Government Forecast Finds Nearly Two-Thirds of U.S. Experiencing Drought

Graphic: Annabel Driussi for Our Daily Planet

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

A new government climate forecast found that nearly two-thirds of the continental U.S. is in a moderate to exceptional drought that is expected to grow more severe over the coming months. 74 million people will likely experience the most significant spring drought since 2013, and although the southwestern U.S. is most impacted, states like Florida could be seeing its effects as well. Indeed, wildfires are possible even in places like New Jersey, where a “devastating” wildfire that burned down homes and businesses in residential Philadelphia was driven by 40 mph winds, according to the New Jersey Forest Fire Service’s video statement.

Why This Matters: Experts say these conditions may be here to stay. In January, water experts announced that the entire American west is experiencing a “forever drought” that exacerbates wildfires, biodiversity loss, water scarcity, and more. Droughts cost the U.S. economy much more than flooding. Since 1980, the most expensive droughts have caused nearly $259 billion in damage, while the most expensive floods have cost about $151 billion.  Experts say that people of color and Indigenous people, who are already less likely to have reliable access to safe drinking water, will be impacted the most.

What Remains

And as hurricane and wildfire seasons grow closer, states across the country are likely to see frequent and severe natural disasters.  “In many of the drought-impacted areas, rangeland and winter pastures have already experienced adverse effects,” said Jon Gottschalck, a meteorologist at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. The Arctic outbreak that struck the Great Plains and parts of the South in February left these lands damaged. Experts say that resulting low soil moisture combined with what is predicted to be a hotter-than-average summer, could accelerate drought, particularly in those regions. And as more severe drought conditions close in on the South and the Midwest, inequity will worsen as well. 

Experts say that drought produces a vicious cycle. When the ground has no moisture for the sun’s energy to evaporate, that energy heats the air, contributing to hotter temperatures in a given region. “Across the West, it is clear that climate change has increased temperatures essentially year-round, which has decreased mountain snowpack and increased evaporation — substantially worsening the severity of the ongoing drought conditions,” said UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain.

When rains return, temperatures won’t fall. Climate change is contributing to bigger, more devastating storms. And when violent rains fall on parched or damaged land, they can cause deadly mudslides. Crop yields and food supply chains may also be impacted. 78% of the nation’s wheat production is in drought-stricken areas. Nut production and supply chains in California may also be impacted greatly.

Flooding and Fire

Experts do expect one silver lining: reduced flooding. 128 million people were at risk of floods this time last year. This spring, that number is down to 82 million, and experts expect nearly all flooding to be minor with no property damage. But those experts warn that while flooding is expensive, it tends to be a short-term event. Wildfires exacerbated by drought can last for months on end and destroy millions of acres of forest and communities. In California, 2020 wildfires broke records for the most acres burned in a year and in Hawaii, deer populations are experiencing starvation due to a lack of water in their ecosystems.

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