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Droughts can have long-standing effects on populations and economies. Here are questions and answers about the recent history of droughts and how to handle a drought.
Q. Where do droughts occur in the United States?
A. The Great Plains is the area of our country most at risk for droughts. This includes parts of ten states—Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. This area is normally fertile farmland and ranch land, but the region is visited regularly by drought. Drought in other parts of the world frequently leads to famine, as crops are damaged and food supplies suffer.
Q. What causes a drought?
A. A number of different weather patterns can lead to a prolonged period of dry weather, but all of them are related to stationary systems that prevent the usual ebb and flow of weather and block the normal pattern of rainfall in a particular region. For the eastern and central United States, drought occurs when a ridge in the jet stream stalls over the middle of the country. On the West Coast, where the rainy season is usually the winter months, a high-pressure system stuck in the north brings a dry season. El Niño and its accompanying disruption of normal weather patterns also can play a role.
Q. What’s the worst drought we’ve had in the United States?
A. The most well-known drought in the United States came to be known as the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Years of unwise tillage, followed by strong winds and drought, blew away miles of fertile topsoil from the country’s central plains between 1930 and 1935.
It was the stuff of which movies were made. Lives were broken or reshaped as farmers were ruined, forced to move, or forced to give up farming altogether. It affected 97 million acres of land, including the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles and parts of Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico. The harvest of 1933 was dismal. The dust storms were followed by plagues of spiders, grasshoppers, and jackrabbits.
One of the worst dust storms, on April 14, 1933, in Pampa, Texas, caused Woody Guthrie to pen the song “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You.” The term dust bowl was coined by Associated Press reporter Robert Geiger, writing from Guymon, Oklahoma. The prolonged period of weird weather also produced another term, snuster, which is a combination of snow and dust driven by strong, cold winds.
Q. What can I do with my garden in drought conditions?