Below-average precipitation affects the amount of moisture in soil as well as the amount of water in streams, rivers, lakes, and groundwater.


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Earth Science, Climatology, Conservation, Anthropology

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A drought is a period of time when an area or region experiences below-normal precipitation. The lack of adequate precipitation, either rain or snow, can cause reduced soil moisture or groundwater, diminished stream flow, crop damage, and a general water shortage. Droughts are the second-most costly weather events after hurricanes.

Unlike with sudden weather events such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and thunderstorms, it is often difficult to pinpoint when a drought has started or when it has ended. The initial effects of a drought may be difficult to identify right away, so it may take weeks or months to determine that a drought has started. The end of a drought is hard to identify for the same reason. A drought may last for weeks, months, or even years. Sometimes, drought conditions can exist for a decade or more in a region. The longer a drought lasts, the greater the harmful effects it has on people.

Droughts affect people in a several ways. Access to clean drinking water is essential for all life, and sources of water may dwindle during a drought. Without the presence of water, people must bring in enough water from elsewhere to survive. Water is also needed for crops to grow. When not enough precipitation falls to naturally water crops, they must be watered by irrigation. Irrigation is possible only when there is enough water in nearby rivers, lakes, or streams, or from groundwater. During a drought, these water sources are diminished and may even dry up, preventing crops from being irrigated and causing them to die off.

One person studying these problems is Alexandra Cousteau, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer whose latest initiative is Blue Legacy. She started Blue Legacy to raise awareness that we live on a water planet and must take care of it. Cousteau, the granddaughter of the famed ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, believes that water will be a crucial issue in this century. She predicts that water problems such as drought, storms, floods, and degraded water quality will create “water refugees:” people migrating in search of water. Cousteau stresses that we must do all we can to protect Earth’s valuable freshwater resources.

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
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Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
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Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Roza Kavak
Last Updated

April 3, 2024

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