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For other uses, see Drought (disambiguation).

Contraction/Desiccation cracks in dry earth (Sonoran desert, Mexico).

Drought is an extended time when a region receives a deficiency in its water
supply, whether atmospheric, surface or ground water. A drought can last for
months or years, or may be declared after as few as 15 days.[1] Generally, this
occurs when a region receives consistently below average precipitation. It can
have a substantial impact on the ecosystem and agriculture of the affected
region. Although droughts can persist for several years, even a short, intense
drought can cause significant damage[2] and harm to the local economy.[3]
Annual dry seasons in the tropics significantly increase the chances of a drought
developing and subsequent bush fires. Periods of heat can significantly worsen
drought conditions by hastening evaporation of water vapor.

Many plant species, such as those in the family Cactaceae (or cacti), have
adaptations like reduced leaf area and waxy cuticles to enhance their ability to
tolerate drought. Some others survive dry periods as buried seeds. Semipermanent drought produces arid biomes such as deserts and grasslands.[4]
Prolonged droughts have caused mass migrations and humanitarian crises. Most
arid ecosystems have inherently low productivity.

Contents [hide]
1 Causes 1.1 Precipitation deficiency
1.2 Dry season
1.3 El Nio
1.4 Erosion and human activities
1.5 Climate change

2 Types
3 Consequences
4 Globally 4.1 Examples

5 Protection, mitigation and relief

6 See also
7 References
8 External links


Precipitation deficiency[edit]

See also: Precipitation

File:Ancient Dry Spells Offer Clues About the Future of Drought.ogv

Play media

Ancient Meso-American civilizations may have amplified droughts by

Mechanisms of producing precipitation include convective, stratiform,[5] and
orographic rainfall.[6] Convective processes involve strong vertical motions that
can cause the overturning of the atmosphere in that location within an hour and
cause heavy precipitation,[7] while stratiform processes involve weaker upward
motions and less intense precipitation over a longer duration.[8] Precipitation
can be divided into three categories, based on whether it falls as liquid water,
liquid water that freezes on contact with the surface, or ice.

If these factors do not support precipitation volumes sufficient to reach the

surface over a sufficient time, the result is a drought. Drought can be triggered
by a high level of reflected sunlight and above average prevalence of high
pressure systems, winds carrying continental, rather than oceanic air masses,
and ridges of high pressure areas aloft can prevent or restrict the developing of
thunderstorm activity or rainfall over one certain region. Once a region is within
drought, feedback mechanisms such as local arid air,[9] hot conditions which can
promote warm core ridging,[10] and minimal evapotranspiration can worsen
drought conditions.

Dry season[edit]

See also: Dry season

Sheep on a drought affected paddock near Uranquinty, New South Wales.

Within the tropics, distinct wet and dry seasons emerge due to the movement of
the Intertropical Convergence Zone or Monsoon trough.[11] The dry season
greatly increases drought occurrence,[12] and is characterized by its low
humidity, with watering holes and rivers drying up. Because of the lack of these
watering holes, many grazing animals are forced to migrate due to the lack of
water and feed to more fertile spots. Examples of such animals are zebras,

elephants,[13] and wildebeest. Because of the lack of water in the plants,

bushfires are common.[14] Since water vapor becomes more energetic with
increasing temperature, more water vapor is required to increase relative
humidity values to 100% at higher temperatures (or to get the temperature to
fall to the dew point).[15] Periods of warmth quicken the pace of fruit and
vegetable production,[16] increase evaporation and evapotranspiration from
plants,[17] and worsen drought conditions.[18]

El Nio[edit]

Regional impacts of warm ENSO episodes (El Nio)

See also: El Nio

Drier and hotter weather occurs in parts of the Amazon River Basin, Colombia,
and Central America during El Nio events. Winters during the El Nio are
warmer and drier than average in the Northwest, northern Midwest, and northern
Mideast United States, so those regions experience reduced snowfalls. Conditions
are also drier than normal from December to February in south-central Africa,
mainly in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Botswana. Direct effects of El
Nio resulting in drier conditions occur in parts of Southeast Asia and Northern
Australia, increasing bush fires, worsening haze, and decreasing air quality
dramatically. Drier-than-normal conditions are also in general observed in
Queensland, inland Victoria, inland New South Wales, and eastern Tasmania from
June to August. As warm water spreads from the west Pacific and the Indian
Ocean to the east Pacific, it causes extensive drought in the western Pacific
Singapore experienced the driest February in 2014 since records began in 1869,
with only 6.3 mm of rain falling in the month and temperatures hitting as high as
35 C on 26 February. The years 1968 and 2005 had the next driest Februaries,
when 8.4 mm of rain fell.[19]

Erosion and human activities[edit]

See also: Aeolian processes

Fires on Borneo and Sumatra, 2006. People use slash-and-burn deforestation to

clear land for agriculture.
Human activity can directly trigger exacerbating factors such as over farming,
excessive irrigation,[20] deforestation, and erosion adversely impact the ability
of the land to capture and hold water.[21] In arid climates, the main source of
erosion is wind.[22] Erosion can be the result of material movement by the wind.
The wind can cause small particles to be lifted and therefore moved to another
region (deflation). Suspended particles within the wind may impact on solid
objects causing erosion by abrasion (ecological succession). Wind erosion
generally occurs in areas with little or no vegetation, often in areas where there
is insufficient rainfall to support vegetation.[23]

Fields outside Benambra, Victoria, Australia suffering from drought conditions.

Loess is a homogeneous, typically nonstratified, porous, friable, slightly coherent,
often calcareous, fine-grained, silty, pale yellow or buff, windblown (Aeolian)
sediment.[24] It generally occurs as a widespread blanket deposit that covers
areas of hundreds of square kilometers and tens of meters thick. Loess often
stands in either steep or vertical faces.[25] Loess tends to develop into highly
rich soils. Under appropriate climatic conditions, areas with loess are among the
most agriculturally productive in the world.[26] Loess deposits are geologically
unstable by nature, and will erode very readily. Therefore, windbreaks (such as
big trees and bushes) are often planted by farmers to reduce the wind erosion of
loess.[22] Wind erosion is much more severe in arid areas and during times of
drought. For example, in the Great Plains, it is estimated that soil loss due to
wind erosion can be as much as 6100 times greater in drought years than in wet

Climate change[edit]

See also: Climate change

Activities resulting in global climate change are expected to trigger droughts with
a substantial impact on agriculture[28][29]throughout the world, and especially
in developing nations.[30][31][32] Overall, global warming will result in increased
world rainfall.[33] Along with drought in some areas, flooding and erosion will

increase in others. Paradoxically, some proposed solutions to global warming that

focus on more active techniques, solar radiation management through the use of
a space sunshade for one, may also carry with them increased chances of


Hydrological drought: Ship stranded by the retreat of the Aral Sea.

As a drought persists, the conditions surrounding it gradually worsen and its
impact on the local population gradually increases. People tend to define
droughts in three main ways: [35]
1.Meteorological drought is brought about when there is a prolonged time with
less than average precipitation. Meteorological drought usually precedes the
other kinds of drought.[36]
2.Agricultural droughts are droughts that affect crop production or the ecology of
the range. This condition can also arise independently from any change in
precipitation levels when soil conditions and erosion triggered by poorly planned
agricultural endeavors cause a shortfall in water available to the crops. However,
in a traditional drought, it is caused by an extended period of below average
3.Hydrological drought is brought about when the water reserves available in
sources such as aquifers, lakes and reservoirs fall below the statistical average.
Hydrological drought tends to show up more slowly because it involves stored
water that is used but not replenished. Like an agricultural drought, this can be
triggered by more than just a loss of rainfall. For instance, Kazakhstan was
recently[when?] awarded a large amount of money by the World Bank to restore
water that had been diverted to other nations from the Aral Sea under Soviet
rule.[38] Similar circumstances also place their largest lake, Balkhash, at risk of
completely drying out.[39]


A Mongolian gazelle dead due to drought.

A livestock carcass in Marsabit, in northern Kenya, which has suffered prolonged

Time of droughts can have significant environmental, agricultural, health,
economic and social consequences. The effect varies according to vulnerability.
For example, subsistence farmers are more likely to migrate during drought
because they do not have alternative food sources. Areas with populations that
depend on water sources as a major food source are more vulnerable to famine.

Drought can also reduce water quality,[40][41] because lower water flows reduce
dilution of pollutants and increase contamination of remaining water sources.
Common consequences of drought include:
Diminished crop growth or yield productions and carrying capacity for livestock
Dust bowls, themselves a sign of erosion, which further erode the landscape
Dust storms, when drought hits an area suffering from desertification and erosion
Famine due to lack of water for irrigation
Habitat damage, affecting both terrestrial and aquatic wildlife[42]
Hunger, drought provides too little water to support food crops.
Malnutrition, dehydration and related diseases
Mass migration, resulting in internal displacement and international refugees
Reduced electricity production due to reduced water flow through hydroelectric
Shortages of water for industrial users[44][45]
Snake migration, which results in snakebites[46]
Social unrest
War over natural resources, including water and food
Wildfires, such as Australian bushfires, are more common during times of
drought and even death of people.[47]
Exposure and oxidation of acid sulfate soils due to falling surface and
groundwater levels.[48][49][50]


Drought is a normal, recurring feature of the climate in most parts of the world. It
is among the earliest documented climatic events, present in the Epic of
Gilgamesh and tied to the biblical story of Joseph's arrival in and the later Exodus
from Ancient Egypt.[51] Hunter-gatherer migrations in 9,500 BC Chile have been
linked to the phenomenon,[52] as has the exodus of early humans out of Africa
and into the rest of the world around 135,000 years ago.[53]

A South Dakota farm during the Dust Bowl, 1936


Main article: List of droughts

Well-known historical droughts include:

1900 India killing between 250,000 to 3.25 million.
192122 Soviet Union in which over 5 million perished from starvation due to
192830 Northwest China resulting in over 3 million deaths by famine.
1936 and 1941 Sichuan Province China resulting in 5 million and 2.5 million
deaths respectively.
The 19972009 Millenium Drought in Australia led to a water supply crisis across
much of the country. As a result many desalination plants were built for the first
time (see list).
In 2006, Sichuan Province China experienced its worst drought in modern times
with nearly 8 million people and over 7 million cattle facing water shortages.
12-year drought that was devastating southwest Western Australia, southeast
South Australia, Victoria and northern Tasmania was "very severe and without
historical precedent".

Affected areas in the western Sahel belt during the 2012 drought.
The Darfur conflict in Sudan, also affecting Chad, was fueled by decades of
drought; combination of drought, desertification and overpopulation are among
the causes of the Darfur conflict, because the Arab Baggara nomads searching
for water have to take their livestock further south, to land mainly occupied by
non-Arab farming people.[54]

Approximately 2.4 billion people live in the drainage basin of the Himalayan
rivers.[55] India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar could
experience floods followed by droughts in coming decades. Drought in India
affecting the Ganges is of particular concern, as it provides drinking water and
agricultural irrigation for more than 500 million people.[56][57][58] The west
coast of North America, which gets much of its water from glaciers in mountain
ranges such as the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada, also would be affected.

Drought affected area in Karnataka, India in 2012.

In 2005, parts of the Amazon basin experienced the worst drought in 100 years.
[61][62] A 23 July 2006 article reported Woods Hole Research Center results
showing that the forest in its present form could survive only three years of
drought.[63][64] Scientists at the Brazilian National Institute of Amazonian
Research argue in the article that this drought response, coupled with the effects
of deforestation on regional climate, are pushing the rainforest towards a
"tipping point" where it would irreversibly start to die. It concludes that the
rainforest is on the brink of being turned into savanna or desert, with
catastrophic consequences for the world's climate. According to the WWF, the
combination of climate change and deforestation increases the drying effect of
dead trees that fuels forest fires.[65]

Lake Chad in a 2001 satellite image. The lake has shrunk by 95% since the
By far the largest part of Australia is desert or semi-arid lands commonly known
as the outback. A 2005 study by Australian and American researchers

investigated the desertification of the interior, and suggested that one

explanation was related to human settlers who arrived about 50,000 years ago.
Regular burning by these settlers could have prevented monsoons from reaching
interior Australia.[68] In June 2008 it became known that an expert panel had
warned of long term, maybe irreversible, severe ecological damage for the whole
Murray-Darling basin if it did not receive sufficient water by October 2008.[69]
Australia could experience more severe droughts and they could become more
frequent in the future, a government-commissioned report said on July 6, 2008.
[70] Australian environmentalist Tim Flannery, predicted that unless it made
drastic changes, Perth in Western Australia could become the worlds first ghost
metropolis, an abandoned city with no more water to sustain its population.[71]
The long Australian Millennial drought broke in 2010.

Recurring droughts leading to desertification in East Africa have created grave

ecological catastrophes, prompting food shortages in 198485, 2006 and 2011.
[72] During the 2011 drought, an estimated 50,000 to 150,000 people were
reported to have died,[73] though these figures and the extent of the crisis are
disputed.[74] In February 2012, the UN announced that the crisis was over due
to a scaling up of relief efforts and a bumper harvest.[75] Aid agencies
subsequently shifted their emphasis to recovery efforts, including digging
irrigation canals and distributing plant seeds.[75]

In 2012, a severe drought struck the western Sahel. The Methodist Relief &
Development Fund (MRDF) reported that more than 10 million people in the
region were at risk of famine due to a month-long heat wave that was hovering
over Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Burkina Faso. A fund of about 20,000 was
distributed to the drought-hit countries.[76]

Protection, mitigation and relief[edit]

Succulent plants are well-adapted to survive long periods of drought.

Water distribution on Marshall Islands during El Nio.

Agriculturally, people can effectively mitigate much of the impact of drought

through irrigation and crop rotation. Failure to develop adequate drought
mitigation strategies carries a grave human cost in the modern era, exacerbated
by ever-increasing population densities. President Roosevelt on April 27, 1935,
signed documents creating the Soil Conservation Service (SCS)now the Natural
Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Models of the law were sent to each
state where they were enacted. These were the first enduring practical programs
to curtail future susceptibility to drought, creating agencies that first began to
stress soil conservation measures to protect farm lands today. It was not until the
1950s that there was an importance placed on water conservation was put into
the existing laws (NRCS 2014).[77]

Aerosols over the Amazon each September for four burning seasons (2005
through 2008) during the Amazon basin drought. The aerosol scale (yellow to
dark reddish-brown) indicates the relative amount of particles that absorb
Strategies for drought protection, mitigation or relief include:
Dams - many dams and their associated reservoirs supply additional water in
times of drought.[78]
Cloud seeding - a form of intentional weather modification to induce rainfall.[79]
This remains a hotly debated topic, as the United States National Research
Council released a report in 2004 stating that to date, there is still no convincing
scientific proof of the efficacy of intentional weather modification.[80]
Desalination - of sea water for irrigation or consumption.[81]
Drought monitoring - Continuous observation of rainfall levels and comparisons
with current usage levels can help prevent man-made drought. For instance,
analysis of water usage in Yemen has revealed that their water table
(underground water level) is put at grave risk by over-use to fertilize their Khat
crop.[82] Careful monitoring of moisture levels can also help predict increased
risk for wildfires, using such metrics as the Keetch-Byram Drought Index[47] or
Palmer Drought Index.
Land use - Carefully planned crop rotation can help to minimize erosion and allow
farmers to plant less water-dependent crops in drier years.
Outdoor water-use restriction - Regulating the use of sprinklers, hoses or buckets
on outdoor plants, filling pools, and other water-intensive home maintenance
tasks. Xeriscaping yards can significantly reduce unnecessary water use by
residents of towns and cities.

Rainwater harvesting - Collection and storage of rainwater from roofs or other

suitable catchments.
Recycled water - Former wastewater (sewage) that has been treated and purified
for reuse.
Transvasement - Building canals or redirecting rivers as massive attempts at
irrigation in drought-prone areas.

See also[edit]

Aridity index
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
Drought refuge
Food security
Permanent wilting point
United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification
Water conflict
Water crisis
World Water Day
World Water Forum

Amazon Rainforest drought
Australia, Exceptional Circumstances relief payments
China (2010)
Maya civilization collapse
Russia and USSR
Sahel drought
United Kingdom
United States

US dust bowl drought (1930s)


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External links[edit]

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Drought.

Look up drought in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.

Wikibooks has more on the topic of: Drought

GIDMaPS Global Integrated Drought Monitoring and Prediction System, University
of California, Irvine
Water scarcity from FAO Water (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United
Drought: Hearing before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, United
States Senate, One Hundred Thirteenth Congress, First Session, on Exploring the
Effects of Drought on Energy And Water Management, April 25, 2013
U.S. Billion-dollar Weather and Climate Disasters


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National Drought Mitigation Center Website

Friday, July 31, 2015


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National Drought Mitigation Center

Drought BasicsWhat is Drought?


What is Drought?

Drought is an insidious hazard of nature. It is often referred to as a "creeping

phenomenon" and its impacts vary from region to region. Drought can therefore
be difficult for people to understand. It is equally difficult to define, because what
may be considered a drought in, say, Bali (six days without rain) would certainly
not be considered a drought in Libya (annual rainfall less than 180 mm). In the
most general sense, drought originates from a deficiency of precipitation over an
extended period of time--usually a season or more--resulting in a water shortage
for some activity, group, or environmental sector. Its impacts result from the
interplay between the natural event (less precipitation than expected) and the

demand people place on water supply, and human activities can exacerbate the
impacts of drought. Because drought cannot be viewed solely as a physical
phenomenon, it is usually defined both conceptually and operationally.

Conceptual Definitions

Conceptual definitions, formulated in general terms, help people understand the

concept of drought. For example:

Drought is a protracted period of deficient precipitation resulting in extensive

damage to crops, resulting in loss of yield.

Conceptual definitions may also be important in establishing drought policy. For

example, Australian drought policy incorporates an understanding of normal
climate variability into its definition of drought. The country provides financial
assistance to farmers only under exceptional drought circumstances, when
drought conditions are beyond those that could be considered part of normal risk
management. Declarations of exceptional drought are based on science-driven
assessments. Previously, when drought was less well defined from a policy
standpoint and less well understood by farmers, some farmers in the semiarid
Australian climate claimed drought assistance every few years.

Operational Definitions

Operational definitions help define the onset, severity, and end of droughts. No
single operational definition of drought works in all circumstances, and this is a
big part of why policy makers, resource planners, and others have more trouble
recognizing and planning for drought than they do for other natural disasters. In
fact, most drought planners now rely on mathematic indices to decide when to
start implementing water conservation or drought response measures.

To determine the beginning of drought, operational definitions specify the degree

of departure from the average of precipitation or some other climatic variable
over some time period. This is usually done by comparing the current situation to
the historical average, often based on a 30-year period of record. The threshold
identified as the beginning of a drought (e.g., 75% of average precipitation over
a specified time period) is usually established somewhat arbitrarily, rather than
on the basis of its precise relationship to specific impacts.

An operational definition for agriculture might compare daily precipitation values

to evapotranspiration rates to determine the rate of soil moisture depletion, then

express these relationships in terms of drought effects on plant behavior (i.e.,

growth and yield) at various stages of crop development. A definition such as this
one could be used in an operational assessment of drought severity and impacts
by tracking meteorological variables, soil moisture, and crop conditions during
the growing season, continually reevaluating the potential impact of these
conditions on final yield.

Operational definitions can also be used to analyze drought frequency, severity,

and duration for a given historical period. Such definitions, however, require
weather data on hourly, daily, monthly, or other time scales and, possibly,
impact data (e.g., crop yield), depending on the nature of the definition being
applied. Developing a climatology of drought for a region provides a greater
understanding of its characteristics and the probability of recurrence at various
levels of severity. Information of this type is extremely beneficial in the
development of response and mitigation strategies and preparedness plans.

Additional Resources

Drought Risk Atlas

The Drought Risk Atlas provides climate and drought data for more than 3,000
climate stations across the U.S. through 2012 for at least 40 and in some cases
more than 100 years.

The National Drought Mitigation Center | 3310 Holdrege Street | P.O. Box 830988
| Lincoln, NE 685830988
phone: (402) 4726707 | fax: (402) 4722946 | Contact Us

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Copyright 2015 National Drought Mitigation Center