Field Notes: The historical impact of drought
This is the latest installment of Harvest Public Media’s Field Notes, in which reporters talk to newsmakers and experts about important issues related to food production.
Over the last three years, the Midwest has gone from flooding to drought and back to flooding. This is a case of “weather whiplash,” a term first used in April by Jeff Masters, a meteorologist and co-founder of the online weather forecasting site Weather Underground.
Farmers couldn’t get into their fields this spring, thanks to flooding and washouts. And those same farmers faced a record-setting drought last summer that devastated their crops. During an interview for an NPR story on the farmers' plight, Masters said he was glad the media covers the issue because it's important to watch the larger historical patterns of drought.
Drought is absolutely critical to our future and it's the number one concern I have with climate change. Drought affects the two things we need to live: food and water. And if you look at the history of human civilization, drought has been responsible for crashing civilizations more than any other weather phenomena. You look at the ancient Mayans, they declined because of drought. The pueblo people, a.k.a. the Anasazis of the Southwest U.S., even the ancient Egyptians, it's thought that drought may have contributed to the fall of that civilization. Past history says we need to be concerned with drought. And the computer climate models we have also say drought is going to be a huge issue going forward into the future -- in the U.S. in particular, and also in southern Europe.
Masters said although farmers in the Midwest are cursing the wet weather, the U.S. still isn't out of the record-setting drought of last year.
It's still very intense over the western U.S. Fortunately over our grain producing areas, it's improved quite a bit. (For the next few months) I don't see any change from the pattern than we've had over about the last month or two. Very wet over the central U.S. and eastern U.S. and very dry over the West. There's just going to be a very sharp dividing line. There's going to be the haves and have nots right next to each other.
Part of the difficulty in talking about drought is there are different ways to define it.
One is meteorologically, one is agriculturally and another, you can talk about soil runoff, hydrological drought. So it all depends on what segment of the economy you're talking about, what kind of drought is most important. Drought is difficult to characterize and we don't have a lot of good measurements to do it. I mean, it would be nice if we had soil measurements everywhere to say, you know, how moist the soil is. But we don't have many of those. So we kind of wing it. We have models which say, well, based on the amount of rainfall that's happened and the amount of heat, here's what we expect the impacts are to crops.
How bad was it last year for Midwestern farmers? Listen to Harvest Public Media's award-winning piece by Frank Morris on how the drought affected the Arkansas River Basin.