Drought of Sight, Drought of Mind: Agroecology, not Amnesia, to Survive the Droughts of the Future

, senior scientist | July 31, 2015, 1:43 pm EDT
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Do you remember: (a) Where the Olympic Games were held in 2012? (b) the name of the hurricane that devastated the East Coast that year? (c) who won the 2012 World Series? (d) What percent of the US was covered by the 2012 drought? or (e) out of the top 100 costliest US disasters recorded, where that drought ranked? (check your answers below)

Houston, we have a problem


Eastern Washington, July 2015. Currently, 99.99% of Washington is experiencing at least Severe Drought. Let’s not forget that it’s never too early to start thinking about mitigating the next big drought.

How did you do? If you got (d) and (e), I’m impressed. But, my guess is that many people either never knew, or can’t remember, the scope of the 2012 drought. Unless, perhaps, you are from Texas, where a three-year drought kicked off in 2011, when 97% of the state was in at least extreme drought by October. But, here is my point: with a costly, record-breaking, near-nationwide drought in our recent past, combined with an on-going record-breaking, media-drenched drought in California, I’d like to see more evidence that we’re getting at the roots of this problem. And not just in California.

Duck and cover (and, condolences to the ducks)

Confronting the actual cause of the problem is one option. Another is crisis management. We should be working on both (in fact, California is making strides—stay tuned to their sustainable groundwater legislation and Healthy Soils Initiative). However, as a nation, we put a larger share of our resources into the latter.

For example, in 2012 the total payments for losses through crop insurance reached $16 billion. Yes, $16 billion. Enough to build nine space shuttles. Or, nine times NASA’s Earth Science budget which, notably, funds critical investigations of groundwater supplies, storm forecasts and drought predictions (but might be cut by millions of dollars this year – find out more here and here). In addition to crop insurance, in 2012 the federal government responded with other important relief, including purchasing $170 million of livestock and fish products.

Recently, President Obama announced funding of $110 million for current drought and wildfire relief. These funds are certainly needed, and boost the $190 million already spent this year on related topics. Fortunately, at least a fraction of these funds have actually been directed to conservation-based research and practice, but it seems to me that we could be paying a lot more up front to minimize the risk (and costs) of future droughts.

An account run dry, an uncharismatic monster?

It’s hard to get excited about the droughts of the future, and it’s no wonder. Other natural disasters are menacing enough to have sports teams named after them: the Carolina Hurricanes, San Jose Earthquakes, Miami Heat… you get the idea. On the other hand, nobody even wants to think about drought. To make matters worse, predicting drought is a little bit like accounting: expect “normal” rain, subtract water loss and consumption, and hope to have enough water in the account to avoid bankruptcy. That accounting is important, yes, but admittedly not the most confidence-inspiring business model in which to invest your livelihood (at least not for most), and can lead to destructive debts. So what’s to be done?

Farmers, ranchers, and a solution the size of Niagara Falls

It might be hard to get revved up about the droughts of the future but, nevertheless, we have solutions! As it turns out, the very folks who suffer the most from droughts—farmers and ranchers—can help to mitigate them. How? Well, the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has illustrated the solution quite neatly in an infographic which reads “For each 1% increase in organic matter, U.S. cropland could store the amount of water that flows over Niagara Falls in 150 days”. WOW. This means that helping farmers and ranchers acquire the tools they need to increase their soil organic matter can actually help to mitigate drought, which brings us to the next question:

If organic matter matters, how do we build it?

There are many ways that farmers and ranchers can build their soil organic matter. To name just a few: planting cover crops—crops that protect soils between seasons—adding organic amendments (like compost) to soils, reducing tillage to keep organic matter intact, and by applying other tried and true tenets of agroecology. These practices tend to add or protect organic matter in soils, allowing soils to act like a sponge, soaking up and holding onto more water whenever they get it. Of course, the proof is in the pudding. Just for one example, a study (Al-Kaisi et al. 2013) from Iowa evaluating the consequences of the 2012 drought found that the impact of drought on crops was lowest (and yields were highest) on fields that were managed to build their organic matter, such as no-till fields, or fields that were in crop rotation (e.g., as corn one year and soy the next, rather than just corn year after year).

Just add water…

Of course, the only thing that can really mitigate drought is water. However, investing in research and programs that discover the best ways to optimize our use of water when we have it is a no-brainer. Let’s keep these things in mind, even on rainy days.

 Trivia, but not trivial

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  • bwgirl

    There are no crystal balls when it comes to predicting drought; however, there are some good indicators. And some definite cause>effect situations building up across our country.

    Heat Sinks/Heat Islands>Convection


    Drought reinforces>reduction in rains because of lack of evaporation.

    Got that? That’s elementary science.

    However, it is also proven science when it comes to droughts.

    Solar farms produce temperatures of 1,000 degrees=heat islands

    Take a gander at what is happening across our nation, do a search for
    “US Planned Utility Scale Solar Projects in Advanced Development or Under Construction” Map Credit Whit Varner

    Report: California, N.C. top nation in developing utility-scale solar


    Now compare that with the Droughts that are going on and the wind patterns that move those rain storms across our country. The patterns have changed. They had to change because of CONVECTION.

    From Colorado State University Extension Master Gardener Program

    CMG GardenNotes #143

    Plant Growth Factors: Temperature

    “In Phoenix, Arizona, the urban heat island (with all their rock mulch instead of grass and trees) has significantly raised day and night temperatures. The upward convection of heat has become so strong that summer storms are going around the city and not raining on the urban heat island.”

    It was a PDF file.

    The more scientific explanation:

    Atmospheric Environment 34 (2000) 507}516

    Urban heat islands and summertime convective thunderstorms

    in Atlanta: three case studies

    Robert Bornstein*, Qinglu Lin

    Department of Meteorology, San Jose State University, San Jose, CA 95192, USA

    Received 12 April 1999; accepted 3 August 1999

    “Analysis by Bornstein and LeRoy (1990) has shown that New York City (NYC) effects both summer daytime thunderstorm formation and movement. During conditions with nearly calm regional flows, the NYC UHI initiated convective activity, thus producing a radar echo

    frequency maximum over the City. Moving thunderstorms, however, bifurcated and moved around the city due to a building-barrier-induced divergence effect. During such conditions, radar echo maxima were thus produced on both lateral edges of the City and downwind of the city, while a minimum was located over the city itself.”
    So, there is evidence in Urban settings that heat convection can actually move rain away from a given area. That’s what greening the rooftops and stuff is all about.

    However, Solar panels put off 1,000 degree temps and I doubt very much that anybody has made a connection to the convection of those massive solar farms and what is going on out in CA, the Southwest and now NC.

    When we start getting massive amounts of Convection going on, it will drastically change rain patterns.

    IF you don’t believe me, START TRACKING IT!!! You are scientists, it is YOUR responsibility to do so!

    Start tracking where the Solar Farms go in and start tracking where the rain moves to and away from.

  • Karin Noren

    And then there is Acres magazine… and others that are just not popular but great sources of info.