Jay Robinson, a self-described “guy who babies his lawn,” discovered the Drought Monitor last spring.
Things hadn’t started to dry up yet in Connecticut, but Robinson was curious about parched parts of western United States, where enormous lakes are disappearing.
Now that all of his own state is in drought – and his lawn is in peril – Robinson regularly visits drought.gov, the federal government’s highly detailed, interactive, nearly real-time National Integrated Drought Information System website.
“One day I was looking at it eating a bag of popcorn, like I was at the movies,” said the retired Robinson. “It’s that good.”
The news it illustrates, however, is the opposite, Robinson said.
“Really bad,” he said.
As of this week, a significant portion of the United States, 54 percent, is in drought.
Within that portion, 39 percent is experiencing “moderate” drought.
But an equal portion is characterized as “severe” – and worse, “extreme.”
That is happening in the West – California, Nevada, Utah, Oregon, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Montana; and the Midwest – Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska.
All of the eastern third of the nation is drought-free, except for a small area that lights up “severe” orange and “extreme” red on the map – nearly all of Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, plus a few stretches of New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire and Maine.
The worst of the drought is hitting about 2 percent of the country. Called “exceptional,” it’s characterized by widespread loss of crops and pastures, and shortages in reservoirs, streams, and wells that are creating water emergencies.
“Exceptional” drought is occurring in central California, central Texas, southwestern Kansas, southwestern Nebraska, central Utah and central Oregon.
Nearly all of western land is experiencing some level of drought this year, Scientific American reports. Water use is restricted, crops are dying, wildfires are igniting, ranchers are selling their cattle because there’s nothing for them to eat, fishing is restricted because rivers are shallow. Lake levels are ultra-low, revealing sunken boats and human remains.
“The Western drought now in progress is being characterized as the worst in 1,200 years,” said Sylvia Reeves, regional drought information coordinator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Divisions of NOAA manage the drought portal with the National Drought Mitigation Center and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Drought Monitor, operated by the University of Nebraska, is a partner.
The portal was launched in 2008 and updated last year. Its mission is to monitor and predict drought, and offer information for how to prepare for it and manage it.
The site allows visitors to explore interactive data and maps by topic, down to the state and county. Viewers can learn about droughts dating back 2,000 years. Data and maps explain soil moisture, wildfire, water supply and “snow drought” – declines in frozen mountain snow that feeds water supplies when it melts.
The portal shows that the most drought-prone states in the last 20 years are Nevada and Arizona, followed by California, New Mexico, Utah and Idaho. Other states that have been in drought for 40 percent, 50 percent or more of the last two decades are in that region.
The maps show that the areas that experienced drought less than 10 percent of the time, or not at all, are the Great Lakes region and the Northeast, with one exception.
In the last 20 years Connecticut has experienced drought 10 percent to 20 percent of the time, a level above neighboring states.
The Northeast has a diverse climate not usually associated with drought, but in 2000, 2016, and 2020, the region experienced historic drought conditions not seen since the 1960s. Reeves, who used to live in Connecticut and now lives in New York, said the Northeast has “flash” droughts.
“We have a lot of rain in the spring and maybe some winters with normal snowpack, then in June we get a week or two without rain, then a week or two with abnormally high temperatures, and then we’re in drought,” Reeves said. “Drought here is like a hibernating bear – it goes away in the winter and no one thinks about it. But the bear is back in the spring.”
According to the portal, 87 percent of Connecticut is in severe drought this week. Only the lower portion of Fairfield County is experiencing moderate drought.
Thirteen percent of the state – an eastern portion from New London to the Rhode Island border, and north to Massachusetts – is in extreme drought. It means crop loss is widespread; Christmas tree farms are stressed; dairy farmers are struggling financially, more wells are being drilled; fire danger and disease outbreaks in wildlife are increased.
The drought in Connecticut and surrounding states is expected to persist through the fall, according to the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center.
At the Lowell branch of the University of Massachusetts, researchers are wrapping up a three-year study of drought in the Northeast, Reeves said. The results are due in the spring. Researchers hope to increase understanding of the weather patterns that create heat waves and droughts.
“It’s exciting because it will focus on the Northeast, where the patterns aren’t as clear,” Reeves said.