Adaptation to Drought Conditions

Mary Anne Carletta, Biological Sciences, Georgetown College


The drought of 2012 covered over 60% of the lower 48 states of the U.S. Some areas of the country still have lingering effects from that period of drought, in addition to continuing lack of rain. With climate change, droughts are becoming more common occurrences in the United States, particularly in the western US, which has always been drier. Weather patterns are tending to stay in place for longer periods of time under our changing climate regime.

Agriculture is particularly dependent on the weather, and always has been. How do farmers and ranchers adapt to these changes? This will vary depending on the area of the country, the local expectations of how climate change will affect that region, and the type of produce and/or livestock that are produced. Some farmers have put in irrigation and water conservation measures, including conservation tillage to preserve soil moisture. Some have changed what they grow or changed strains in order to grow more drought-resistant plants.

Individuals with expertise/responsibilities in the following areas have helped create the case study:
  • Farmers and ranchers
  • Agricultural researchers
  • State and federal policymakers
  • Climatologists
  • County extension agents

Key teaching points:
  • How climate may be changing in your state
  • How local farmers and extension agents that advise them are adapting now
  • Some possible ways that may be feasible in the future for farmers to adapt

How this example is used in the classroom:
The students should first have some background on how the local climate is predicted to change. This can be based on state predictions; often states or regions will have a formal document explaining what changes in conditions are expected. If possible, ask a local farmer to speak to the class about how he or she copes with the changes or plans to adapt to them, or have class members interview farmers and bring the information back to class. Extension agents can be invited to speak, and may have a broader view of what farmers and ranchers across the region are doing. If there is a nearby university with researchers working on drought-resistant plants, then a speaker with that point of view may be available. If not, the scientific literature (or less difficult survey articles meant for more general readers) could be consulted.


The Nature Conservancy. (No date given) ClimateWizard. Retrieved 11 April 2014 from Gives wide-scale predictions (US or global) for average temperature and precipitation in the 2080's based on three IPCC emissions and several General Circulation Models.

NOAA. (Updated monthly) State of the Climate. Retrieved 11 April 2014 from Overview of climate, with links to sections on drought, wildfires, hurricanes, snow & ice, and recent weather patterns and climate anomalies. Also links to global analyses.

The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. (2011). Action Plan to Respond to Climate Change in Kentucky: A Strategy of Resilience. Retrieved 11 April 2014 from CAKE: Discusses likely changes and uncertainties in Kentucky and reviews the prognosis for major categories of habitats and animals.

Cooperative Extension Service. (no date). Climate Change: A Brief Summary for Kentucky Extension Agents. ID191. Retrieved 12 May 2014 from Gives an overview of climate change and likely changes in Kentucky, including crop yield, pressure from insects and other factors affecting plants and livestock, and ecosystems.