The 2012 U.S. Drought and Our Future

August 20, 2012 | 3:43 pm
Doug Boucher
Former Contributor

It’s now nearly a month since we started our series of blog posts on the 2012 Drought in America, and during that time we’ve seen its effects spread more and more widely through the network of connections that make up our modern global society.

Drought in AmericaThis is part of a series on the 2012 Drought in America.

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In our posts we’ve covered many of these impacts: on food prices, land prices, biofuels, electric power, and on the economy in general. We’ve looked at how the drought and the heat wave are interacting with each other, and how this combination is likely to be aggravated in coming decades. And we’ve considered ways to adapt to future droughts, through limited solutions like increased water use efficiency and crop breeding, and through the systemic change in our agricultural system that is necessary to make it sustainable over the long term.

Meanwhile, there have been new developments. There has been rain over parts of the Midwest, which has improved the situation somewhat along the eastern and southern edges of the drought region. But the drought remains severe over a large area of North America’s breadbasket, and as it continues, crops are dying. Because of low water, shipping conditions along the Mississippi River are described as “near critical.” The month of July has turned out to be the hottest ever recorded in the continental United States. Even in places that are used to extreme heat it has been brutal – e.g. temperatures of 110 degrees Fahrenheit or more for nine days in a row in Phoenix, Arizona.

Some of the things we talked about have shown up only days later in the news. The Wall Street Journal reported that Midwest farmland prices, which had already doubled over the past five prices, increased 26 percent in the three months ending June 30, compared to just a year earlier.

Reviewing the agricultural situation, the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City concluded that “Severe drought has had a profound impact on U.S. agriculture this summer. Crops have been devastated and prices have skyrocketed.”

A Midwestern farmer during an earlier drought.

Public opinion seems to have been affected too. In a July poll, 70 percent of Americans said that they thought the climate was changing — up 5 percent since March — while only 15 percent said that it’s not (down 7 percent). The change is especially notable among independent voters and those in drought-stricken southern states such as Texas.

Meanwhile, scientists are continuing to consider the broader implications of heat and drought. Jon Foley of the University of Minnesota, writing in the New York Times, pointed out that “it is hard to imagine a system more susceptible to bad weather than the American corn and soybean belt.” The Centers for Disease Control, the American Public Health Association and other organizations have responded to the drought by organizing a four-part webinar series beginning on Friday August 24 entitled “Drought: When Every Drop Counts.”

Coincidentally, an important new scientific paper was published on August 5 in the journal Nature Climate Change. The study, by Aiguo Dai of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, showed that in terms of recent observations of drought, the many global models are broadly consistent both with each other as well as with data. Furthermore, they give similar predictions to each other for the next few decades.

And those predictions are not encouraging. The map (see below) of the places where the models predict reduced precipitation (top) and more intense drought (bottom), includes North America, Europe, southern Africa, northern Latin America and Australia – key places in the world agricultural system.

Dai concludes that “the observed global aridity changes up to 2010 are consistent with model predictions, which suggest severe and widespread droughts in the next 30–90 years over many land areas.”

So, drought will likely be an increasing feature of our lives in the months, years, and decades to come. Although this is the last of our intensive, several-a-week postings on the 2012 Drought in America, we will definitely have occasion to return to the topic and its ramifications in the weeks to come.

The drought blog series is over, but the drought most certainly is not. And as the Kansas City Fed concluded, “the drought of 2012 will be forever engraved into the annals of agricultural history.”

Feature image: BotheredByBees,