A 2017 “flash drought” on the northern Great Plains led to massive wildfires, millions of dollars in lost tourism revenue and $2.6 billion in agricultural losses, according to a new federal report released Thursday.
A flash drought is a drought that comes on quickly and often without notice. They are caused by natural variations in the atmosphere which essentially steer rainstorms away from an area for periods at a time. Hotter summers due to climate change exacerbate the lack of precipitation, especially in arid regions such as the Mountain West, spurring a more severe flash drought.
The one that struck Montana and the Dakotas in the summer of 2017 spurred a grass fire that burned an area the size of New York City, scattering cattle and torching hay.
The flash drought also cost Montana’s tourism economy $240 million after visitors canceled or shortened vacations due to ongoing wildfires and smoke.
The report, from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, also acknowledged that hotter summers due to climate change could make flash droughts in the region more severe.
Tanja Fransen, a meteorologist based in Glasgow, Mont., said ranchers and farmers need to get ready for more of these kind of season-long natural disasters.
“We think of shorter disasters and how we prepare,” she said. “We have 48-hours worth of water and we have flashlights and batteries. But when you’re looking at a long-term climate event you have to look at it from a completely different lens.”
Ranchers, for example, need to make sure they have deep drinking wells and backup places to purchase hay if a flash drought occurs and kills their crops.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.