Climate Crisis

Persistent drought is gripping over half of the US

Scientists have connected the reoccurring drought in the Western US to a changing climate.

Scientists have connected the reoccurring drought in the Western US to a changing climate. Image: Unsplash/Oleksandr Sushko

Katharina Buchholz
Data Journalist, Statista
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Climate Crisis

  • The United States has been experiencing unusually hot and dry weather since late 2020, increasing risk of heat-induced medical emergencies and wildfires.
  • The water levels in Lake Mead have hit historic lows, with human remains traced back 40 or 50 years discovered in the shallow shores.
  • Droughts of different levels of severity are affecting almost 64% of the area of the continental United States, recent data shows.
  • Scientists have found a causal link between reoccurring droughts and a changing climate in the Western US.

Human remains discovered at the shores of Lake Mead as its water levels are at historic lows are just the latest consequence of a prolonged drought gripping the Western United States. One of the two bodies found was identified as a homicide victim who died around 40 or 50 years ago, spurring speculation that the person could have been a victim of mob crime that still was prevalent in nearby Las Vegas at that time.

Reoccurring drought

Since late 2020, the United States has been experiencing unusually hot and dry weather. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, extreme and exceptional drought affects the Southwest most, but stretches as far as Oregon, Montana, and South Dakota and even to the Texan Gulf and Louisiana.

The extreme circumstances have spurred demand for water and cooling, leaving reservoirs emptier than usual. With the drought also comes a heightened risk of heat-induced medical emergencies and wildfires.

As of May 3 2022, droughts of different levels of severity affected almost 64 percent of the area of the continental United States. The number has been above the 60-percent mark since September of 2020 with just a short break. While it has risen this high before, it rarely stayed there for so long. During the drought of 2018, it exceeded the threshold for only five weeks.

Between April 2012 and May 2013, droughts affected more than 60 percent of the United States’ area for 60 weeks in a row and expanded to around 80 percent momentarily. But even during that time, the area classified as under exceptional drought never exceeded 7 percent. In the current drought, it stayed consistently above 9 percent for 15 weeks between April and September of 2021. Most recently, the area under at least severe drought has been expanding to above 40 percent, a level not seen since 2012.

While fluctuating temperatures and very hot, very dry or very cold days are a normal phenomenon, these extreme weather events are expected to become more frequent and severe due to climate change. Scientists have connected the reoccurring drought in the Western U.S. to a changing climate, for example citing heatwaves that start earlier in the year and have become longer as well as stronger.

This chart shows the percent share of the continental United States' area under different levels of drought (2018-2022)
This chart shows the percent share of the continental United States' area under different levels of drought (2018-2022) Image: Statista
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