It pales in comparison to the 400-year dry spell in Chile’s Atacama desert, but there’s no question that the U.S. is in the throes of a severe drought. And this summer’s parched conditions have resulted in all the usual side effects, including heat waves, wildfires and crop failures. Of course, this isn’t the first time the country has been starved for water. Here is our list of five especially notable droughts in U.S. history.
Honorary Mention: 2012 North American drought
It might seem premature to rank this summer among the worst U.S. droughts of all time, but it’s clear that the country is suffering from more than an average dry spell. According to a recent report from the U.S. Drought Monitor, 64 percent of the contiguous U.S. is suffering from at least moderate drought; 42 percent of the country is experiencing severe, extreme or exceptional drought, the largest such percentage since the mid-1950s.
Soaring temperatures and dropping precipitation have sparked concerns about the markets, as crop yields continue to drop. Soybeans reached a record $16.8275 late last week, and rising corn and wheat prices are also expected to hit Americans in the wallet. The statistics look grim, but only time will tell where our current drought will ultimately rank on the historical scale.
Various studies of this 2002 drought found that Colorado’s water flows during the period were at their lowest levels in 300 years. The state’s snowpack was 53 percent of average on April 1, 2002, resulting in a plethora of related problems, such as mandatory water rationing in Denver, contaminated water supplies statewide and widespread wildfires. One especially fierce conflagration, known as the Hayman fire, burned more than 100,000 acres south of Denver, forcing the evacuation of 5,340 people and leading to nearly $40 million in firefighting costs.
1988 North American drought
Another historic dry spell, the 1988 North American drought covered 36 percent of the country at its peak. The drought cost an estimated $40 million in damages in the U.S. The federal government spent almost $5 million in relief for farmers, whose plummeting crop production led to spikes in food prices. And that amount pales in comparison to western Canada, where drought-related losses totaled $1.8 billion in 1988 alone.
The period also was marked by devastating wildfires, including a famous blaze that swept through nearly 800,000 square acres of Yellowstone National Park.
The Northeast largely escaped the devastating droughts of the 1930s and 1950s, but the 1960s were not as kind to New England and the mid-Atlantic. 1965 was the driest year on record in New England since the late 1800s; further south, Washington DC’s Potomac River fell to its lowest level ever in 1966.
The region was hit again in 1999, when a severe, albeit shorter, drought cost farmers about $1.35 billion in losses, with northeastern farmers bearing 62 percent of that total. Related heat waves reportedly led to nearly 700 deaths.
1950s—Great Plains & Southwest
A decade after the Dust Bowl’s end, the Great Plains was subjected to another devastating drought, lasting for approximately five years in the early to mid-1950s. Although the drought affected many states, including Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and New Mexico, Texas was hit especially hard.
The Lone Star State saw total rainfall drop by 40 percent, earning 244 out of the state’s 254 counties the designation of federal disaster areas. In seven years, the disaster cost Texas an estimated equivalent of $22 billion.
One of the most infamous ecological disasters in U.S. history, the Dust Bowl was a decade-long period of severe dust storms that devastated wide swaths of the Great Plains during much of the 1930s. Widespread drought conditions and over-farming led to crop failure and mass migrations until rainfall finally returned in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
The resulting economic hardships were compounded by the Great Depression. According to one report from the Works Progress Administration, 21 percent of all rural Great Plains families were receiving federal emergency relief by 1936; by 1940, 2.5 million people had left the region entirely. The period also spawned some of the country’s most iconic literary and artistic works, including Dorothea Lang’s famous photo “Migrant Mother,” and John Steinbeck’s novels “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Of Mice and Men.”