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Dry, Hot Summer Impacts Wildlife, Policy, and Public Opinion | The Wildlife Society News
2012 August Featured — August 22, 2012

U.S. Drought Monitor Map, August 14 2012 (Credit: NOAA)

This summer’s drought, which has taken a toll on wildlife and agriculture, has also led to further disagreements in Congress and is impacting how Americans view climate change.

The United States is experiencing the worst drought in 50 years, with 56 percent of the lower 48 states in moderate to extreme drought. The month of July was the hottest single month on record for the continental U.S. with the average temperature of 77.6 degrees Fahrenheit (3.3 degrees above the 20th-century average) in the lower 48 states.  According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, more than 25,000 new record temperature highs have been set this year in the U.S.

Scientists across the U.S are pointing out that this is what they predicted climate change would look like, with shifts in precipitation patterns, increased evaporation rates, more frequent and destructive wildfires, and increased temperatures that fuel arid conditions in some regions.  A recent analysis conducted by NASA scientist James Hansen suggests that climate change is the only explanation for the recent past extreme hot weather.

The recent extreme weather has also altered many Americans’ perceptions of climate change.  Data show recent increases in American acceptance of climate change. There has been a 5 percent increase in individuals that are “cautious” of climate change, and a 4 percent decline in those who are “disengaged.” Of all polled, 58 percent believe that the poor economy should not hinder the U.S. from taking efforts to reduce global warming and 79 percent of individuals want more research into renewable energy sources. These changing views may potentially provide increased public support of government efforts to invest in climate change mitigation.

Dried Fish, O.C. Fisher Lake, Texas (Credit: Travis Dowell, U.S. Geological Survey)

The prolonged drought conditions have had negative impacts on many fish and wildlife species across the country.  Fish kills have occurred in areas where bodies of water have dried up, water temperatures have risen, or dissolved oxygen has decreased. Drought conditions are also impacting wildlife populations in many ways, including increases in disease outbreaks, reductions in food sources, water, and habitat, and increases in human-wildlife conflicts as animals search for limited resources.  Increased funding for population management efforts, habitat maintenance, water hauling, and responses to nuisance calls may be necessary as future droughts negatively impact wildlife.

The drought has also had consequences for this year’s farm bill.   On August 2, the House voted 223-197 to provide $383 million in emergency drought assistant for farmers and ranchers instead of taking up the full farm bill before Congress left for recess.

Many conservation groups urged the rejection of the stand-alone drought measure that takes $350 million (20 percent) in funding from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and $298 (26 percent) from the Conservation Stewardship Program, reductions that more than offset the emergency drought assistance funds.  Both programs reward farmers for making environmental improvements, and conservation groups warned that the reductions in farm conservation included in the drought bill would exacerbate drought conditions in the long run.

The drought, which began for some states in January, may be leveling off or even lifting slightly in certain regions, while other parts of the country will continue to experience the drought at least through November. Although this summer’s drought has set records, projections have been made that long-term severe droughts may become the new normal through the end of the century. These climate model projections predict that if human-induced carbon emissions are not significantly reduced, each of the next 80 years in the western U.S will experience less rainfall than the average rainfall from the region’s 2000-2004 drought, which was the most severe drought in the area in the last 800 years. More frequent long and devastating droughts could have significant impacts on wildlife populations and agriculture communities. This illustrates the need for many states to consider how they use water and prepare for water reserve shortages, and may lead to changes in wildlife management and agriculture practices.

 

Sources: AAAS Science Insider (July 24, 2012), Wisconsin DNR (August 20, 2012), CNN (August 6, 2012), CNN (August 10, 2012), The New York Times (August 13, 2012), The New York Times (August 13, 2012), The New York Times (August 20, 2012), E & E Publishing (Greenwire, August 1, 2012)

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