Hurricanes announce themselves on radar screens before slamming into an unlucky coast. Tornadoes strike with little warning, but no one can doubt what's going on the moment a black funnel cloud touches down. If we're lucky, a tsunami offers a brief tip-off the unnatural sight of the ocean swiftly retreating from the beach before it cuts a swath of death and destruction.
But a drought is different. It begins with a few dry weeks strung end to end, cloudless skies and hot weather. Lawns brown as if toasted, and river and lake levels drop, like puddles drying after the rain. Farmers worry over wilting crops as soil turns to useless dust. But for most of us, life goes on as normal, the dry days in the background until one moment we wake up and realize we're living through a natural crisis. Weather experts describe drought generally defined as a protracted period of deficient precipitation as the "creeping disaster": though it destroys no homes and yields no direct death toll, drought can cost billions of dollars, lasting for months and even years. Alex Prud'homme author of a new book on water called The Ripple Effect compares drought to a "python, which slowly and inexorably squeezes its prey to death."
This summer the python has gripped much of the southern U.S., from the burned fringes of Arizona singed by massive wildfires to usually swampy Georgia. Hardest hit is Texas, which is suffering through the worst one-year drought on record, receiving an average of just 6.53 in. (17 cm) of rain so far this year, well off the 34 in. (86 cm) it receives over a normal 12 months. At the end of July, a record-breaking 12% of the continental U.S. was in a state of "exceptional drought" the most severe ranking given by the National Drought Mitigation Center. More than 2 million acres (809,000 hectares) of farmland in Texas have been abandoned, and streets are cracking as trees desperately draw the remaining moisture from the ground. Taps are dry in one North Texas town.
The South has suffered crippling droughts in the past, but this time could be different and worse. The driest regions are also the ones that have grown fastest in recent years, which means millions more Americans are living in rapidly expanding cities like San Antonio, Austin and Phoenix that can be dry in even the wettest years.
And there's evidence when it comes to rainfall, at least that the good years we've enjoyed in the past may have been more of an aberration than we realize. The Southwest in particular has a history over the past two millennia of severe droughts that lasted for decades; deeper in the geologic past, dust bowls endured for centuries. Just as worrying, climate change is expected to further dry out much of the region, multiplying the impact of population growth and expanding demand for water. What the South is facing may be not just a drought but the first signs of a permanent dry, one to which we'll need to adapt if we can.
Texas Runs Dry
Who's suffered the most in the drought of 2011? It could be farmers forced to plow under their fields for lack of rainfall or fishermen who've lost their oyster catch to the increasingly saline waters of Galveston Bay or even homeowners who've watched the foundations of their houses crack inside the bone-dry ground. But it's the donkeys who may have the saddest story. With pasture land all but dried up the federal government has rated 94% of Texas pasture and rangeland as poor or very poor, the worst rating on record ranchers in Texas have had to either buy expensive hay for their grazing cattle or prematurely sell off cattle to feedlots. (Some ranchers have had to sell triple the usual number of cattle, and losses have exceeded $1.2 billion.) Many ranchers also own donkeys to guard their herds the pack animals chase away predators like coyotes but they have little value on the open market. As a result, hundreds of donkeys have simply been abandoned to the wild.