With ~60% of the United States still under drought conditions, it’s time to start asking what this means and what this suggests. We know what it means agriculturally: the corn and soybean crops have been scorched, resulting in the lowest yields in nine years. Supply dropped below demand for the first time in 38 years and, as of mid-September, 52% of the country’s corn crop was rated poor to very poor in condition. Food prices have spiked as a result and are expected to push even higher in 2013 once the system fully absorbs the impact (beef up 4-5%, dairy up 3.5-4.5%, bakery products and cereals up 3-4%). Economically, we know the impact as well. At a local level, drought drives farmers into debt, cracks the foundations of homes and businesses, and causes water lines to burst. Nationally, the drought has put a dent in total output, reducing US GDP by ~1%. These are all measurable impacts of the drought and it leads to asking: what about the future?
We usually think of weather as fleeting, so when times are bad we know that good times will return eventually as long we endure. However, this particular drought may not be a temporary fluctuation, but indicative of a climate that has been fundamentally altered. Essentially, scientists are saying that this state could be the “new normal”. From NASA climatologist James Hansen:
“Over the next several decades, the Western United States and the semi-arid region from North Dakota to Texas will develop semi-permanent drought, with rain, when it does come, occurring in extreme events with heavy flooding. Economic losses would be incalculable. More and more of the Midwest would be a dust bowl. California’s Central Valley could no longer be irrigated. Food prices would rise to unprecedented levels.”
That’s a pretty dire outlook and one that should be taken seriously by anyone responsible for planning how food gets onto Americans’ dinner plates (I’m looking at you, USDA). America is, at present, a food-rich nation due mainly to vast tracts of farmland in the Midwest. If we are less able to rely on this area and drought is indeed the new normal, then the era of cheap food is over and we will have to adapt. If this region really is facing a new dust bowl, citizens will endure more hardship and the shock to our food system will be felt by every American.
What is this term “dust bowl” I’ve been throwing around? The term was coined in the 1930′s to describe a period of severe dust storms that caused massive economic and agricultural destruction on the prairies of the United States and Canada. The storms were caused by a combination of drought and short-sighted farming techniques which loosened topsoil. Topsoil dried to dust and was blown away by prevailing winds, creating huge dust storms that blackened the sky and often extended as far east as the Atlantic Ocean. Prairie residents suffered terribly as all that dust made everyday life miserable and the lack of topsoil made it very difficult to farm. Today, the Dust Bowl is viewed as a cautionary tale about what ignorance and greed can do to the land that sustains us.
Thankfully, we’ve ironed out some of our farming practices since then, which means it’s not as bad as it could be. Deep ploughing is used much less often and beneficial practices like no-till farming have helped to stabilize topsoil. If drought persists, however, the topsoil will continue to dry out and may lead to dust bowl conditions. I hope the drought lifts soon and that forecasts for the regions turn out to be wrong, but whether they are or not, climate change guarantees that this scenario will occur in regions across the globe. As temperatures rise, a hotter planet becomes a planet more hostile to life and for human interests.
(I’ve always had a mild fascination with the Dust Bowl period in American history, and, apparently, so has acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns. Check out this trailer for his new documentary about the Dust Bowl which airs this weekend on PBS.)