How Drought Works

Drought Preparedness and Prediction
A Somali soldier looks onto a camp for people displaced by famine and drought on Aug. 19, 2011, in Mogadishu, Somalia.
A Somali soldier looks onto a camp for people displaced by famine and drought on Aug. 19, 2011, in Mogadishu, Somalia.
John Moore/Getty Images

So we've established that drought -- at least from a human standpoint -- is pretty bad news. It would make sense, then, to try and predict it, right? Certainly, but then we face the age-old problem of forecasting the weather.

Currently, weather prediction models provide us a good guess at what the weather will do in a given area based on past trends and current conditions. But weather is chaotic, and the atmospheric anomalies that contribute to drought are numerous and unpredictable. As such, scientists can only predict nonseasonal droughts a month or so out. (For more information on the limits of weather prediction, read "How far in advance should I check the weather forecast?")

Can we combat drought? Cloud seeding techniques offer some degree of control of precipitation levels. Cloud seeding involves the use of airborne chemicals to kick-start the formation of clouds in the atmosphere. The American Meteorological Society acknowledges 10 percent increases in post-seeding precipitation, while the United States National Academy of Sciences still isn't convinced [source: Eckhardt].

Climate scientists predict that cutting carbon dioxide emissions translates into wetter weather -- at least while CO2 levels are actively decreasing [source: Science Daily]. CO2 increases, on the other hand, tend to decrease precipitation.

If we can't predict drought all that well, the least we can do is better prepare. Most drought preparation and mitigation comes in the form of smart, conservative water usage. This tactic incorporates everything from shorter showers and low-volume toilets to drought-resistant planting and improved irrigation systems.

When severe socioeconomic drought ravages a region, relief efforts must often address various symptomatic problems that arise from the drought. For example, national and international humanitarian responses to the 2011 drought in Somalia involved not only food and water to relieve famine but also vaccines, refugee housing, health care and deployment of security forces.

In the end, drought comes down to the weather and water cycles in the environment. Our best bets for coping with it may boil down to water conservation, emergency preparedness and an increased consciousness of changes in Earth's climate.