Video: What is a flash drought?
September and October bring chilly temperatures, changing leaves, and a happy fall harvest season — if everything goes according to plan. This year, the southeastern United States is welcoming fall with scorching temperatures in the 90s and a widespread flash drought.
Unlike a traditional drought which slowly builds over a few months, flash droughts can happen in a matter of weeks, often with very little warning. A constant lack of precipitation, combined with sunny days and abnormally high temperatures, can quickly dry out the soil to the point of drought conditions.
According to the United States Drought Monitor, only 7% of Georgia was in drought at the beginning of September. By the end of the month, 62% of the state was experiencing drought conditions. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that the Southeast as a whole went from 6% of the region experiencing drought to 44% by the end of September, with the percentage of severe and exceptional drought increasing from essentially zero to 14%.
A flash drought occurring so close to harvest season is especially detrimental, because there’s very limited time for crops to recover. When soil conditions reach “severe drought” corn will shrivel and die in the fields. Grass also suffers, forcing farmers with livestock to purchase hay to keep their animals fed. With all farmers in the same boat, hay prices rise to a premium, just as drought damaged corn and soy fetch lower prices than normal.
It’s an easy assumption to attribute this flash drought to climate change, but the reality isn’t quite that simple. Climate change is generally associated with longer and more intense heat waves like the one currently affecting the Southeast, but it’s also associated with more frequent and intense rainstorms — something the region is sorely lacking during this flash drought.
Additionally, flash droughts aren’t all that common of a phenomenon, which makes it hard to prove there’s a trend. Prior to this occurrence, the most recent widespread flash drought was in 2012, according to a paper published by the National Weather Service.
Jason Otkin, a scientist researching drought at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is hesitant to associate flash droughts with climate change. “There has been some speculation that that flash droughts are becoming more common. I’m not quite confident to say that at this point, just because it takes time to really be able to see if those trends that we’re seeing the last 10 years will actually hold moving forward.”