History of droughts in the U.S.
Defined by the National Weather Service as "a shortage of water over an extended period of time," droughts are a normal and natural part of Earth's weather cycle. Sometimes, however, a lack of water is far more significant than just a cyclical dry spell. Although tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, and fires are more dramatic and alarming, severe droughts are often far more widespread, more devastating, more expensive, and harder to manage than the violent natural disasters that tend to grab headlines. Making matters worse, droughts can create or encourage a range of secondary environmental catastrophes like fires, crop failures, mudslides, sinkholes, destroyed roadways, massive fish kills, locust swarms, and—although it seems counterintuitive—severe floods.
Throughout U.S. history, droughts have turned vast swaths of farmland to dust, created panic, killed millions of cattle and other animals, and forced widespread human migration, financial depression, and starvation. The worst droughts, however, have also sparked major reforms. In California, for instance, droughts led to creation of the Central Valley Project, the State Water Project, the urban conservation movement, and the Drought Emergency Water Bank.
The direct and indirect costs of drought total more than $9 billion a year in the United States alone, and that expense is set to rise as droughts become more prevalent and severe. Although global warming is often portrayed in the media as a debate, there is direct and irrefutable evidence linking climate change to increased instances of severe drought beyond the dry spells that are a natural part of the planet's cycles. Warming temperatures over the past century have directly contributed to major droughts across the country, but particularly in the American West. It was only in 2019 that California finally got relief from a catastrophic dry spell that defined the state's ecology throughout much of the past decade.
Here's a look at the worst droughts in U.S. history, starting long before America was a country or even a concept, and ending with the droughts that plague us today.
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10th century–14th century: Megadrought
According to a report from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, the year 900 launched the start of a dry spell so significant that scientists refer to it as the "Megadrought." The event, which choked the Sierra Nevada and northwestern Great Basin, lasted centuries until tapering off around 1300. A variety of data back up this claim, but tree-ring studies provide the best and most accurate timeline of the catastrophe.
14th century–19th century: Mississippi River Valley drought
Massive earthen mounds still stand where the city-states of the Mississippian American Indian culture once thrived in the Mississippi River Valley 1,000 years ago. Unfortunately for the corn-based society, according to NPR, a "profound drought" set in around 1350, triggering the Little Ice Age in Europe and setting off an intense dry spell triggered by dry Arctic air pouring in through the Gulf of Mexico. The catastrophic drought would last as long as 500 years, much longer than the culture whose crucial corn crops were obliterated by the changing climate.
1841: Sonoma drought
Before the 1849 Gold Rush brought masses of pioneers pouring into California, early settlers grappled with extreme environmental conditions. Today, California's Sonoma County is one of the most fertile and productive agricultural landscapes in the world. In 1841, however, a severe drought rendered Sonoma "unsuitable for agriculture," according to the California Climate and Action Network, and the entire Sacramento Valley was little more than "a barren wasteland."
1850s–1860s: Civil War drought
By the middle of the 19th century, huge numbers of people, horses, and farm animals had already flooded into the Great Plains—enough to affect the land and its ability to tolerate drought. According to the Earth Institute at Columbia University, drought is exactly what the region got starting in the mid-1850s. The so-called Civil War drought annihilated entire herds of bison—which once numbered in the millions—that were already being hunted to near extinction by pioneers and settlers.
1864: Central Valley drought
In one of the most dramatic environmental flip-flops in American history, California's Central Valley was flooded so severely between 1861 and 1862 that it turned into a 300-mile long, 20-mile wide "inland sea," according to Scientific American. The floods submerged Sacramento under 10 feet of water, killed thousands of people and hundreds of thousands of cattle while triggering widespread and deadly mudslides. Just two years later in 1864, however, the region was gripped in a drought so severe that a lack of water was a great danger to people and animals.
1874: Year of the Locusts
In 1874, a relatively modest drought led to a catastrophe of truly biblical proportions across much of the American Plains and the West. When a dry spell set in at the end of 1873, most of the Colorado Territory, Montana Territory, Wyoming Territory, Dakota Territory, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, Texas, and present-day Oklahoma were inundated with clouds of Rocky Mountain locusts so thick that they blocked out the sun for up to six hours at a time. Locusts thrive in drought conditions, and when they descended, the insects devoured every crop in sight, causing widespread starvation and terror, and forcing waves of countless settlers to pack up, reverse course and head back East. Kansas alone lost one-third of its population.
1890–96: 1890s drought
The 1890s drought, which affected the Plains and much of the West, actually started in the late 1880s on the heels of a severe winter that had already killed scores of cattle. The catastrophe, however, led to reform. The drought ended the prevailing wisdom that hardy, determined settlers alone were enough to convert wilderness into farmland. The environmental and social disaster would lead to the federalization of American settlement in the West and the federalization of water management and irrigation.
1928–34: Seven-year California drought
The year 1928 was the beginning of one of several distinct and significant 20th-century California droughts. According to the California Water Science Center, the seven-year California drought predated most of the state's major water projects, like the State Water Project and the Federal Central Valley Project. The drought was so severe that it compelled officials to begin planning reservoir operations and to establish shortage criteria for water supply contracts in the state.
1931–41: Dust Bowl
The Dust Bowl is the most famous environmental catastrophe in U.S. history, and although irresponsible farming practices and land mismanagement contributed to the disaster, the Dust Bowl—which coincided with the already devastating Great Depression—was essentially the result of drought. According to the National Drought Mitigation Center, the calamity—which turned millions of tons of topsoil into dust that went airborne in massive storms—was actually caused by four distinct droughts that ravaged the South Central portion of the United States in the 1930s.
1950–57: Great Dry Up
Sometimes known as the Texas Drought, the Great Dry Up devastated most of the Lone Star State for seven brutal years—years that still are vivid in the memories of those who survived it, according to the San Antonio Express-News. Across the state, crops withered, cattle died, farms turned to dust, and farmers burned the thorns off of cactuses to feed their herds. In the end, 236 of Texas's 254 counties were declared disaster areas, but the episode became the catalyst for the modern era of conservation.2018 All rights reserved.