EarthLabs > Drought

Drought: Unit Overview

Why Study Drought?


Compared with fast and fascinating weather disasters such as hurricanes and tornadoes, drought doesn't get much attention. It's a quieter disasterone that creeps in so inconspicuously that it's not always clear that it has arrived. Despite the fact that it is less obvious than other disasters, its pervasiveness and persistence make it every bit as deadly.

Most regions of the United States experience drought at least occasionally. Depending upon how severe the conditions get and how long they last, drought can devastate crops and forests as well as businesses. When drought occurs, water supplies for agriculture, industry, and personal use decrease, and people in the affected areas need to find ways to cope with the shortage or leave the area.

Completing the Labs


All of the labs require browser software and Internet access. The Web pages for each lab contain links to external sites where you'll access data, graphs, or articles. Some labs require laboratory equipment. Several labs also require additional software programs: a spreadsheet program (i.e. Microsoft Excel or Open Office) and Google Earth must be installed and available on the computer you're using in order to complete all of the assigned learning tasks.


Lab Overviews

1. Where's the Water?
Explore graphics and analyze data about the distribution and availability of the world's fresh water. Develop a sense of where the world's water is as well as where it's going.
Tools needed: Spreadsheet and graphing program (Excel, for example)

2. What's a Watershed?
Build a simple physical model of a watershed and explore it to understand the flow of water across land. Use Google Earth to explore the watershed in which you live.
Tools needed: Pan, plastic sheet, spray bottle, Google Earth

3. Normal Climate Patterns
Explore your location's climate by generating a variety of graphs, charts, and map images. Interpret a range of data visualizations to develop your understanding of normal climate.
Tools needed: Browser

4. When Precipitation Patterns Change
Develop a definition of drought and set up a hands-on demonstration to understand the role of soil moisture in drought. Examine precipitation and streamflow gauge data in Google Earth and use them to predict where drought is most severe in the United States. Check your predictions by adding the U.S. Drought Monitor layer to your map.
Tools needed: Containers, soil, plastic, Google Earth

5. Droughts of the Past
Watch a PBS video and/or interact with the video's companion website. Examine maps and animations that show the distribution of drought patterns over the past 300 years. Explore graphics that show the amount of time different areas spend in drought.
Tools needed: Browser

6. Drying of the American West
Learn how changes in climate over the Colorado watershed are reducing the amount of fresh water available in the river. Explore how decreasing inflows and increasing outflows threaten to empty major reservoirs on the Colorado River.
Tools needed: Spreadsheet and graphing program

7. Is Your Region Ready for a Drought?
Explore some of the economic, environmental, and social impacts of drought, and consider how they would impact your own community. Stage a community meeting in which students role play a range of water managers and water users to make drought preparedness plans for your community.
Tools needed: Browser

8. Drought Mitigation Trade-offs
Research the costs and benefits of one or more technologies for drought mitigation. Perform hands-on activities and demonstrations to illustrate the principles behind the methods. Present your findings to your classmates, offering a recommendation if community should explore the technology further or not.
Tools needed: Variety of lab equipment


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