Drought Affects Large Swaths Of U.S.

Jul 20, 2012
Originally published on July 20, 2012 1:42 pm
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Colorado has been at the center of another devastating story in recent days -the worst wildfires in its history. Those fires are just one consequence of record heat in a drought that has spread across the Rockies and the Midwest. Local news is filled with pictures of farmers gripping shriveled ears of corn and boats marooned in empty reservoirs. It's a drought that will go down in history, much like that of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, and another in the 1950s that hit the central plains and the Southwest.

Now, Southwesterners like Bill deBuys are no stranger to drought. DeBuys is a conservationist in Sante Fe, New Mexico who's written a book on drought there called "A Great Aridness." We reached him to ask the effects of this drought. Good morning.

BILL DEBUYS: Good morning. It's wonderful to be with you.

MONTAGNE: Why don't we begin by what has struck you the most about this drought in the Midwest?

DEBUYS: Well, the shocking thing is the number of new high temperature records. This is such a hot, hot drought. One statistic I've seen is that in June the nation set 2,284 new daily high records. And that, of course, puts so much more strain on the plants, the forests, the crops throughout the Midwest and the forests and the Rocky Mountains. So we're seeing more effect from this drought than we would from another drought of equal lack of precipitation, let's say.

MONTAGNE: So it's not just that there's very little rain but it's these high, high temperatures. What is the difference, if you can give us an example, of what would be different in terms of its effect?

DEBUYS: Well, the key thing about higher temperatures is that they mean more evaporation. And so with more evaporation you have effectively less moisture than you would have with lower temperatures. And so the plants suffer that much more. And so you have more die-back. Last year, with the terrific heat wave in Texas and Oklahoma, the Texas Department of Forestry estimated that between two and 10 percent of all the trees in Texas died. It was extraordinary.

MONTAGNE: And that would seem to suggest that if you have more plants and flora dying than you would in a normal drought, that it will be harder to recover.

DEBUYS: Yes. Because the whole system is stressed beyond its limits, and so recovery would take that much longer. In a way we shouldn't be surprised by this. The climate change models that have been out there for quite some time have been telling us that the world is going to get hotter, the Southwest in particular is going to get hotter, and that drought (unintelligible) strange weather patterns will be superimposed on this baseline that is hotter than the past.

And so their impact is going to be more severe and the damage they do will be still greater.

MONTAGNE: Take a moment to compare this to other droughts. I mean, the one most easily famous drought of the 20th century helped lead to the Dust Bowl. What is so different about this one than that one?

DEBUYS: Well, we don't have as much information about the Dust Bowl drought as we do, say, the drought of the 1950s, which is actually more severe. And scientists researching that drought found that the dry times we had in the years 2000, 2001, '03 and '04, that drought was about one to one and a half degrees centigrade hotter than the drought of the 1950s.

And so although the drought of the 1950s was longer, and actually drier than the drought of the early 2000s, the drought of the early 2000s resulted in more vegetation death, more tree death.

MONTAGNE: What about the future? Is this the sort of weather that people in the Midwest can expect in years to come?

DEBUYS: You know, you don't say that the Sahara Desert is expecting drought or is experiencing drought. Drought is normal for the Sahara. These kinds of very dry conditions are going to become increasingly normal for us, so that what we used to say was drought in, let's say, the '50s or the '60s is becoming the new normal for the future.

If we go back to the predictions of the climatologists who work on climate change and global warming, they're telling us that this new amped-up hotter Earth's atmosphere that we're creating is going to have more extreme weather, more highs and more lows, but the general trend, nevertheless, is going to be hotter and hotter.

MONTAGNE: Bill DeBuys is a writer and conservationist in New Mexico, speaking to us from Santa Fe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.