How Can a Drought This Big Sneak up on Us?

Drought is still too unpredictable. Photo: Tomas Castelazo, Wikimedia Commons


Weather forecasting has gotten a lot better in the U.S. in the last 20 years — today, the four-day forecast is as accurate as the two-day forecast was in 1988. And storm forecasting — both for tropical storms, like Isaac, and winter storms — is also dramatically better.

But seasonal forecasting remains poor, and the current drought — which is wreaking literally billions of dollars of damage to farmers and business people across the country — is a vivid example. (See photos of the drought.)

As recently as May, according to this excellent analysis by Andrew Freedman of “Climate Central,” the U.S. Agriculture Department was predicting the biggest corn harvest in the U.S. since 1937, based in part on how much corn farmers were planting.

In April, May, and June, the National Weather Service’s drought outlook “showed no hint of an impending widespread drought, let alone one of the top 10 worst droughts on record,” as Freedman put it.

So while farmers across the country were spending money to plant crops, they had no hint of the devastating weather just a few weeks over the horizon.

How could weather forecasters not be able to anticpate a drought of this severity and extent, that was just around the corner?

Quite simply, the tools scientists have to understand seasonal climate aren’t up to the task. Those tools could be better, but NOAA and NWS aren’t getting the resources they need to gather detailed data about weather, and to develop the sophisticated computer models that would help them see large seasonal weather patterns developing.

The total NOAA budget — which includes not just weather prediction but operation of satellites, along with fisheries management — is $5 billion. The drought is estimated to be costing at least twice that — $10 billion — in damage to the U.S. economy, in just this single year.

Good, reliable weather forecasting is a quiet but essential tool for keeping the economy productive. Freedman’s story, “Lack of Warning on Drought Reflects Forecasting Flaws,” is discouraging for what could have been avoided had we known the drought was coming, but a reminder that relatively small investments in weather science pay huge dividends.


Charles Fishman is an award-winnning investigative journalist and best-selling author whose most recent book, “The Big Thirst,” tackles the question of how people can successfully manage water in a coming age of scarcity. He can be contacted at cnfish@mindspring.com.

Charles Fishman is an award-winning investigative journalist and New York Times bestselling author who has spent the last four years traveling the world to understand and explain water issues. His recently released book about water, "The Big Thirst," has been widely praised by sources as varied as The Washington Post and the science journal Nature for its captivating storytelling and its incisive explanation of water, water issues, and our rapidly changing relationship to water. Fishman continues to report, write and speak about water issues. Contact him at: cnfish@mindspring.com
  • Studying Geophysics

    people worry about so many things, but forget to give due attention to what really matters


    To me, this food crisis showed the limit of climate predictions/business forecast modeling and climate variabilities-
    In principle country climates are not changing, while country seasons are changing. What we see today with global warming,…it is a reversal trend of weather and hydrology pattern changes with climate moving away from the standards, as well as seasons – being the same during the annual calendars,…-

    All is about food price and food price controls,…..the issue would be to have due diligence that can supply in the instant to the default- so people cannot starve, because they cannot buy the foods -or waste the food-

    Economist Dr. E. F. Schumacher used to say that mass manufacturing had disconnected people from their own concerns of life. It meant people were not able to produce because of the competition between small business and big supermarket able to cut costs- When all worked well it is good, but look what can happen, if the weather disrupted the rational logic, and no due diligence has been implemented- It can be a disaster…..Probably, there is this idea to make production tools to lesser sizes in order to reduce titanic risks

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