news·5 min read

The US Is Feeling the Heat. What Droughts, Heat Waves, And Wildfires Have To Do With It.

A montage of images showing a drought, wildfire, and person pouring water on themselves because of the heat
Photos: iStock and Getty Images | Design: Camille Rapay
Jul 28, 2022

Summer 2022 has seen a double whammy of worsening droughts and record hot temperatures. Both of which are contributing to wildfires. And yes, climate change is largely to blame. Experts have been sounding the alarm that things will only get worse if the US doesn’t get its act together. Think: Even more devastating wildfires could be on the horizon. And if that seems far off in the future, here’s how these incendiary conditions are negatively impacting you today.

But first, a temperature check of what’s happening with droughts and extreme heat

From rising temperatures to changes in rainfall. Here’s what this means for…

  • The megadrought: It's not anything new. Researchers say the last 22 years in the American West have been the driest in a very long time — aka the current megadrought. One analysis found extreme drought conditions in nearly 80% of the region. Hi, California, Nevada, Utah, and Oregon. But it’s not just affecting the West anymore — states like Texas are also starting to feel the effects of these disastrous conditions. 

  • Heat waves: Summer always brings the heat. But experts have pointed out that the season is getting hotter and more extreme. From coast to coast, millions of Americans have been dealing with excessive heat warnings and advisories. The triple-digit temps have broken records and led to several heat-related deaths. But the effects of sweltering heat and dry conditions stretch even further. 

PsstHere are some tips to stay safe during a heat wave.

How Americans’ everyday lives are being turned upside down

Now, experts are also worried that the current dry and hot conditions — which are exacerbated by climate change — will have a ripple effect. And you don’t have to guess how communities will be impacted. Many Americans are already seeing it with…

  • Wildfires: One analysis found that as of July 27, there are more than 70 large wildfires burning across the US. In California, the Oak Fire near Yosemite National Park is the largest wildfire of the season so far. And has burned more than 19,000 acres — forcing thousands of people to evacuate. In Alaska, 530 wildfires have reportedly burned an area the size of Connecticut. A UN report found that the number of devastating wildfires could increase by 50% globally by the end of the century. 

  • The water supply: Lakes, rivers, and reservoirs are drying up around the country. The Colorado River — which provides water for 40 million people — has reportedly lost 20% of its levels in the past two decades. Lake Mead levels are at historic lows. Think: It’s only at 27% capacity and practically unrecognizable. When water sources drop in levels it’s a major problem. That’s because they hold water for millions of people’s homes, help farmers irrigate their land, and maintain livestock, bringing us to…

  • The agriculture industry: California alone produces more than one-third of the US’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts. But lack of water can damage farmland and hinder crop growth. In Texas, some ranchers have no option but to sell their cattle earlier than normal. It comes as the state battles a drought that’s impacted its water supply and the grass used to feed them. In the long run, it could all lead to higher prices at the butcher shop. 

  • The electric grid: In June, demand for power in Texas reached an all-time high as residents tried to beat the scorching heat. While the state’s power grid was able to keep up with demand, experts said severe heat could cause power plants to fail — prompting blackouts. That’s yet to happen. Meanwhile, officials flagged that severe drought conditions in California could cut the amount of power generated by hydropower. That’s because they require water to run. It’s all got state officials looking for ways to practice conservation. 

How states (and you) can try to beat the heat

Multiple state officials gripped by this extreme drought have declared a drought state of emergency and called for water usage limits. Think: Avoiding long showers. But it’s unclear if these efforts will be enough given the shrinking water reservoirs. Or, when conditions will begin to ease up and provide communities with much-needed relief. In the meantime, here’s what you can do to stay prepped for:

  • A potential drought: The best thing to do is to conserve water. Even things like fixing a dripping faucet can help. Find out how much water you could be wasting here. Choose appliances that are more energy and water efficient. Replace your shower head with one that has a low flow. Stay informed by keeping up with the gov’s National Integrated Drought Information System. Or check out the US Drought Monitor’s map of how the drought is changing (it's updated weekly).

  • A drought: Take short showers. Don’t let the water run when brushing your teeth. Only use the washing machine or dishwasher when you have full loads. If your lawn needs to be watered, only do so in the morning or evening when temps are cooler. Plenty more tips here

  • A potential wildfire: Have an evacuation plan. Know where you will go if you have to evacuate and the best routes out of your home and community. Organize different kits — one for the house and one to evacuate — with food, water, and medicine. Have a backup battery or way to charge your phone. Or a battery-powered radio so you can keep up-to-date with the news.

  • An actual wildfire: Monitor fires and weather conditions near you. Be ready to evacuate with your prepared kit. Remember, authorities might issue evacuation orders at any moment. For more tips, check out the American Red Cross

theSkimm

Climate change isn’t going away anytime soon. Severe droughts and extreme heat are only expected to worsen. Their current impact on different industries shows that the country isn’t prepared for what’s to come.

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