A drought is a period of decreased water supply in a region. Drought is most frequently the result of a shortage of rainfall caused by the persistence of high-pressure systems in the atmosphere. Droughts have been known throughout history and are commonly seen as normal variations in weather. Some areas, however, are more prone to droughts than others. Droughts can be of short or long duration. Droughts frequently have significant impacts on whole ecosystems, including plants, agricultural systems, animals, human health, and regional economies. Moreover, droughts have had political effects, evoking popular discontent and demand for redress.

Droughts can diminish crop production, lead to social unrest, create permanent habitat destruction and desertification, motivate mass migration, create situations of starvation and dehydration, and create the needed situation for dust storms and massive erosion. The misery that drought brings can also create wars over natural resources, test political stability, and encourage the formation of new political parties.

Human activity can exacerbate the impact of a drought. In the American prairie lands, decades of bad agricultural techniques such as deep plowing of fine topsoil with tractors and displacing natural grasses that kept soil in place together with a lack of crop rotation, contour plowing, or use of cover crops and fallowed fields led to massive erosion in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

There were 20 straight months of drought in Texas in 1886–1887, and blizzards killed cattle during the winters. Recurrent droughts occurred during the 1890s, and the Plains suffered more droughts in the 1930s and 1950s. Also drought hit the wheat-producing areas of the Great Plains, and farmers went into debt and crisis in the late 1880s. The combined drought and debt intensified anger against grain-elevator owners, lenders, bankers, and railroads as the farmers felt long abused by these entities.

Discontented American farmers developed multiple organizations to address their grievances, which fueled the Populist movement and led to numerous new laws regarding transportation, banking, and tariffs designed to protect the environment and people's livelihood.

Climate scientists predict that as climate changes, there will be both more rain and more areas stricken by drought in the future. Increased heat and evaporation in some areas will result in more rain than normally expected while the number of droughts occurring will rise because climate change will be uneven, and currently dry places will get dryer. The areas of aridity will also grow larger.

Present-day populist movements on both the Right and Left are arguing over the proper response to global warming and related greenhouse gas emissions. Politics and global agreements will continue to influence the future of droughts.

John O'Sullivan

See also: Agricultural Issues, Regional ; Environmentalism ; Farmers’ Mutual Benefit Association (FMBA) ; Homestead Act (1862) ; New Deal ; Plains and Midwest, Populism in the ; Populism ; Progressive Farmer


Cooper, Michael. Dust to Eat: Drought and Depression in the 1930's. New York: Clarion Books, 2004.

Holmes, William. American Populism. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Co., 1994.

Withgott, Jay, and Scott Brennan. Environment: The Science behind the Stories. Portland, OR: Pearson, 2005.

Woodruff, Nan. As Rare as Rain. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1985.

(MLA 8th Edition)