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The Drought in North America

Written by Jacob Anderson


Introduction

Mexico began experiencing drought conditions as early as March 2021, with 85% of the country experiencing drought conditions by mid-April. By early May, drought conditions had spread to the U.S. Southwest, with Governor Gavin Newsom declaring drought in California on the 10th of May. Discussions about drought conditions in parts of the Canadian prairie were ongoing by about this time as well. A distinctly hot and dry 2020 primed the American West for drought in 2021. The American West and Southwest saw record-high heat with record low rainfall during the 2020 North American Monsoon season (April through September), while the Northwest and North saw above-average temperatures and below-average rainfall. The infamous 2020 wildfire season was partly a result of these high temperatures and lack of rainfall. Additionally, the 2020-21 dry season was also notably dry. Mexico, for example, received approximately 20% less rainfall than normal during this period. The 2021 Monsoon season is currently underway, and it has brought some immediate relief, especially regarding fire risk. However, its ability to provide long-lasting relief remains in doubt.


Economic Impact

North America ranks as one of the wealthiest and most economically vital areas in the world, with a GDP of over $23 trillion U.S. in 2019. Areas of significant economic contribution which find themselves under drought conditions include Vancouver, Canada’s only major warm-water Pacific port, the Mexico City metro, which represents more than 21 million people and more than $266 billion U.S. in economic activity, and the entirety of the state of California, which represents - entirely on its own - the fifth largest economy in the world and the source of a significant portion of the fruits and vegetables consumed in the U.S. and Canada. The U.S. alone produces nearly three-quarters of a trillion tons of major agricultural products in a given year and is the primary source for a significant portion of Mexico’s cereal grains. In return, Mexico provides a great deal of the fresh fruits and vegetables not produced domestically in the U.S., especially off-season produce. The present drought has forced farmers to abandon, liquidate, or sell early portions of nearly every kind of crop, but of particular note are cereal grains and livestock, who exist in a certain symbiosis as a major market for grains is livestock feed. In the plains along the U.S.-Canadian border, cereal crops are being abandoned at more than three times the normal rate. The combination of hotter, drier weather and less available feed - both grazing and cereal feed - has led to decreased dairy production and increased early livestock sales. In some cases, the severe conditions have killed livestock.


Long-Term Effects

Frequently, drought begets drought, as seen with how 2020’s low rainfall affected the current dry conditions. Additionally, long-term drought can eventually permanently alter natural environments, most notably by the process of desertification. Drought can also weaken native species and either open the door for invasive species or start a chain reaction whereby other native species are in turn affected by the loss of species affected directly by drought. Desertification, the process by which fertile land becomes desert, is a concern around the globe, and much of the discussion begins with the slow creep south of the Sahara into areas that were previously forest or grassland. However, it is also a particular concern in the Americas, especially in Mexico and the Western United States. Long and frequent droughts are a key part of the process of desertification, preventing the threatened fertile land from getting the water and retaining the species it needs to stave off the desert. In the United States, the line between the fertile East and more arid West has long been drawn at the 100th Meridian, an arbitrary but, for many years, reasonably accurate point of demarcation. However, there is increasing evidence that that line has shifted east but almost 150 miles to roughly the 98th meridian. This new line currently lines up roughly with a stretch of Interstate 35 which runs from Austin, Texas through Dallas- Fort Worth, Oklahoma City, and up to Wichita, Kansas. In Mexico, this would exclude virtually all of the country west of Veracruz, and in Canada would grow closer to Winnipeg (though the line is less useful there).


Previously, as far west as San Antonio was considered part of the “east,” which had higher rainfall and better soil production, making it ideal for agriculture and habitation of all sorts. This trend risks putting the major population centers of Texas in a situation not unlike Arizona or southern California, with a rapidly increasing population but rapidly decreasing rainfall. In the long term, however, one of the most significant threats is to aquifer and reservoir levels west of the Mississippi. Reservoirs and aquifers in Mexico and the U.S. west of the Mississippi have been under stress for years, and the present drought has put reservoir levels at the lowest they’ve been in decades.


Conclusion

Increasing populations in Mexico and the American west will only continue the long-term pressure on these water sources, and reservoirs especially will be pushed to the brink by efforts to combat wildfires that are becoming endemic to the region. For policymakers and individual citizens across North America, but especially those in Mexico and the western United States, water conservation, fire prevention, and soil retention are the primary environmental concerns for the years to follow.


Supplemental Materials

North American Drought Map as of June 30th:


West-East Division Shift (100th to 98th Meridian):



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