Drought & Climate Change

How are they connected?

Climate 101 > Impacts > Drought and Climate Change

In a Flash

  • Worldwide, droughts are becoming more severe and more common due to global warming
  • Droughts amplify other climate change effects, such as heat waves
  • Preparing for more severe future droughts will help communities adapt to changing conditions

The Climate Connection

Recent extreme droughts, such as the 2011-2016 California drought and the 2010-2013 Texas drought, are expected to become more common as the Earth’s temperature warms. Drought occurs when there are not enough water resources to support a community of plants, animals, and/or people.

Coping With Climate Change: 2 Texas Towns Struggle for Water

“The recent drought and record temperatures in Texas put an unprecedented strain on water resources across the state. PBS reports on the plight of two towns in their struggle for water.”

Source: PBS

Droughts in one place look different from droughts in another. Regions with dry climates will likely experience even more severe droughts than usual. Regions with wetter climates that typically do not experience drought may begin to experience them due to the global warming associated with climate change.

Dr. Gavin Schmidt, Director of NASA's Goddard Institute

“The planet is warming. The reason it’s warming is because we are pumping increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.”

MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change

“The question today is no longer if climate change is happening, but how we can confront the social, economic and health challenges it presents.”

Alan Mulally, Former CEO of Ford

“The time for debating whether climate change is real has passed. It is time for a conversation about what we, as a society, intend to do to address it.”

Effects and Consequences

The consequences of drought affect people, animals, plants, water bodies, and the land itself. These impacts can cascade and amplify other effects of climate change. For example, plants that don’t get enough water during drought will face water stress, making them much more susceptible to death by drying out or being invaded by pests. If a fire starts, these dry dead plants burn easily and facilitate the fire’s spread. Soil that dries out as a result of drought becomes hard and brittle, forming a solid layer at the surface that water cannot penetrate easily. This increases the chance of flooding and mudslides because the rain water cannot easily infiltrate, or absorb, into the soil. Because the rain water does not infiltrate into the soil, groundwater aquifers don’t get replenished as much. Wild animals and livestock that don’t have enough water will become stressed, which increases competition among individuals and makes it harder for populations to thrive.

Carbon Emissions Could Dramatically Increase Risk of U.S. Megadroughts

“Droughts in the U.S. Southwest and Central Plains during the last half of this century could be drier and longer than drought conditions seen in those regions in the last 1,000 years, according to a new NASA study.”

Source: NASA

People face a number of problems when drought occurs. Water scarcity, the lack of available water to meet the water demand in a region, is predicted to worsen in the future due to global warming and population growth. Droughts often disrupt the most essential uses of water, like daily cleaning, eating, and drinking. Water stress on crops, livestock, and managed lands could put financial stress on individuals and the overall economy. For example, the 2010-2013 Texas drought cost farmers and ranchers about $8 billion in lost profits.

How are climate & weather different?

Climate means the long term behavior of weather. Weather is local and short-term; climate describes the average weather for a region at a given time of year based on historical patterns. Climate change means the average temperature and precipitation is not following those old patterns.

Where is there scientific agreement?

The world’s leading scientific organizations, including MIT and NASA, agree that human-caused climate change is happening and just a few more degrees of warming will increase the risk of intense storms, sea level rise and other extreme weather events.

How much warming has happened?

People have caused about 1.5ºF of unnatural warming by putting greenhouse gases into the air since 1889. While it may not sound like much, the extra warming has been linked to some natural disasters such as wildfires in the U.S. and drought in the Mediterranean.

Solutions

There is no silver bullet solution to drought. The right solution for a community experiencing drought will depend on the climate, existing infrastructure, budget, and willingness to support new ways of using or getting water. Water agencies, farmers, and individuals can better manage drought by reducing their water demand and/or increasing supply. Water agencies can improve water infrastructure that provide water to millions by fixing leaks or investing in technologies such as stormwater capture, rainwater harvesting, wastewater reuse, and desalination to increase water supply.

Farmers can also invest in better technology or irrigation practices to improve their water efficiency. Water conservation at home is one way to reduce demand, for example by taking shorter showers or replacing grass with drought tolerant landscaping. Improved water efficiency also helps reduce demand by fixing leaks or using more water-efficient appliances. Predicting future droughts and preparing for future water shortages will help communities adapt better to changing conditions.

Sources and Citations

  1. NASA, “Climate Change: Impacts”: www.climate.nasa.gov.
  2. MIT, “Climate Change: Impacts”: www.climate.nasa.gov.
  3. MIT, “Climate Change: Impacts”: www.climate.nasa.gov.

Photographs

  1. Fred Hotchkins, NASA.

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