Droughts and Heatwaves

As the average temperature increases across the world, heat waves are more frequent and more intense. This is because there is a greater number of warm days throughout the year. In the U.S., climate change has increased the probability of record-breaking temperatures by 1,500%! Because the average temperature increases, the threshold for hot weather also increases. In other words, the maximum temperature increases with the average temperature. 

While heatwaves only last a few days, or at most a few weeks, droughts are a similar phenomenon that can last much longer. As climate change increases the rate of evaporation, it can dry up the soil in areas with already low-precipitation. This precipitates prolonged drought on its own. However, it also creates a "positive feedback" event where the dry soil leads to less plant cover, combining to result in less evaporation due to lower amounts of water in the area. As a result, there is less precipitation, which again leads to drought. This cycle is self-fulfilling because one event leads to another. In addition, climate change's effect on atmospheric rivers has a negative effect on precipitation in many regions, leading again to more drought. 


Droughts and heatwaves are serious concerns across the world. First, droughts affect crop yields and livestock by drying up the soil. Secondly, droughts and heatwaves dry up trees, making them brittle and easily susceptible to wildfires. Thirdly, droughts are dangerous because they can cause water scarcity, where there is not enough water for all the people. This can thrust many into poverty, as they are not able to sustain their livelihoods. In countries with prolonged and recurring drought, water scarcity can turn into (and has turned into) small- or large-scale conflict.

Similarly, droughts cause downturns in the economy, through both lower agricultural productivity, a dip in the job market as it is harder to sustain businesses, and a decrease in tourism. Drought can also affect the economy through secondary impacts, where the supply and demand market is altered due to lower demand for workplace- or agricultural-related commodities, such as pesticides, while higher demand for necessities such as food, water, and electricity.

Droughts and heatwaves also disproportionately affect disadvantaged communities, namely minority communities. Disadvantaged communities have a higher rate of heart conditions, on average, and often lack good healthcare access, resulting in higher hospitalization and death rates due to heat-related conditions during droughts and heatwaves. Also, disadvantaged communities often have poor housing infrastructure and cannot affordably run air conditioning all day.

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Image: Restuccia, Richard. Young Crops on a Cracked, Drought-Ridden Land. August 16, 2016. Jain Irrigation. https://mk0jainsusacom0cy7l0.kinstacdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/AdobeStock_159466687-scaled.jpeg.

Ding, Ya, Michael J. Hayes, and Melissa Widhalm. “Measuring Economic Impacts of Drought: a Review and Discussion.” Disaster Prevention and Management: An International Journal 20, no. 4 (August 30, 2011): 434–46. https://doi.org/10.1108/09653561111161752.

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Last Updated: Mar 12, 2021

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