Megadroughts – Are They Coming?

I think at this point it is fair to say that the dispute on global warming is not much of a dispute. People still argue about what caused it and how severe it will get, but climate change is real.

It seems like every year the weather gets more unpredictable. This has resulted in massive tornados, battering hurricanes, and unpredictable droughts. Droughts in particular are dangerous because of their effects on agriculture, native wildlife, and wildfires.


Droughts have occurred pretty much forever, and people and civilizations have suffered long and mightily because of them. Famine is often seen as a child of drought, and even a grueling death by dehydration.

Droughts are not just localized disasters though they can affect certain places worse than others. No place is ever truly safe from drought, but areas that are already hot and dry, or dependent on consistent rainfall for habitability will be especially hard hit.

To underestimate drought conditions is to court tragedy. Periodically drought conditions can persist for decades, even a century, a status known as a megadrought.

The United States and the rest of North America have suffered from megadroughts in the past, and many climate scientists assert that we are on the verge of another today.

Is it possible to deal with a megadrought? How should one prepare for one? Just how bad will it get? In today’s article we will tell you everything you need to know.

What Is A Megadrought?

In some extreme circumstances, a drought can last for 10 years or more. This is considered a megadrought, and we have historical evidence of several that have taken place around the world. In most cases they affect their environments so drastically that they cause huge migrations of people out of the area.

When crops cannot survive and drinking water is scarce, there is often no other choice than to move on to a wetter climate. This has caused the collapse of several civilizations over the last few millennia.

So when is the next one going to hit? Sooner than you might think. NASA has used historical data along with analysis of current soil conditions to produce a predictive model for megadroughts.

They have predicted that there is a 99% chance that a megadrought will hit the US Southwest and Great Plains regions somewhere between 2050 and 2100. They expect that this drought could last almost 30 years and make survival difficult. We could see wildfires larger than we have ever seen before in states like Arizona and parts of California.

You may not think that weather conditions have been all that drastic in recent years, but it does not take a dust bowl to create a megadrought.

Arizona rainfall levels are currently at about 80% of their normal rate, and this trend over several years creates a megadrought. It gradually dries out the soil to the point that plant life simply cannot survive driving animals and people out of the area as well.


To put it in perspective, the Dust Bowl drought lasted less than eight years. During this time over 500,000 people became homeless and around 3.5 million moved out of the area to find work.

While this drought largely hit Oklahoma and Texas, it affected the entire plains area. As crops died, massive dust storms swept across the plains depositing dust as far East as New York City. Now imagine if that drought lasted four times as long.

California in particular is more than due for drought conditions. The last 150 years have been especially wet in California, and they are more than overdue for an endured drought.

People living in the area seem surprised by the recent dry weather because it has been several generations since the state has seen what would historically be considered normal California weather.

If you follow history far enough, it has not been uncommon for California to have droughts lasting 100 years or more.

Another megadrought that should be mentioned is one that occurred in Mexico in the 1540’s. The interesting thing about this disaster is that most of its victims were claimed by a disease called cocoliztli.

This disease killed off 80% of the local population making it more deadly than the Black Death by percentage. This area had one wet year in the middle of their megadrought, and that is when the disease emerged.

It is thought that there was a spike in the rodent population which caused the emergence of the disease. This is just another example of the complications a megadrought could cause.

The U.S. Drought Assessment

As you might imagine, the United States government has invested heavily in both predicting and tracking drought conditions, along with all the associated impacts and effects that droughts imply.

They even go so far as to track second and third order effects, because if there is one thing you can count on, it is that lengthy drought conditions will create a domino effect that leaves no sector and no concern of civilized life untouched.

Imagine how much worse it will be during megadrought conditions that last for decades or years…

Considering the information provided by, we can see that the United States had a really rough 2020 as far as drought is concerned, and it has been this way for the past several years already.

As of the end of August 2020, every single state reaching from the Midwest all the way to the entirety of the West Coast is experiencing some level of drought, and ten states are currently experiencing extreme or exceptional levels of drought.

It might seem hard to believe, but even New England has been experiencing pronounced drought conditions, though not quite as severe as the west coast and southwest.

Studying the provided data, much of the west has seen drought conditions increase by several orders of magnitude, or more properly several classes.

There is no other way to put it; things are bad and getting worse. Think I am overstating the problem? Not hardly; there are historical precedents for severe, prolonged droughts just like this, and the effects, however bad they are, are well understood.

But how did this happen? Like many problems of this size, it resulted as a confluence of several factors. Beginning in the winter of 2019, snowfall levels across the affected regions were significantly less than normal.

Snow is still precipitation, as that is water that will eventually make it to the ground and reside in various sources. While the snowfall levels were not catastrophically lower than the expected average, something unexpected and harmful happened in the spring.

Disaster Dominoes: Increased Temperatures Contributing to Drought Conditions

Spring temperatures came on strong and fast, getting warm earlier than usual, with temperatures climbing much higher than usual. This resulted in an abnormally quick melting of what snow there was in many areas.

This pronounced melt and subsequent evaporation meant that the expected amount of water never even made it into the ground where it was needed; it rose as steam into the atmosphere once again.

The current situation is not just one born of precipitation, or rather the lack thereof. The end of summer and the first few weeks of autumn are currently recording record or near-record levels of heat across all of the drought affected areas I mentioned above, but once again particularly in the southwest and the west coast. Records are continually broken every single day.

This has in turn given rise to a significantly higher risk of wildfires, which have occurred. These wildfires have further decimated moisture levels in the ground on top of the already banner conditions for drought.

As the year goes on projections don’t seem to be getting any better. In short, the negative impacts brought on by drought are intensifying and show no sign of relenting.

Impact on the Food Chain

Drought obviously has an impact on the food chain, and a more severe drought means a worse impact. However, the second and third order effects of drought take effect in ways that you probably don’t expect.

Generally all crops are affected in one way or another, and commodities, particularly livestock are often impacted severely. How? Let’s break it down.

Presently, corn prices have been rising significantly right alongside oats and wheat. Though the wheat crop that is destined for consumer products on our shelves has not been particularly impacted, the products heading for our farms (in the form of animal feed) have been.

This unhappy fact is going to raise the prices of all kinds of meats as a consequence. Most people have noticed a slight increase in prices just this year, but the worst is yet to come.

What are the prices for foods containing these typical crops has already bumped, it is what these foods go into that will be affected the most and that is going to eat into your pocketbook if you are not willing to go without.

For instance, though the price of oats and corn has risen and a slight bump in price on your favorite cereals has occurred as a result, other price bumps will occur in tandem since so many foods contain these typical ingredients. Dressings, oils, sauces, gravies, and any pre-processed food that contains them will all see cost increases as well.

But the most significant and surprising price increases will take a year, perhaps two, before they manifest as a result of drought. The cost of your favorite meats is liable to go up precipitously since both oats, corn and to a lesser extent soybeans and wheat are primary ingredients in many types of animal feed.

As profit for farmers who raise these animals goes down, there will be fewer animals raised year to year.

Fewer animals raised means fewer animal products making it to market, and it is here that you probably understand the rest of the supply and demand equation; fewer products on the market means higher prices assuming demand stays the same or increases.

Additional Effects

Beyond the food staples that we eat everyday specialty products will all be affected due to the price increase on their essential ingredients. Believe it or not, the increase in the price of corn will drive up the price of gasoline; ethanol is an additive present in many varieties of gas, and it is made from corn.

If corn costs more, ethanol costs more, and that will affect the cost of gasoline that you pay at the pump. Annualized spending on gasoline that increases in cost only fifty cents a gallon will tally in the billions and billions of dollars.

As surely as the sun sets in the west, increased fuel costs will increase the price of transportation, resulting in a cascading increase in the cost of goods and services across the board.

This is equivalent to a few small pebbles sliding down a mountainside; they seem harmless, even inconsequential, at first but they retain the potential to start a deadly avalanche by affecting the larger stones they impact.

The same can be said for the rising cost of fuel owing to drought; it begins with some lost or diminished crops, but ends in financial calamity.

Truly, droughts will literally suck money right out of your bank account like they suck moisture right out of the soil, and a prolonged megadrought will inflict terrible monetary losses across the land.

How Could We Avoid One?

The last time the US faced megadrought conditions was back in the 13th century, so none of us have dealt with this threat during modern times.

At the time it forced the native civilizations of the southwest to abandon their cities since they largely relied on irrigated farming. So what would have to happen for us to avoid a megadrought?

This type of disaster only has about a 10% chance of forming naturally. However, humans causing climate change greatly increases the chance of this threat.

Certainly reducing this change would be a step in the right direction. In addition, a single El Nino weather pattern in the West could interrupt this threat.

NASA’s predictive model looked at three different potentials for climate change. A temperature change of 4 degrees Celsius, which is the current rate of change, leaves us with a near certainty of a megadrought.

However, if we can meet the goal set by the Paris climate agreement of a 2 degree increase we could drop the chances of a megadrought to as low as 30%. We do still have the ability to positively affect the future of our climate.

How Bad Could It Be?

If the predictions are correct, the southwest could see precipitation levels at half of its previous averages. Both snow and rain are expected to be down which greatly affects soil moisture. This level of drought would be worse than what hit North America in the 13th century and could wipe out huge areas of forestland.

One indicator of the water condition in the Southwest is the Colorado River. This river supplies the Southwest with over 40% of their water. Once the river crosses over into Mexico, every drop is diverted for irrigation.

The Colorado is the most commonly dammed and diverted river in the US, but water levels are already well below previous averages. When the megadrought starts, this vital source of water will all but dry up.

It may seem like a hopeless endeavor, but recent models have shown that these areas can survive and recover from a megadrought. In fact, the economies of certain states would remain almost as strong as they are now.

It will take some smarter practices to get through. We have dealt with only six years of drought thus far and already there are small outlying communities that are completely out of water.

Steps To Prepare

The ways that people use their water will have to change. Right now these cities are carpeted with plush, green laws. These lawns use up anywhere from 50-80% of their total water consumption.

This makes no sense in dry climates. Many areas offer rebates to people who tear up their lawns and opt for a more water-friendly landscape, but this will likely become a requirement in the near future.

The US Southwest has been especially wasteful with water compared to countries like Australia that have recently endured a megadrought.

The general designs of urban areas need to change as well. Currently cities are designed to direct the water out of the city as efficiently as possible. This means that most of that water ends up in rivers and oceans instead of in the soil where it can benefit farmers.

Instead of designing buildings and streets for runoff, there are designs that can hold the water and store it for later use. It is calculated that 82% of the water needed to support the city of Los Angeles could be supplied this way.

The practices of farmers would have to change. In much of California the vast majority of the water used is for agriculture.

Certain areas are actually offering to buy water from farmers at a rate that would exceed the profits they would make off of crops. For those that choose to keep farming, switching crops may be the answer.

Farmers would need to move to crops that use less water and yield the most profit possible. This would largely move corn and wheat out of these areas and move them to farmland unaffected by the drought.

Pipes are another issue that needs to be addressed. Last year a pipe burst in Los Angeles spilling 20 million gallons of drinking water into the street. The leaky pipes in the state of California spill enough water across the state to fully support the city of Los Angeles.

Some pipes are being replaced while others are having the pressure turned down to reduce the water lost. They even have smart pipes now that can convert leaks into a source of renewable energy.

Desalination plants could be a solution for coastal communities. The real issue is cost. These plants use a huge amount of power to produce clean water, so they really need to be paired with a renewable source of energy.

There have been examples of a wave powered desalination plant and a solar plant built in other countries, so this option is very possible. It is much more feasible than piping in water from other states.

Despite the bleak outlook, the American people are resilient. If we cannot prevent a megadrought, we will find a way to adapt and survive. Steps are already being taken to prepare for what is to come, but more can be done.

No matter where you live, consider your water usage and try to cut back. The best thing anybody can do is to reduce their dependence on any resource that could be in jeopardy.

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updated 11/12/2020

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