'Flash Drought' Has Spread to 14 States Across Southern U.S., Affecting Crops and Water Supplies

A "flash drought" is affecting 14 southern states as warmer than normal temperatures dominate the eastern two-thirds of the country, according to scientists.

The U.S. Drought Monitor has released its weekly report which reveals that currently nearly 20 percent of the lower 48 states are experiencing drought conditions, the Associated Press reported.

Extreme drought conditions are affecting several areas, including parts of Texas, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina and the Florida Panhandle, the report shows.

According to Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center in Nebraska, the drought developed rapidly in September due to a mixture of low rainfall and record heat in southern portions of the country.

Flash droughts can develop rapidly in the space of just a few weeks or months—unlike most droughts which take much longer to begin and recover—with significant implications for agriculture, water supplies, and the development of wildfires.

"Typically we look at drought as being a slow onset, slow-developing type phenomenon compared to other disasters that rapidly happen, so this flash drought term came about," Fuchs told the Associated Press. "The idea is that it's more of a rapidly developing drought situation compared to what we typically see."

Most locations had drought developing in the last 8-10 weeks, and the dry conditions are now putting stress on agricultural crops, according to Fuchs.

"Currently, most implications are related to agriculture with forage production and harvest issues being impacted for crops like cotton and peanuts," he told Newsweek.

Meanwhile, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant said the dry conditions had led to a rise in wildfires in the state. In response, Mississippi has temporarily banned outdoor burning, joining several other states—such as Texas, Alabama, Tennessee and West Virginia—which have done the same.

Water supplies are also being affected in some areas. For example, levels have dropped at Lake Larnier in Georgia—which provides much of the drinking water for the city of Atlanta.

The report notes that very dry conditions dominated regions in the Southern Plains, southern Midwest and along most of the East Coast. In the Southeast for example, temperatures over the past week were generally 9 to 12 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, with many areas remaining dry.

"Most of the region was dry with only small, isolated pockets of observed precipitation," the drought report said. "Many areas had their warmest and driest September on record, accelerating the drought conditions in the region with dryness going back 8 to 10 weeks now with associated high temperatures. In areas from Virginia south into northern Florida, degradation was widespread, with many new areas of severe and extreme drought added."

"Outside of coastal areas impacted by recent tropical weather, almost the entire region is abnormally dry or worse, with many areas seeing multiple class degradation over the last several weeks. New areas of extreme drought were added to Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina," the report states.

Temperatures were also 9 to 12 degrees above normal in the southern portions of the Midwest over the past week.

"Severe drought was expanded widely over Kentucky this week with a new area of extreme drought over eastern Kentucky," the report read. "Most all the rest of Kentucky was downgraded to moderate drought while areas of southern Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio had moderate drought and abnormally dry conditions expand. Abnormally dry conditions were also expanded to cover much of southeast Missouri."

Meanwhile, in the South and High Plains regions, abnormally dry conditions expanded over southeast Colorado in response to recent dry weather, while several new areas of extreme drought appeared in central and eastern Texas. Drought also expanded in portions of southern Arkansas, northern Louisiana and all of Mississippi.

Scientists say that climate change is disrupting the environmental systems which are responsible for precipitation, leading to more droughts, flash droughts and heavy rainfall in the country.

"What we know is that the so-called hydrological cycle—how water in its various forms moves through the climate system—is amplified under climate change, specifically, warming," Paul Roebber, from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, told Newsweek.

"The root cause of this is increased evaporation—drying the land—and the ability of warmer air to contain more water content. This means that both extreme precipitation events and drought are more frequent—and in the latter case, may be more long lasting," he said.

File photo. A "flash drought" is currently affecting a large swath of the United States. iStock

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