A History of U.S. Droughts | Outdoor Channel
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A History of U.S. Droughts

Texas 2011 surpasses 1918 as second-worst drought in state

By: Mike Suchan OutdoorChannel.com

A History of U.S. Droughts

The drought of 2011 is now the second-worst ever experienced in Texas, surpassing the previous runner-up of 1918, it was announced Tuesday by the National Weather Service.

Last week, the state climatologist declared this year as the most severe one-year drought in Texas. In July, rain totals were less than half an inch, putting 90 percent of the state in the most extreme stages of drought.Burn bans have been issued in a record 249 counties -- only five counties don’t have such restrictions – topping the previous mark of 221 counties from January 2006. The state has suffered its driest consecutive stretch of 10 months, and a recent weather predictions show conditions to hold through October.

1950s Drought

The worst conditions in Texas, however, were from 1950-57, reports the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Paleoclimatology Program. It caused severe social and economic repercussions to the state and the region.

A time of prosperity for many Americans, the 1950s brought suffering to those in the Great Plains and southwestern U.S. In Texas, rainfall dropped 40 percent in 1949-51 and reached 75 percent below normal in 1953, when temperatures in Dallas topped 100 degrees for 52 days. By 1954, the drought encompassed a 10-state area, peaking in 1956 before spring rains in 1957 brought relief.

The conditions devastated the region’s agriculture, dropping crop yields as much as 50 percent. Grasslands used for grazing were scorched, resulting in costly hay prices. Many ranchers were forced to feed cattle a mixture of prickly pear cactus and molasses. Among the 254 Texas counties, only 10 were not declared federal drought disaster areas.

The Dust Bowl

This natural disaster is still considered the major drought of the 20th century, severely affecting much of the U.S. during the 1930s and resulting in the migration of millions of people from the Great Plains to the western U.S. It was memorialized in John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath.

Dry conditions occurred for eight years in some areas but hit as waves in 1934, 1936 and 1939-40. It got its name from the “black blizzards” so thick they concealed the sun for days at a time. Poor land management practices along with no moisture allowed winds to lift the soil in great clouds of dust.

Besides agricultural damage, it economically devastated residents. Trying to offset losses from the Great Depression, farmers increased crop yields that drove down prices, forcing them to continue to increase production to pay for equipment and land. Despite federal emergency aid, farmers eventually could not even afford essential items and were forced off their land. One in 10 farms changed possession at the drought’s peak.

The Dust Bowl did teach better land management, farmers adopted new cultivation methods to control soil erosion in dry ecosystems, and subsequent dry periods in the region have had less impact due to the practices.

Late 80s drought

While the Dust Bowl covered 70 percent of the U.S. in its worst year, the three-year drought from 1987-89 only covered 36 percent, but it was the costliest in U.S. history. Losses in energy, water, ecosystems and agriculture were estimated at $39 billion, the most expensive natural disaster to affect America.

The first widespread persistent drought since the 1950s affected much of the nation’s primary corn and soybean growing areas. Low river levels caused problems for barge navigation and forest fires burned across western North America in 1988, including the catastrophic Yellowstone fire. Heat waves that year broke long-standing temperature records in the Midwest and Northeast cities.

The costs showed an increased vulnerability in part because of farming on marginally arable lands and pumping of ground water near depletion. Surplus grain and federal programs offset some impacts, but they would not be as feasible during a lengthier drought.

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