Drought, Blistering Temperatures and Raging Fires: Are We Screwed? 5 Facts You Should Know

If we combine our knowledge with action, we may have a fighting chance.

In 2007, as a drought-stricken Georgia watched its drinking water reserves dwindle, then-governor Sonny Purdue took action -- he organized a prayer service for rain. In similar fashion in 2011 as fires raged across Texas in one of the state's worst droughts, Governor Rick Perry designated Easter weekend "official days of prayer for rain," according to the Texas Tribune.

And now as the country endures fires, drought and record-high temperatures, our leaders are on bended knee yet again. Earlier this month Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters he was saying an extra prayer for rain. But the latest science shows that the country's leaders are going to need a whole lot more than prayer. Vilsack for one, may be feeling the pressure. A backlash is growing against the Agriculture Secretary for comments he made in a recent press conference when asked about whether or not climate change may be playing a role in this summer's torturous weather.

Vilsack responded:

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I'm not a scientist so I'm not going to opine as to the cause of this. All we know is that right now there are a lot of farmers and ranchers who are struggling. And it's important and necessary for them to know, rather than trying to focus on what's causing this, what can we do to help them.

Farmers don't want to know if there is a potential link between droughts affecting their livelihood and climate change? I'm pretty sure farmers like to plan ahead and knowing what may be coming down the road is extremely helpful. And Vilsack doesn't have to worry about "opining" on climate change, as Brad Johnson points out, the USDA -- the department Vilsack heads -- has a Climate Change Program Office that's staffed with top scientists.

In case you were worried that our government is not thinking long-term enough about our problems, Vilsack can reassure you. As he said:

Long term, we obviously are engaged in research projects; we're obviously working with seed companies. Don't discount the capacity of the seed companies. These technologies do make a difference.

On the off-chance that in fact Monsanto isn't able to save us from the effects of climate change, we are going to need another strategy because the news lately has not been good. Bad news is never fun to read, but putting our heads in the sand on this issue only makes the potential impacts that much worse. So, here are five facts about the state of our planet that you should know. If we combine our knowledge with action we may have a fighting chance.

1. This is a record year for heat. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) reported that, "June temperatures contributed to a record-warm first half of the year and the warmest 12-month period the nation has experienced since recordkeeping began in 1895." As a heatwave scorched the country in June, thousands of temperature records were broken in various places. The NCDC said highs of 113 degrees in South Carolina and 112 degrees in Georgia are under review for all-time state temperature records. 

It wasn't just hot in the U.S., it was the hottest June on record for the Northern Hemisphere (the third month in a row that has broken the all-time high) and globally averaged land temperatures were the highest as well. The record highs are becoming more frequent; so far, NASA has reported that nine of the 10 warmest years on record have all been since 2000. 

2. Over half the country is in drought. It's not just severe, it's expansive, and it's being called the worst drought in 50 years. The government's Drought Monitor map on July 24 had over 53 percent of the country experiencing moderate or worse drought and 38 percent in severe or worse drought. 

"This drought is two-pronged," said climatologist Brian Fuchs, a U.S. Drought Monitor author. "Not only the dryness but the heat is playing a big and important role. Even areas that have picked up rain are still suffering because of the heat." 

3. It's a disaster.The drought has hit Plains states and the Midwest particularly hard, affecting a large number of the country's farmers. The USDA has declared 1,369 counties in 31 states as disaster areas. Of those, 1,234 were the result of drought.

Food prices are expected to rise next year as a result. As James West writes for Climate Desk:

One estimate says that the US, the biggest player in the world corn market, could slash world corn supply by 60 billion tons as a result of the drought. Looking further afield, food prices in the US have a big impact not only on prices around the world, but also on the potential for social unrest in developing countries. 

4. Greenland has experienced unprecedented melting. You may not be planning on vacationing in Greenland anytime soon -- but what happens in the icy country has world-wide implications. NASA reported, "On average in the summer, about half of the surface of Greenland's ice sheet naturally melts. At high elevations, most of that melt water quickly refreezes in place. Near the coast, some of the melt water is retained by the ice sheet and the rest is lost to the ocean. But this year the extent of ice melting at or near the surface jumped dramatically." 

Scientists were stunned to learn that nearly the entirety (97 percent) of Greenland's ice sheet has shown signs of melting. To be clear, the whole icesheet has not completely melted into the ocean, but what's been observed is enough to raise a lot of concern. Seth Borenstein wrote for the AP:

About the same time, a giant iceberg broke off from the Petermann Glacier in northern Greenland. And the National Snow and Ice Data Center on Tuesday announced that the area filled with Arctic sea ice continues near a record low.

Wagner and other scientists said because this Greenland-wide melting has happened before they can't yet determine if this is a natural rare event or one triggered by man-made global warming. But they do know that the edges of Greenland's ice sheets have already been thinning because of climate change.

5. Get used to fires -- bigger, hotter, longer fires. As William DeBuys recently wrote for TomDispatch, "A lethal combination of drought, insect plagues, windstorms, and legions of dead, dying, or stressed-out trees constitute what some pundits are calling wildfire's 'perfect storm.'" But DeBuys cautions that it's not really a "storm" in the sense that it's not "sudden, violent, and temporary." No, the conditions that are feeding fire seasons are really what many scientists think will be the "new normal."

In June alone, the NCDC reported that over 1.3 million acres were burned by wildfires: 

By the end of June, wildfire activity exploded across much of the country, with 57 large wildfires burning. Six large fires were burning across the Virginias, North Carolina, and Tennessee, where dry conditions contributed to low 100-hour fuel moistures. Forty five large fires were active in the Intermountain West, from Arizona to Montana.

And it seems fires are on track to get even worse. As DeBuys writes: 

Big fires are four times more common than they used to be; the biggest fires are six-and-a-half times larger than the monster fires of yesteryear; and owing to a warmer climate, fires are erupting earlier in the spring and subsiding later in the fall. Nowadays, the fire season is two and a half months longer than it was 30 years ago.

As economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently wrote, "large-scale damage from climate change is no longer a disaster waiting to happen. It's happening now." 

Tara Lohan is a freelance writer and former senior editor at AlterNet. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis, including Water Matters: Why We Need to Act Now to Save Our Most Critical Resource. Follow her on Twitter @TaraLohan.