New England’s ‘Flash Drought’ Got Worse. Experts Worry It’s ‘Just the Beginning’

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Chris Kurth, owner of Siena Farms, looks out at a sprinkler being used to irrigate his crops in Sudbury, Massachusetts, July 26, 2016. Credit: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Chris Kurth, owner of Siena Farms, looks out at a sprinkler being used to irrigate his crops in Sudbury, Massachusetts, July 26, 2016. Credit: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

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A “flash drought” touching much of the Northeast, including every state in New England, has continued to intensify this summer, federal forecasters warned last week. The situation is prompting officials to issue fresh warnings of possible wildfires and even implement new water restrictions, with some experts worried the unusual dry spell could signal an emerging pattern in the region—far from the historic megadrought that has plagued the American West for the past two decades.

On Thursday, federal forecasters with the U.S. Drought Monitor upgraded large sections of eastern Massachusetts and southeast Rhode Island from “severe” to “extreme” drought, the second-most severe rating given by the agency. Drought conditions also expanded into parts of Connecticut, New Jersey and New York, including in New York City, where parts of Brooklyn are now seeing “severe” levels of drought for the first time in 20 years.

Last week, Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee issued a statewide drought advisory, asking residents to voluntarily dial back their water use. Several Massachusetts towns have also begun to enforce mandatory water restrictions, telling residents to “immediately cease using unnecessary water,” such as filling up pools. And this week, state officials in Connecticut, along with the National Weather Service, issued fresh warnings over potential wildfires, saying the threat of an outbreak in parts of the state were now “extreme.”

While the Northeast has experienced such droughts before, experts say the recent spate of summer dry spells has been unusual because of its frequency, speed and severity—a likely sign that climate change is exacerbating the situation. Several states in the area have experienced some degree of severe drought every summer since 2016, causing some experts to worry the streak foreshadows an emerging pattern for a region that many have considered relatively insulated from the threats of global warming.

“We hope this is maybe one period of peaking of drought and we get back to many more years of normal precipitation,” Vandana Rao, director of water policy in Massachusetts, told The Associated Press. “But it could just be the beginning of a longer trend.”

In fact, more than half of the United States was facing some level of drought this month, after an especially dry and hot July, the U.S. Drought Monitor said in another recent update. Record-breaking heat this summer, spanning the nation’s coasts—and mirroring similar extreme weather in Europe and Asia—contributed to a “flash drought” developing in parts of the Midwest, South and Northeast, including in states such as Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Massachusetts.

Flash droughts are defined by the rapid onset or intensification of dry conditions, often in a matter of days, that are largely due to bouts of extreme heat, low precipitation and high winds. The areas now in “extreme drought” have received about half of the rainfall that they normally would over the last six months, federal officials said. That’s about 9 to 11 inches less than normal.

Some cities saw even less rain. Federal officials say that Providence, Rhode Island, had less than half an inch of rainfall in July, making it the city’s third driest on record. Similarly, Boston had six-tenths of an inch that month, making it the fourth driest on record. And while parts of the Northeast have seen short bursts of heavy rainfall this summer, such quick downpours tend to run off rather than properly saturate the soil, therefore offering little relief.

That rapid acceleration makes flash droughts especially threatening to industries like farming. Federal officials warn that flash droughts can quickly cause extensive damage to agriculture, ecosystems and economies. Many farmers in Northeastern states are now scrambling to prepare for potentially worse months ahead. In Massachusetts, where the entire state is now officially considered in drought, farmers are already reporting crop losses.

Such losses are only compounding an already tough market for farmers, who have dealt with a year of skyrocketing inflation and a summer of erratic, record-breaking weather nationwide. On Monday, federal forecasters warned of yet another summer heat wave expected to impact much of the country this week, prompting heat advisories in Oregon, Washington, California, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Some cities along the West Coast and in the South are expected to hit oppressive temperatures nearing 110 degrees Fahrenheit by Wednesday. Many of those states are also under heightened warnings for flash floods this week.

Parts of the Northeast and the Gulf Coast could see much needed rain this week, too, forecasters said Monday. But many also noted that it’s unlikely that precipitation will be enough to break or even alleviate drought conditions.

Scientists worry that without far more intervention—including more quickly moving the economy away from the burning of fossil fuels—much of the United States will continue to face increasingly unwieldy weather conditions in the coming decades. By 2053, around 107 million Americans can expect to see temperatures above 125 degrees Fahrenheit during the hottest stretches of the year, more than 10 times the number expected currently, according to a study published Monday.

Consecutive days of extreme heat will occur most frequently on the West Coast, the study’s authors wrote, but “states in the Midwest, Southeast, and East Coast are most at risk of exposure to extremely dangerous temperatures, meaning virtually the entire country is subject to increasing perils associated with heat exposure.”

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