DROUGHT: Monitoring Economic, Environmental, and Social Impacts

Image of a drought stricken family farm corn crop

In August 2012 this drought stircken family farm in Missouri Valley, Iowa, was just one example of the drought impacts in the area that caused rising grain prices throughout the year. Credit: The U.S. Department of Agriculture

Drought and drought impacts are really two sides of the same coin. We cannot fully understand drought without also understanding its impacts, which can affect all parts of our environment and our communities. Understanding drought conditions, societal vulnerability, and their related effects on one another provide us with historical lessons that can aid in dealing with future drought conditions.

Drought does not always offer the same immediate and dramatic visuals associated with events such as hurricanes and tornadoes, but it still has a huge price tag. In fact, droughts rank second in types of phenomena associated with billion-dollar weather disasters during the past three decades. With annual losses nearing $9 billion per year, drought is a serious hazard with substantial socioeconomic risks for the United States.

These costly drought impacts come in a variety of forms. Examples of economic impacts include farmers who lose money because drought destroyed their crops or ranchers who may have to spend more money to feed and water their animals. Economic impacts can be both direct, such as decreases in dairy production, and indirect, as seen by increases in the price of cheese.

In addition to the economy, drought also affects the environment and society. Plants and animals depend on water, just as people do. Drought can shrink their food supplies and damage their habitats. Sometimes this damage is only temporary, and other times it is irreversible. Drought can also affect people’s health and safety. Examples of drought impacts on society include anxiety or depression about economic losses, conflicts when there is not  enough water, reduced incomes, fewer recreational activities, higher incidents of heat stroke, and even loss of human life.

Drought conditions can also provide a substantial increase in wildfire risk. As plants and trees wither and die from a lack of precipitation, increased insect infestations, and diseases—all of which are associated with drought—they become fuel for wildfires. Long periods of drought can equate to more wildfires and more intense wildfires, which affect the economy, the environment, and society in many ways such as by destroying neighborhoods, crops, and habitats..

To help decision makers and the public address these issues, the National Integrated Drought Information System provides assessments of drought conditions through systematic categorization and reporting of impacts. By considering the economic, environmental, and social impacts of drought, scientists can study specific events and their underlying meteorological contributors to improve future societal preparedness.

Some tools that help scientists monitor and assess drought impacts include the National Drought Mitigation Center’s Drought Impact Reporter, which is a web-based tool that allows individuals to characterize drought impacts in their area. Additionally, the National Weather Forecast Offices produce Drought Information Statements for affected areas, which include information about impacts. And, on the international scale, the U.S. Agency for International Development and its partners collaborate to produce the Famine Early Warning System.

This is part of a series of articles about monitoring and assessing drought conditions across the United States. Check back next week to learn more about the products used for drought monitoring or check out the how degrees of drought reveal the true picture.