The USGS 'Below Normal Groundwater Level' map for early August 2013 shows areas with below normal groundwater levels extending throughout the U.S., in contrast to drought maps of surface water showing impacts mostly in the west. This pattern is consistent with the recognition that groundwater levels are the last component of the hydrologic system to respond to the start and to the end of droughts. Graphic: USGS

By Jon Campbell
10 September 2013

(USGS) – Drought is a stealthily incremental disaster that is much more costly to the national economy than most people suspect.

Even as the eastern states have seen an unusually wet summer, citizens in the midsection of the country read in May that the High Plains Aquifer could no longer support irrigation for vast stretches of farmland in Texas and Kansas (New York Times, 5/19). In June residents of the upper Midwest read with particular interest a story of how drought and other factors have created historically low water marks for the nation’s Great Lakes, putting a $34 billion shipping industry in peril (Seattle Times, 6/15). In August, citizens of the Southwest, many of whom depend on water from the Colorado River basin, read that the low water levels of Lake Mead would be minimally recharged by a record-low annual release of water from upstream reservoir Lake Powell, the latest outcome of a 14-year drought (Las Vegas Sun, 8/15).

Landsat image collection

100 Days of Drought at Lake Mead: March 24 to July 2, 2013

According to a report by the National Drought Forum, more than 65 percent of the conterminous U.S. was affected by drought in 2012. The report notes that costs associated with the 2012 drought could be greater than losses from Superstorm Sandy, which makes the 2012 drought one of the top three costliest natural disasters since 1980. Widespread drought during 2012 in Texas alone resulted in $12 billion in damages.

What sections of the Nation are currently experiencing drought? How do those conditions compare to recent years, to the past century, or to more distant centuries? How can communities better prepare for and cope with drought? These are some of the questions USGS scientists consider as they work to understand the nature of drought and how to minimize its impacts. [more]

Drought – The Stealth Disaster

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