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Climate change to make events like 2017 Northern Plains flash drought more likely
Theo Stein
/ Categories: Research Headlines, Climate

Climate change to make events like 2017 Northern Plains flash drought more likely

Short, sharp drought surprised scientists, caused $2.6 billion in losses

The 2017 Northern Plains drought hit hard and without warning, desiccating pastures, rangelands and wheat, sparking massive wildfires, and causing widespread livestock sell-offs across the Dakotas, northeastern Montana and the Canadian Prairies. Three months after its onset, the drought was relieved by soaking September rains, but not before it inflicted $2.6 billion in economic losses on the region.

A new report by NOAA and CIRES scientists pins the cause of the drought on failed spring rains and hot temperatures that super-charged the rapid loss of soil moisture. The report, The Causes, Predictability, and Historical Context of the 2017 U.S. Northern Great Plains Drought, found that while the 2017 drought was considerably shorter than the Dust Bowl or other significant 20th century droughts, aridification due to climate change will make droughts of similar intensity 20 percent more likely than in the past.

The progress of drought

The progress of drought

This time series from the U.S. Drought Monitor shows the progression of the 2017 Northern Plains flash drought.

NOAA research meteorologist Andy Hoell, one of the report’s authors, said some aspects of the drought were unprecedented in weather records that date to the late 1800s.

“The failed rains and high temperatures conspired to produce a tremendous decrease in soil moisture during one of the worst possible times for agriculture,” he said.

Hoell said several of the 2017 drought’s characteristics rank among the most severe on record in a region familiar with dry times. May-July precipitation ranked among the driest, and maximum temperatures among the hottest dating to 1895. The loss of soil moisture across three weeks in May and June also reached historic levels.

The severity of the drought and its surprise arrival prompted NOAA's National Integrated Drought Information System to commission the drought report and a companion report, Flash Drought: Lessons Learned From the 2017 Drought Across the U.S. Northern Plains and Canadian Prairies, to explore the evolution and impacts of the drought, as well as needs, gaps, and lessons learned.

Among the recommendations:

— Invest in drought monitoring and observation networks to improve early warning systems and provide decision makers better information to assess drought risk and response options.

— Improve seasonal forecasts by studying the physical processes that inform forecast models.

— Tap into producers’ local knowledge for early indicators of oncoming drought

— Implement drought mitigation and response plans that consider trade-offs and actions that benefit both people and ecosystem health.


For more information, visit the National Integrated Drought Information System website at drought.gov or contact Adam Lang at NIDIS: adam.lang@noaa.gov

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