What is your name?
Where do you live?
Lincoln, Nebraska, United States
Have you ever been in a drought before?
This question is tough for droughts. Droughts occur in all climates, but many times they sneak up on people and we don’t realize that we are in a drought until some serious impacts are occurring. Having said that, I experienced seeing impacts from the severe 1976-77 drought in the north-central part of the U.S. I also lived in the Midwest during the very severe 1988 drought. Finally, the region around Lincoln has experienced drought from about September 1999 through June 2000.
If so, on what date and at what time did this event occur? (approximately)
Droughts by nature are such that it is frequently difficult to know when they begin. Sometimes it is even more difficult to know when they are over. Often times the impacts of a drought can last several years after the precipitation has returned to normal levels.
Where did it occur?
Again, droughts occur in virtually all climates of the world, which is unlike just about every other natural disaster. Droughts can occur in deserts and in rainforests. There is a difference between drought and aridity. Aridity describes a region that is naturally dry. A drought in an arid region occurs when precipitation is even less than expected or normal for this arid region.
What is your job at the National Drought Mitigation Center?
I am a Climate Impacts Specialist at the National Drought Mitigation Center. I look at identifying how a drought impacts a region. Generally there are 3 kinds of drought impacts: economic, environmental, and social. It is very difficult to quantify how bad impacts are from drought because there is rarely any physical damage as there is with other hazards. I also do a lot of education for the public and government officials so that they can understand drought and how to prepare for drought in their area.
About how many droughts occur/begin/continue internationally each year?
This is a good question, but one I can not answer. The reason is because each drought is unique in each area and all droughts vary by 3 characteristics: intensity, duration, and spatial extent. We know a few things in general terms. As I have said before, droughts occur in all climates around the world. In the U.S., we say that about 10% of the country is experiencing severe or extreme drought at any one particular time. In fact, there has been NO year since 1895 that severe to extreme drought has not occurred somewhere within the United States. In 1934, meanwhile, almost 70% of the U.S. was experiencing severe or extreme drought at one time.
How long can droughts last?
Duration is one of the three characteristics that make each drought unique. Droughts can last from a few weeks (which may seriously affect agriculture) to lasting for years or even decades. Tree-ring analyses in the United States have shown that some parts of the country have experienced 20-30 year droughts in the past. This is true in the Southwest U.S. and in the Great Plains. In wetter regions, the length of droughts are probably less than in drier, more arid regions.
What are some of the things you see in a drought area? Please describe it visually.
It depends upon the region and it really depends on the impacts. Sometimes a drought can be occurring but there are no impacts as a result and it may look perfectly normal to the citizens in that region.
What are some of the problems that your organization has to mitigate? Famine? Dehydration? Re-vegetation?
What my organization tries to do is to encourage people to PLAN for the next drought before it occurs. When people are in the middle of a drought, there is very little that can be done except to respond to the needs of those people suffering from the drought. However, when a drought is not occurring, people can plan to implement certain actions that will reduce their impacts from future droughts. To do this, the people need to understand their water resources and water demands in their region. They also need to know their climatology and what droughts are like. This is what we try to do. We help people understand their situation, and then we encourage them to develop actions that would make them less vulnerable to future droughts. We also help develop technological tools and better communication systems, such as the internet, that would allow for better monitoring of the current conditions and provide access of this information to the people. Developing a drought monitoring system, part of an overall climate monitoring system, is a very important drought mitigation tool.
What sorts of preventative measures can people take to prepare for drought?
As I mention, improving the drought monitoring system in their region is a good first step in order to prepare for drought. Helping people to understand what drought is a second good step through educational programs and community service messages. Getting people to develop a plan so that they know how to act and respond during a drought is another great mitigation idea. It also depends on how drought affects a person. A farmer needs to prepare differently than does someone living in a city that has planted a young tree or has a lawn that they would like to stay green.
What are some especially drought-susceptible areas around the world?
The areas that are more vulnerable to drought right now are those areas where the population is too high for the water resources in that region or where environmental conflicts are high, or where there are military tensions. This would include much of the southern United States where many people are moving to places that do not have the water resources or the infrastructure to support the large number of people. But this is a problem in most regions of the world. The Middle East is vulnerable because water is scarce and there is also much political tension involving the water resources.
What do you think should be done in the future to prevent more droughts?
Droughts will always occur in the future. There will be no way to reduce the number of droughts. What can be done, however, is to reduce the impacts from each drought. And to do that, we must apply the mitigation actions I stated above. This includes monitoring droughts better, more education, and planning for future droughts. We all also need to realize that water is a finite substance and we have to manage our water and other natural resources in a sustainable way.
Has your view towards life been changed in any way after working with so many droughts?
Yes. I now see the importance of water in the lifestyles of everyone on Earth. Water is very important not only for the humans, but also for the environment. We really need to work to take care of our water resources. I have also learned that there are many sides to every issue. That is why listening to everyone involved is very, very important. Sometimes we have to seek out those who are poor or who are not well represented by the loudest and try to understand their perspectives and what water means to them. For many people worldwide, water is a very spiritual, personal, and even religious topic!