Long-term memories are not always wonderful.  In my case, often, I can’t find where I took off my shoes the night before, but I still have vivid memories of certain things that happened some 70 years ago.  This year, when drought is very much in the news, I’ve been remembering the summer of 1938, and me, a three-year old playing in the yard of my parent’s southeast Nebraska farm, when a dust storm hit. 

I was probably surrounded by the red dust blown all the way from Oklahoma for no more than two minutes before my mother rescued me but I still remember the stark terror I felt.  The dust storm was a by-product of one of the worst droughts in recent U. S. history that, coincidentally, paralleled the worst economic period in our history.

What is drought?  One definition is, “an extended period of deficiency in a water supply.”   

Consequences of drought include: water shortages and rationing; diminished crop production; dust bowls and storms; ecological and habitat damage; malnutrition and famine; and wildfires.  Drought is a normal feature of the climatic cycle in many parts of the world and is one of the earliest documented climate phenomena in early history.

An article in the National Geographic in 2002 linked migration of hunter gatherers in Chile in 9,500 B.C., to drought.

Why does drought occur? 

Rainfall is related to the amount of water vapor in the air;  the occurrence of greater than normal ridges of high pressure can prevent the rainfall in certain areas.  Ocean and atmospheric cycles such as El Nino (the Southern Oscillation) cause drought on a semi-regular basis in the Midwest and elsewhere in the U. S.  Human activity such as excessive irrigation, deforestation, and erosion can increase the consequences of drought by reducing the ability of the land to hold water.

Let’s examine a few consequences of drought.  Starvation (famine) often accompanies drought in underdeveloped countries that rely primarily on agrarian economies.  Developed countries are generally better equipped to handle drought but often at the cost of reduced agricultural production that, in turn, is responsible for higher food prices.  Reduced stream flows at critical times can lead to greatly diminished fish spawning, and impact wildlife that depend on fish for their food.   Decreased infiltration of rainwater can cause wells to go dry.

The July 31, 2012 edition of the U. S. Drought Monitor reported more than half the lower 48 states are presently experiencing severe to exceptional drought conditions and warmer than average temperatures.  Non-irrigated corn in Iowa, Illinois, Missouri and Nebraska, is in trouble or lost completely.  This will result in higher food prices and also may result in higher prices at the pump, because, in recent years, an increasing amount of corn has been sold to ethanol producers.

That drought and warmer temperatures are occurring in the U. S. is not a question, they are occurring.  Whether this is a natural cycle, or a natural cycle impacted by man’s activities, I don’t know, but if I had to guess, I would pick the latter. 

Note:  This column was previously published in the August 2012 Middleburg Eccentric.  It is reprinted because it is as timely now as it was then. Exceptional drought conditions continue to exist in California with no end in sight.