The Worst Droughts in U.S. History

A History of Drought

A skinny longhorn in west Texas drought.

A scrawny Longhorn in Big Bend Ranch State Park, West Texas. Lower-than-usual levels of vegetation have left both livestock and wildlife struggling to find food. [Read Full Story] (Image credit: Texas Parks and Wildlife)

Dry conditions are expected to become more common across central North America and the U.S. Southwest as the globe warms. But as much as climate change might exacerbate it, periods of drought have been common in American history. Here are some of the most devastating droughts this country has faced.

The Dust Bowl

Dust storms in Goodwell, Oklahoma, June 4, 1937.

Dust storms in Goodwell, Oklahoma, June 4, 1937. (Image credit: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.)

Also known as the "Dirty Thirties," the Dust Bowl period was the most destructive drought the United States has ever faced. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), at least 50,000,000 acres of land were affected. Poor soil management practices made matters worse; without native prairie grasses or cover crops to keep soil in place, the Great Plains quite literally turned to dust and blew away in enormous dust storms dubbed "black rollers" or "black blizzards."

The Dry 1950s

(Image credit: Drought (opens in new tab) via Shutterstock)

From 1950 to 1956, drought plagued the Great Plains and Southwest. Temperatures were hot and rain was scarce. In Texas, rainfall decreased by 40 percent between 1949 and 1951, according to the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC). In some places, crop yields fell by half.

Reed Eichelberger, the general manager of the San Jacinto River Authority in Texas, told the Texas Water Resources Institute (TWRI) about his recollections from that time, when he was a boy growing up on a Texas dairy farm.

"Probably the event that made the biggest impression on me was the need to haul water from a community well in [nearby] China Spring that was still producing water," Eichelberger told TWRI. "Graddad's dug well had gone dry, and we would go to town in his pickup with empty milk cans in the back and haul water back to the farm for not only cattle, but domestic use too. … With water so precious, Mom would prepare a big wash tub with water for us kids to bathe in; all using the same bath water."

Northeastern Drought

Public fountain

A girl drinks from a water fountain. (Image credit: Stephen Denness (opens in new tab), Shutterstock (opens in new tab))

Among the short-term droughts between the 1950s dry period and today was a widespread period of drought between 1962 and 1966 that hit much of the Northeastern United States. This Northeastern drought actually occurred in a period when temperatures were lower than average, but the rain disappeared. With precipitation at abnormal lows, water conservation kicked into gear in New York City, journalist Robert Cantwell reported in August 1965 in Sports Illustrated Magazine.

"[B]y this summer it was not surprising that a blimp bearing the ominous sign SAVE WATER was cruising over the otherwise cloudless skies about New York; that the city restaurants did not serve water unless patrons specifically asked for it; that fountains were turned off," Cantwell wrote. 

Devastation in '88

New trees in Yellowstone National Park.

Long after the 1988 Yellowstone National Park fires, new trees begin to replace burned ones. (Image credit: Sally Scott (opens in new tab), Shutterstock (opens in new tab))

The drought of 1987 to 1989 affected only 36 percent of the United States, but it managed to become the costliest drought in U.S. history. Estimates for the cost were pegged at $39 billion, according to the NCDC. The impact was worst in the northern Great Plains, though the West Coast and Northwest were also hit. Most memorably, perhaps, were the forest fires that accompanied the drought. In 1988, 793,880 acres of Yellowstone National Park burned, prompting the first complete closure of the park in history. 

Today's Drought

A map of national drought conditions as of July 10, 2012.

A map of national drought conditions as of July 10, 2012. (Image credit: USDA/National Drought Mitigation Center/Dept. of Commerce/NOAA)

Scientists and historians are calling the current dry spell the worst drought since the 1950s. More than 60 percent of the continental United States is in drought conditions, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has declared a disaster area in more than 1,000 counties countrywide. The current drought is a "flash drought," so named because the time frame has been on the scale of weeks to months, rather than years. A relatively dry winter combined with record heat in June and July has made moisture a rare site in many parts of the country. 

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.