Explaining drought to kids


A field of corn withers under triple-degree heat north of Wichita, Kan., in Sedgwick County. About 20 percent of the United States is experiencing the most severe types of drought. (Mike Hutmacher/Associated Press.)
August 6, 2012

If you’re thinking that this has been an extremely hot and extremely dry summer, you are right. But as bad as the heat has been here in our Mid-Atlantic region, there has been so little rain and so much heat in other parts of the country that they are experiencing a drought.

What is a drought? Well, it’s a very long period (this can be months or even years) with no rain or other types of precipitation. Drought rhymes with out, as in without rain! This drought is affecting as much as two-thirds of the United States, and about 20 percent of the country is experiencing the most severe types of drought. Experts at the U.S. Drought Monitor, which keeps track of these things, say this is the worst drought the country has experienced in more than 50 years.

And with the long-term weather forecast calling for little rain and lots of heat for the rest of the summer, the situation isn’t likely to get better anytime soon.

“Realistically, the forecast going forward is a continuation of warm, dry conditions through the end of August easily, and we may see them in the fall, ” said Brian Fuchs, who studies weather and climate at the University of Nebraska.

But when you turn on a faucet, water comes out right? (We’ll wait while you go and check). So why should you be concerned about a drought?

There are a few reasons.

●Droughts can lead to water limits. While people in Maryland, Virginia and Washington aren’t facing limits on when, how and how much water they can use, that’s not true everywhere in the country. In areas where the drought is at its worst (states including Illinois, Nebraska and Oklahoma), people are being told to conserve water.

●Drought conditions make wildfires worse. This is the time of year when huge fires can happen in parts of the country, particularly out West. With so much of the country’s land so dry, fires start and spread more quickly.

●Droughts cause the price of food to rise. Farmers who grow corn and soybeans have lost a lot of their crops because there hasn’t been enough rain; a lot of their crops have died. But you may be saying, “That’s okay. We don’t eat much corn and soybeans in our house, so my mom and dad won’t have to pay more money at the grocery store.”

Consider this story of the chicken and the egg.

When there’s less of something (say, corn) available, the price goes up. This is called the law of supply and demand. If there are more Pokemon cards than people who want to buy them, the price of the cards goes down. But if there are only a few Misty’s Psyduck cards and lots of people want them, then the prices go up.

Right now, because of the drought, there’s not much corn. But farmers need corn to feed their chickens. Say, for example, in a typical year, a farmer needs to feed a chicken 10 cents worth of corn for every egg she produces. The farmer can then sell the eggs for 20 cents each and make a profit of 10 cents per egg. But let’s say this year, that farmer needs to spend 15 cents for the same amount of corn. Then to make the same amount of profit, the farmer needs to raise the price of the eggs to 25 cents. The Agriculture Department says that chicken and egg prices will rise by 3.5 to 4 percent next year largely because of the effects of the drought.

All sorts of people, from meteorologists who study the weather to economists who study why things cost what they do, say this drought will affect all of us well into next year.

— Tracy Grant

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