Climate change is causing droughts everywhere

Caught in some tinder-dry brush, a sunken boat sits aslant on the dry lakebed.
A sunken boat reemerges in September 2022 in Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada, after unprecedented drought. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Much of the Northern Hemisphere is struggling with drought or the threat of drought, as Europe experiences an unusually warm, precipitation-free winter and swaths of the American West remain mired in an epic megadrought.

But it’s not just those pockets feeling the pain in the U.S. Most of the Western United States is in some form of drought, with areas of extreme drought concentrated in the Great Plains and Texas. A 23-year megadrought has left the Southwest at the driest it is estimated to have ever been in 1,200 years, based on tree-ring data.

That’s very bad news for Texas cotton farmers. The New York Times recently reported that “2022 was a disaster for upland cotton in Texas,” leading to short supplies and high prices of tampons and cloth diapers, among other products. “In the biggest loss on record, Texas farmers abandoned 74 percent of their planted crops — nearly six million acres — because of heat and parched soil, hallmarks of a megadrought made worse by climate change,” the Times noted.

Even recent heavy storms in California haven’t brought the state out of drought, because the precipitation deficit is so big.

A car throws up brown water on a flooded farm road.
A car drives through a flooded road in Gilroy, Calif., in January. (Michael Ho Wai Lee/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

“I want to be clear that these storms — and the likely rain and snow we may get over the next few weeks — did not, nor will they fully, end the drought, at least not yet,” Yana Garcia, secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, said last Wednesday. “We’re in better shape than we were two months ago, but we’re not out of the woods.”

Just days earlier, Lake Powell, the second-largest U.S. reservoir, dropped to a new record low. Powell is created by a Colorado River dam along the Arizona-Utah border, and if the reservoir goes much lower, experts warn, water won’t be able to pass through it. Millions of people who rely on the Colorado would then lose access to their water supply.

“If you can’t get water out of the dam, it means everyone downstream doesn’t get water,” Brad Udall, a water and climate scientist at Colorado State University, told USA Today. "That includes agriculture, cities like Los Angeles, San Diego and Phoenix." The hydroelectric power plant for which the dam was constructed would also cease to function.

When the current 23-year megadrought plaguing the American West began, Lake Powell and Lake Mead — the largest U.S. reservoir, also on the Colorado — were 95% full. Now, they’re one-quarter full, according to Udall.

Bone-dry logs and driftwood seen against craggy formations of igneous rock.
Logs and driftwood on Sept. 8, 2022, near Hite, Utah, remain where they settled when Lake Powell was at its highest-ever water level. (David McNew/Getty Images)

In order to prevent what one California official calls “a doomsday scenario,” the Department of the Interior will have to impose reductions in water allotments for downriver users.

Scientists say that the underlying conditions — growing demand for water and naturally occurring periodic drought — are being exacerbated by climate change. Warmer temperatures cause more water to evaporate, making both droughts and heavy precipitation more extreme. Climate change makes droughts “more frequent, longer, and more severe,” according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

"It’s unfortunate that the largely natural occurrence of a drought has coincided with this increasing warming due to greenhouse gases," Flavio Lehner, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Cornell University, said. "That has brought everything to a head much earlier than people thought it would."

In Europe, an unusually warm, dry winter has forced ski resorts in the Alps to close for lack of snow, and left the canals of Venice running dry in Italy. Some of the city’s iconic gondolas are stuck in the mud. Europe experienced its third-warmest January on record, France has seen a record dry spell of 31 days without rain, and the Alps have received less than half their normal snowfall so far this winter.

Last Wednesday, Britain’s National Drought Group warned that one hot, dry spell would return England to the severe drought conditions it endured last summer.

A rubber tire sits on the dry, cracked earth of a reservoir floor, with a two-tier bridge in the distance.
Low water levels at Baitings Reservoir on Aug. 12, 2022, reveal an ancient packhorse bridge amid a heatwave in the U.K. at Ripponden, West Yorkshire. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

The threat goes beyond tourism: A study published last month by researchers from Graz University of Technology in Austria warned that Europe’s drinking water supply has become “very precarious.” Much of Europe has been in a drought since 2018, and a review of satellite data of groundwater confirmed acute shortages in parts of France, Italy and Germany.

“A few years ago, I would never have imagined that water would be a problem here in Europe,” Torsten Mayer-Gürr, one of the researchers, said.

This development follows a summer of record-breaking heat waves and droughts that left thousands dead across the continent, as well as the worst wildfire season on record. Europe’s hot, dry summer coincided with acute droughts in the U.S. — even in normally wet regions like the Northeast — and in Asia. The dropping water levels revealed buried artifacts, including the wreckage of a German World War II warship in Serbia, dead bodies in Lake Mead and ancient Buddhist statues in China’s Yangtze River.

Last summer’s drought across the Northern Hemisphere was made 20 times more likely by climate change, according to an October 2022 study by World Weather Attribution, a group of international scientists who explore the link between global warming and the increasingly frequent and severe extreme weather events it causes.

An emaciated cow stands at the bottom of the water pan, with caked earth slopes rising behind that has been dried up for 4 months in Iresteno, a bordering town with Ethiopia, on September 1, 2022. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images)
An emaciated cow stands at the bottom of a water pan that has been dried up for 4 months, in Iresteno, a town bordering Ethiopia, on Sept. 1, 2022. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images)

The worst impacts of ongoing drought are being felt in the Horn of Africa, where millions of residents in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are contending with food insecurity due to poor harvests. The region faces a forecast of a sixth consecutive low rainy season this spring.

Meanwhile, it’s summer in the Southern Hemisphere, and crop yields are being diminished by drought there as well. Argentina is a leading exporter of soy and corn, but its production is being drastically reduced this year as extremely high temperatures exacerbate a drought.

Climate scientists say that adaptation to climate change-related droughts is essential, including reducing water usage and building new infrastructure, like aquifers, to better manage water resources.