Much of the western half of the United States is facing unusually acute droughts this summer. Almost 50% of the country is facing at least abnormal dryness as of July 27. There is exceptional drought in 7.4% of the nation, down from recent highs of 8.4% the week before and 8.6% on May 25. This is the most serious category classified by the government and can lead to broad crop and pasture loss, as well as water shortages.
The Department of Agriculture, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have collaborated to track and categorize droughts since 2000. The nation last recorded exceptional drought this widespread between June and October of 2011, when it affected 9% to 10% of the country for a total of 10 weeks. The extent of milder droughts this year is close to or greater than previous peaks.
Drought is hitting areas where such conditions have been uncommon. North Dakota has recorded 11 weeks of exceptional drought since May, affecting 8% to 18% of its land. The state last reached exceptional drought status for 11 weeks in 2017 and five weeks in 2006. Both times, the classification never extended to more than 8% of the state.
Meanwhile, Texas is currently drought-free. It has recorded exceptional drought 38% of the time since 2000, affecting an average of 4% of the state.
Last year, milder droughts primarily impacted the Southwest, Northern California, and Oregon. The more intense and widespread droughts in 2021 have spread up the coast into Washington and across the northern border.
2011 and 2012 were the two worst drought years on record. Ten percent of the nation faced exceptional drought on July 12, 2011 — a decade-long high. The 2011 drought largely hit the Southern border, from New Mexico to Florida. It concentrated in Texas through August and September. In 2012, a record number of counties faced some level of drought. The most intense dry spells were in the Midwest.
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