Scientists Say: Drought

A drought is a period of unusually dry weather

a hand reaches for the wilted, brown leaves of a thirsty plant

When droughts lead to water shortages, it’s harder for crops and other plants to grow.

Guido Mieth/Getty Images

Drought (noun, “DROWT”)

A drought is a period of unusually dry weather that lasts long enough to cause water shortages. These periods of little rainfall or snowfall can last weeks, months or even years. And they can happen anywhere in the world. Some 55 million people are affected by droughts each year.

Changes in the wind patterns that push clouds and moisture around the atmosphere can cause droughts. Rising temperatures due to climate change are also making droughts longer and more likely. That’s a problem because droughts have many harmful effects. They dry out soil, damaging crops. Dry vegetation and hot weather increase the risk of wildfires. Droughts also shrink the water supply for people and animals. For the last 20 years, the western United States has been in a historic drought. To make sure there’s enough water to go around, some places have limited how much water each person can use.

In a sentence

A sensor that tracks how much water plants slurp up from soil could help lead to more drought-resistant crops.

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Maria Temming is the assistant editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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