.
As to whether the current drought will soon come to an end, or whether it will expand into other regions of the country, Brian Fuchs, of the U.S. Drought Monitor, said it best: “Mother Nature is always going to throw us that curve ball. As much as we think we have things cornered and we know what’s going to be happening, you just don’t know what will happen.”
This story is an excerpt from When The Rains Won’t Come — A Look At Five Historical Droughts (and one current one), pages 166-171 the 2016 edition of the Farmers’ Almanac.
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