Does Drought Have an Upside?

Jan 24, 2013

Over the past several months, we’ve been reporting on lots of problems caused by a lack of rain. And for good reason – the historic drought plaguing Iowa and much of the nation has dried up crops, destroyed landscaping, and killed off fish.

But like with most things, there can be a silver lining.

John Larson makes wine at Snus Hill Winery in Madrid, Iowa. This time of year, he’s not growing grapes – but he is mixing wine in giant, silver tanks.

While his corn- and soybean-growing neighbors were anxiously watching their thirsty crops, Larson’s vineyards were looking great and his grapes were ripening two to three weeks early. Iowa isn’t Napa Valley; Larson says the damp weather here can breed mold and insects - and some generally funky flavors.

"I wouldn’t want the drought to continue for the general agriculture here – but it was really good for grapes," he says.

Also benefiting from the dry, hot weather are some birds, and the people who like to hunt them.

Kevin Baskins is a spokesman for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. He says extreme weather of any kind is generally hard on wildlife. But the region’s pheasant population, for instance, has been suffering under a series of damp, chilly springs - so 2012 was a "real break" for the birds.

"They basically freeze to death," Baskins says. "They can’t survive colder, wetter conditions right after hatching. They need time to dry out and warm up."

Another benefit of drier weather is less agricultural runoff into Iowa’s waterways. And that benefit extends downstream. Nancy Rabalais is executive director of Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium. In normal years, she says, freshwater from streams and rivers combines with pollutants like nitrogen fertilizer to fuel the Gulf of Mexico’s Dead Zone.

Rabalais says less of that mix flowing into the ocean is a good thing.

"A temporary positive because the area was smaller this year – not as many nutrients and not as much freshwater," she says.

Last year, the area was the fourth smallest since measurement began in 1985.

Another benefit of sustained drought is increased awareness of severe weather.

Ann Owen is a former Federal Reserve Economist who now teaches at Hamilton College in upstate New York. She’s studied the attitudes of people living in areas affected by extreme weather conditions.

Owen says they’re often more willing to support efforts to curb climate change.

"We know that if you lived through a severe weather event, you’re more likely to say you’re concerned about these issues," Owen says. "So we’re inferring that they’re getting more information."

So Owen says the biggest upside of drought could be getting people thinking about the downside of doing nothing to try to prevent it in the future.