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What Are ‘Flash Droughts’ and Why Are They So Destructive?

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Dead plum trees that have been removed from the ground due to the lack of water for irrigation in the drought-affected town of Monson, California in June 2015.

Dead plum trees that have been removed from the ground due to the lack of water for irrigation in the drought-affected town of Monson, California in June 2015.
Photo: AFP PHOTO/ MARK RALSTON (Getty Images)

As record-breaking temperatures have pummeled much of the country this summer, another heat-related menace is causing trouble: flash droughts.

Much like a regular drought, a flash drought is caused by low precipitation, but it strikes an area so much faster. Brad Pugh, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center, said that flash droughts are caused by a combination of little to no rain alongside unusually high temperatures that quickly alter an environment.

“Flash droughts typically occur during the warm season, so from late spring through the summer into the early fall… the major impact is typically related to agriculture and livestock,” he told Earther.

According to Larry O’Neill, an Oregon climatologist, the conditions for flash droughts are becoming more frequent in the U.S. “A long or intense heatwave of 7-10 days, coupled with little or no precipitation, is often sufficient to develop flash drought conditions,” he said in an email to Earther. “Impacts of flash drought can be sudden and severe.”

He explained that, as the climate crisis increases the likelihood of precipitation changes and hotter, longer lasting heatwaves, the U.S. could expect to see more flash droughts in the summers to come. Because these conditions occur during the growing seasons, they threaten the U.S. food supply.

States across the center of the country like Oklahoma and Kansas are currently experiencing flash drought. The Northeast is also being affected, especially during this especially hot summer. Just two months ago, the state of Massachusetts did not report any drought conditions at all, but as of mid-July 80% of the state experienced moderate to severe drought. Farms in areas such as Andover, Massachusetts, have seen their products, like Christmas trees that would have eventually been sold in the winter, dry up in the hot arid conditions. Parts of New Jersey are also seeing flash drought conditions, and residents have been urged to avoid watering their lawns to ensure that water reserves are saved for necessary uses, NJ Spotlight News reported.

According to Pugh, the long-term effects of this depend on how long the flash drought lasts. “[For] some flash droughts, you get the rapid onset of drought and then a drought can continue for months. On the other hand, you can have this rapid onset of drought followed by a heavy rainfall event or flip towards a wetter pattern,” he said. “It really varies, depending on the weather.”

One of the most destructive flash droughts that Pugh remembers is one that affected both North and South Dakota in July 2017. Just two months before, in May 2017, the region was not showing any signs of drought at all, NOAA reported. Once the summer heat came, the dry conditions sparked more than $2.6 billion worth of agricultural losses.

It’s much harder to prepare for flash droughts, meaning it’s difficult to head off agricultural damages. The long-lasting drought currently affecting water supply in the American West was predicted earlier this year by NOAA. The agency released a report in March outlining how about 60% of the country would experience some form of drought conditions. Officials in California knew that a drought was likely, especially after seeing historically low snowpack was in the state’s Sierra Nevada mountains. Flash droughts are trickier.

“We lack the monitoring and predictive capabilities to warn of flash drought development. Flash droughts occur so quickly, we often do not know we are in one until we see the adverse hydrological, agricultural, and socioeconomic impacts associated with it,” O’Neil said.

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