Record Droughts, Torrential Rains—Is This the New Norm?

Heavy rains and major flooding have upturned states from Florida to the Midwest and up and down the East Coast, causing havoc for millions of people, and turning my driveway into a roaring creek.

Yet despite all that wet, drought still affects 44 percent of the nation, mostly in the West. The biggest droughts in memory racked the U.S. last year, with climatologists comparing them to the 1930s Dust Bowl; 2012 was also the hottest year on record.

What’s going on? This continual flooding-drought-flooding-drought pattern —brought on by the planet’s changing climate—and the inherent damage it is wreaking has now become so common it has its own moniker: flash drought.

Thanks primarily to the changing jet-stream patterns we’ve seen in the past few years, extremes have become the norm. Warmer than extremely warm springs and summers, with little precipitation, follow average winters.

When the rains do come, as they have these past few weeks, they pound down onto dry, cracked land that can’t absorb them, flooding streams, rivers, creeks and lakes, and rendering farm fields unworkable.

Despite the torrential rains of the last couple weeks, 2013 is off to an even drier start than 2012 or 2011. Over half of the lower 48 states are still enduring abnormally dry conditions. In seven states, more than 80 percent of the land is considered to be in “severe drought.”

While dry, hot summers are a pain for urban residents, it’s farmers who are taking the biggest hit. Two thousand counties across the U.S. last year were designated disaster areas, thanks to the drought, costing the U.S. GDP $150 billion.

The result for 2013 is that the cost of food is expected to go up by four percent.

Winter wheat crops were seriously damaged by the “flash drought” pattern; as of June 9, just 31 percent of the nation’s crop was in good or excellent condition. Beef is selling at record highs and prices are expected to climb; demand has risen at the same time supply has dropped. The country’s cattle herd is the smallest it’s been since 1952, and its feed—grasses, corn and soybeans—are far more expensive thanks to small yields due to the drought. Many small ranchers have been forced to sell their entire herds and get out of business altogether. The U.S. is the world’s largest exporter of cotton. Because of the drought—especially in Texas, where cotton is king—the nation’s crop was off 3.6 percent last year.

Looking ahead, though, dryness may not be our biggest concern. Last week the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) published a landmark 257-page report on the connection between climate change, population growth and sea-level rise.

It’s biggest worry?

Flooding.

The stats the report quoted for expected sea-level rise by 2010 are not new—an average of four feet. What was new was the prediction that between 40 to 45 percent of U.S. coasts and riverbanks will be at great risk of flooding.

The report blamed 70 percent of that increased risk on the impacts of climate change (the rest on population growth in low-lying areas). It also predicted that by 2100, the insurance industry would be paying out $11.2 billion per year in flood claims, compared to $3.2 billion in 2009.

Hmmmm. Where to relocate, to avoid flood and drought and other impacts of climate change? That has become the multibillion-dollar question.

How have floods and droughts already affected you? Let us know in the Comments.

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