Don’t Call It “Drought”

A reader familiar with my longstanding interest in how one defines “drought” sent along this interesting story from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation:

Federal Government-selected experts want people to start using the word “dryness” to describe Australia’s worst drought in a century.

The word “drought” makes farmers feel bad, says the Government’s hand-picked Drought Policy Review Expert Social Panel.

The politically-correct push also aims to make farmers accept that drier weather is here to stay, and is not a temporary crisis, the panel’s newly released report said.

I’ve not read the underlying report, but I suspect they’re on to something here. One of the problems with the use of the word “drought” to describe climatic conditions that are essentially the dry side of the normal range of variability is that it lets you off the hook. We see that here in the southwestern U.S. all the time. We take the wet side of the probability distribution in stride, not noticing the bounty, but then when we get to the dry side, we call it a “drought” and act all surprised.


  1. I recommend Brian Fagan’s latest book, “The Great Warming”, which discusses plusses and minuses of the medieval warm period.

    Hint: for the US Southwest, Chapters 6 (The Megadrought Epoch) and 7 (Acorns and Pueblos) don’t offer a lot of plusses.

  2. The main thing I took away from reading that article was what an enormous piece of spin it was. The “call it a ‘dry’, not a ‘drought'” thing was basically incidental to the whole issue of how to distribute financial assistance to affected farmers (and whether those receiving assistance were all really deserving). So, naturally, sadly, the first half of the story was about the naming issue and there were two short paragraphs about substance. Sad.

    There’s also a significant point not mentioned in the article: “drought” has a technical meaning, at least for the government and Bureau of Meteorology purposes. From memory, they define it as annual rainfall in the lowest 10% of that on record. Now, I’ll be one of the first to quibble slightly with the definition, since it’s dependent upon the length of records in some cases, but it’s still a valid, measurable definition. Using the correct terms instead of introducing a basically fake term that actually draws attention to the fact that soft-shoeing is needed seems preferable to me. I agree with your argument that rainfall amounts swing both ways, John, and I’m not insensitive to the morale issue for farmers, but we should when things are at an extreme, it’s not wrong to say so.

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