Drought in the summer of 2012 filled newspapers across the country with maps splashed with yellows, oranges and deep reds indicative of parched lands and cracked earth. Drought had hit the country hard—temperatures soared, crops wilted, water use restricted. Then it happened again the next year.
Though drought may wreak havoc on our lives, it is actually a recurring pattern and defining feature of the North American Great Plains, the wider U.S. and the Canadian Prairie Provinces. So much so, that early maps referred to this region as the Great American Desert. The drought of the 1890s and, in particular, the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s greatly influenced the settlement and cultural history of the region. The Dust Bowl years significantly impacted the physical landscape, and its memory seems forever etched in the minds of Americans. More contemporary droughts repeatedly remind us of our continuing vulnerability to this natural hazard as drought conditions often affect large portions of the region, extending from the southern reaches of Texas and New Mexico to the Prairie Provinces of western Canada.
Given recent droughts and the influence that droughts have historically had in the Great Plains, it is timely that the 2014 annual symposium of the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska has chosen drought as its theme. The conference takes place April 1–4 in Lincoln, Neb. “Drought in the Life, Cultures and Landscapes of the Great Plains” (register at www.unl.edu/plains) will provide an interdisciplinary examination of the role that drought has played in the region, past and present, as well as a look at the region’s future climate and what it may portend for the frequency, severity and duration of drought and its impacts on the economic, social and environmental landscape. Projected changes in the region’s climate due to human factors associated with increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases, changes in land use and other factors are sobering. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading authority on the science of climate change, projects temperature increases in the central Great Plains of between 4–10 degrees by the end of the century. While changes in precipitation are less certain, even with little or no change in precipitation amounts, water availability will decrease significantly because of increased evaporation and transpiration as a result of these higher temperatures. The IPCC also projects an increased frequency of extreme climatic events and a greater number of high-temperature stress days and heat waves. Also of major concern for the Great Plains is the decline in snowpack currently observed in the Rocky Mountains and its impact on surface water flows for streams that originate there.
Drought is an insidious natural hazard that results from a deficiency of precipitation from expected or “normal” that, when this deficiency is extended over a season or longer period of time, is insufficient to meet the demands of human activities and the environment. Other factors, such as high temperatures, wind and low relative humidity, can also exacerbate drought’s severity. While drought is likely to occur somewhere in the Great Plains each year, recent drought years from 2011, 2012 and 2013, as shown on the accompanying U.S. Drought Monitor maps, illustrate significant differences in severity and spatial extent in the region. Also shown is the U.S. Drought Monitor map for Feb. 4, 2014, which shows the continuing persistence of drought in parts of the Great Plains. Given the current drought pattern of drought across the Great Plains states and other western states, 2014 is potentially shaping up to be another in a series of recent severe drought years.
Drought produces a complex web of impacts that not only ripples throughout local, state, tribal, regional and national economies but can also have substantial impacts on a global scale. Given the role that agriculture in the Great Plains plays in serving as the “breadbasket” for the world, recurring drought in the region has serious implications for food security in many parts of the world. The impacts of drought today reach far beyond the agricultural sector. Significant impacts on transportation, energy production, recreation and tourism, health, urban water supplies and forest and rangeland fires have been noted in recent decades. The 2014 symposium will include sessions that will specifically deal with the prehistoric occurrence of drought in the region as well as current trends and future projections. In addition, sessions will focus on drought-related impacts on Native American water management, wildfire, grasslands, legal perspectives, settlement patterns, human and ecosystem health, communities and the Dust Bowl, among other topics. In connection with the 2014 symposium, the Great Plains Art Museum in downtown Lincoln will feature the original drought-focused artwork of Omaha ceramic artist Jess Benjamin, further highlighting the symposium’s theme.
As we look to the future, it is imperative that we change the paradigm for drought management—from a reactive, crisis-management approach to a more proactive one based on the principles of risk management. Projected changes in climate, including an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme climatic events such as drought, as well as our changing vulnerability because of increasing population, urbanization, greater environmental awareness and many other factors, require higher levels of preparedness. The Center for Great Plains Studies’ 2014 symposium will examine comprehensively the past, present and future of drought in the region and, in the process, will heighten our awareness and understanding of future needs associated with improved drought and water management in a changing climate.