by Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Two months have passed since devastating fires in Colorado and Arizona destroyed over a half-million acres of forestland. In mid-July, a blaze raged precariously close to 1,500-year-old sequoias in northern California, and in nearby southern Oregon, a wildfire torched well over 460,000 acres as August began.
Many areas of the country are under wildfire watches because of hot, dry weather and extended drought. A cigarette butt flipped from a passing car or a campfire not completely extinguished could flare into a costly, even deadly, inferno. Matters have become so precarious that, over the Independence Day holiday, fire officials warned citizens to refrain from celebrating with fireworks because of the danger of catching the woods on fire.
Because of these drought conditions, the corn in many fields never reached "as high as an elephant's eye by the Fourth of July," and now stands brown and withering. Ponds and streams have dried up or have dropped several feet. Some municipal reservoirs are dangerously low, and governments have begun either voluntary or mandatory restrictions on water usage. Car, driveway, and sidewalk washing are no-nos, and watering the lawn and flowerbeds is permissible only overnight after 9 pm.
What has become of this well-watered land flowing with billions of gallons of clean, fresh water? Where are the rain clouds? Where are the summer afternoon thunderstorms? Where are the tropical depressions and hurricanes that often dump several inches of needed rain on their way through?
What will happen if this drought continues? What can we expect if this lasts a few more months—or years?
What does it mean?
The National Climatic Data Center estimates that nearly 40 percent of America suffers from severe drought conditions,1 affecting 26 states.2 Some of these places—particularly the South—have been unusually dry since the summer of 1998. Brad Rippey of the U.S. Department of Agriculture writes in his "Drought Overview":
Current impacts across the country rival some of the most formidable droughts of the last century. According to the National Climatic Data Center, more than one-third (about 36 percent) of the contiguous U.S. was in severe to extreme drought, based on the Palmer Drought Index, at the end of June 2002. This is comparable to the size and duration of the drought that peaked across the U.S. during the summer of 1988, but only the Dust Bowl 1930's and the Drought of the 1950's stand out as more significant, national-scale droughts since the beginning of the 20th century.3
The "U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook through October 2002" is not very encouraging either.4 According to this report by the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center, the South will see the best chance for returning to normal conditions, while the Western Plains will experience short-term improvement. However, the Mid-Atlantic and Rocky Mountain regions will remain static or worsen, and the Northeast will enter drought conditions. Certain areas of North and South Carolina, among the states hardest hit by drought, need 12-15 inches of rain to bring precipitation levels back to near normal. These predictions bode ill for the nation's agriculture and forestlands.
For instance, Arizona lies near the drought's heart in the West. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman declared the whole state a drought disaster area in May because of some of the worst drought conditions in a century. Arizona farmers may lose 60 to 90 percent of their crops in 2002, depending on what they grow and where they grow it. Ranchers have been forced to reduce their herds 20 percent because of the drought, driving beef prices to new lows.5
Nationally, the USDA forecasts:
Corn production in 2002 will total 8.89 billion bushels, 7% below last year and the lowest since 1995. . . . Soybean production is expected to drop 9% from last year to 2.63 billion bushels, while wheat will be down 14% at 1.69 billion bushels and cotton 9% lower at 18.4 million 480-pound bales.6
In addition, Secretary Veneman has made $150 million available to farmers raising cattle in areas most severely affected by the drought, particularly Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Nebraska, where "at least 75 percent of the pasture and range crops in these states is currently rated as poor or very poor."7
As for forestlands, June through early July saw massive fires mainly in the West. The Hayman fire in Colorado's Pike National Forest destroyed 137,760 acres and 600 structures, making it the worst wildfire in that state's history. In central Arizona, the 85,000-acre Rodeo fire, already the worst in Arizona's history, merged with the Chediski fire to destroy 468,638 acres and more than 400 structures. Large wildfires also burned in Alaska, southern California, New Mexico, Utah, and Georgia.
The end of July into August saw the fire situation worsen considerably:
According to the National Interagency Coordination Center, nearly 600,000 acres of vegetation were scorched by wildfires nationally in the last week, bringing year-to-date totals through August 6 to more than 4.6 million acres. This is more than twice the average of the previous 10 years to date (despite below-average areal wildfire consumption east of the Mississippi River), and nearly 625,000 acres more than the total for the same period in the year 2000, which ended as the year with the most area consumed by wildfires since modern records began in 1960.8
Along with the drought, foolish forest-management practices—leaving rather than logging old growth, known to firefighters as "fuel"—are receiving blame for this colossal devastation.
Drought brings more problems than just lack of rain. Such conditions cause other "natural" consequences. As noted, we are witnessing one of the most spectacular effects of extended dry weather: forest fires. As the drought continues, however, new problems beyond tinder-dry vegetation have begun to crop up.
USA Today reported on two of these resultant conditions in early August. One story declares: "Across the parched western half of the USA, creepy-crawlies are boring through forests, invading rangelands and chomping on crops, making an already bad season worse."9 The article goes on to chronicle the attacks of bark beetles, grasshoppers, Mormon crickets, and West-Nile-Virus-carrying mosquitoes. On the grasshopper front alone, "some infestations are the worst since the Great Depression, costing millions of dollars in lost crops and insecticide bills."10
A second article contends that "drought is driving wild critters into the suburbs."11 Occasionally, bears wander down from the mountains into populated areas, but this "invasion" is far more diverse, including snakes, bighorn sheep, ducks, and rats as well. Experts believe scarce water and the resulting food shortage is forcing these animals to extend their range. Nationally, out-of-bounds wild animals cause an average $22 billion in damage each year, drought or not.12
Drought is partially responsible for the deaths of millions of bees in Italy.13 Though this has not become a specific problem in America, something like it could very well devastate the U.S. bee population, already reeling from a mite infestation. Beyond producing honey, bees are necessary to pollinate food crops.
One little known byproduct of drought is a substantial rise in rabies cases, both in wild animals and humans. Craig Levy, manager of Arizona's rabies program, explains: "The most significant cases of outbreaks in animals almost always occur during drought periods. And with prolonged drought, animals tend to get more concentrated around bodies of water, so you get more animal-to-animal contact."14 Subsequently, their contact with humans increases as they move into populated areas in search of food.
We have still not encountered what may be the worse result of drought: famine. However, it is prophesied for the end time. It is the third seal of Revelation 6:5-6, interpreted by Jesus in Matthew 24:7. Even a wealthy and productive nation like the United States can be brought to its knees by famine—and our vaunted pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality could do little to stop it.
"Acts of God"
Behaviors have consequences. Actions have reactions. Causes have effects. This is a law of nature that many moderns have sadly forgotten, or in their hubris believe that they can mitigate.
Because of man's proclivity to rationalize and justify his actions—as well as his tendency toward shortsightedness—God works on a huge canvas in order to teach humanity spiritual lessons. Yet, even the fall of great nations and the deaths of millions of people fail to impress the truth on some. The Bible shows this in the stories of God's dealings with Israel and Judah over 2,500 years ago. He called Assyria to invade Israel several times, carting off hundreds of thousands of slaves before ultimately conquering the nation, and they still did not make the connection between their sinfulness, particularly their idolatry, and their destruction (II Kings 17:5-23). A similar series of painful events befell Judah just over a hundred years later. The books of Jeremiah and Lamentations describe how few understood how their sins had brought on the calamities that reduced and eventually destroyed their nation.
Through Amos, God shows us that He often uses natural disasters to show His displeasure with human—and particularly, Israelite—behavior (Amos 4:6-13; 3:2). These "acts of God" occur on a scale so immense that man's activities have little or no effect on their outcomes. Who can stop the earth from shaking? Who can hold back the howling wind and driving rains? Who can plug the magma vents of the earth? Who can "prime the pump" to make the rain fall and break a drought? Man is essentially powerless against the awesome forces of nature, and if we believe that God is nature's Creator, we should ask ourselves why such things occur.
The Bible is not silent on drought—in fact, it clearly attributes drought to God's judgment for disobedience. For instance, God says in Leviticus 26:18-20:
And after all this, if you do not obey Me, then I will punish you seven times more for your sins
. . . . I will make your heavens like iron and your earth like bronze. And your strength shall be spent in vain; for your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit. (See Deuteronomy 28:23-24)
God also speaks through Amos about His reactions to Israel's backsliding, a type of what will happen in the end time:
I also withheld rain from you, when there were still three months to the harvest. I made it rain on one city, I withheld rain from another city. One part was rained upon, and where it did not rain the part withered. So two or three cities wandered to another city to drink water, but they were not satisfied; yet you have not returned to Me. (Amos 4:7-8; see Jeremiah 14:1-6 for a similar denunciation of Judah.)
Though we cannot say that every dry spell is a curse from God, we would be foolish to think that none of them is. When natural disasters strike, it is prudent policy to take the time to evaluate our personal relationships with God, and if necessary, return to Him. Frequently, the prophets humbly interceded before God in behalf of their ignorant and sinful countrymen (see Amos 7:1-6; Daniel 9), and we can do the same (see "Should We Pray for the World?" in this issue). Perhaps then "the Lord God of hosts will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph" (Amos 5:15).
Thus He showed me: Behold, the Lord stood on a wall made with a plumb line, with a plumb line in His hand. And the Lord said to me, "Amos, what do you see?" And I said, "A plumb line." Then the Lord said: "Behold, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of My people Israel; I will not pass by them anymore. The high places of Isaac shall be desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste. I will rise with the sword against the house of Jeroboam."
The plumb line is a symbol of judgment, a tool God uses to see if His people are upright. A time comes in the life of a people when they become so "out of plumb" that God must act swiftly and harshly to punish for sin and bring them back into line. We cannot know when this point will be reached, but the state of our society suggests it may not be far off.
Thus, God says: "Prepare to meet your God, O Israel!" (Amos 4:12). Are we prepared? Will it be a meeting of friends or enemies? Acts of God, like the present drought, should prod us to ask questions like these to prepare us for the Kingdom of God.
1 Heim, Richard, "U.S. National Drought Overview," National Climatic Data Center, July 15, 2002 (http://lwf.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/climate/research/2002/jun/drought-national-overview.html).
2 Kim, Susan, "Drought Squeezes Farmers," Disaster News Network, August 8, 2002 (http://www.disasternews.net/news/news.php?articleid=1515).
3 Rippey, Brad, "Drought Overview," U.S. Department of Agriculture, July 18, 2002 (http://drought.unl.edu/dm/drought-overview.pdf).
4 "U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook," Climate Prediction Center, July 18, 2002 (http://www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/products/expert_assessment/seasonal_drought.html).
5 "'Drought Disaster' in Arizona," The Arizona Republic, May 18, 2002.
6 "Drought Slashes Crop Production," USA Today, August 12, 2002.
7 Harrison, Alisa, "Veneman Announces $150 Million in Aid to Drought-Stricken Farmers and Ranchers," USDA News Release No. 0334.02, August 12, 2002.
8 Tinker, Rich, "U.S. Drought Monitor," Climate Prediction Center, August 6, 2002 (http://www.drought.unl.edu/dm/monitor.htm).
9 O'Driscoll, Patrick, "Drought Boosts Bug Population in West," USA Today, August 5, 2002.
11 Sharp, Deborah, "Wild Animals Breach Wall of Suburbs," USA Today, August 8, 2002.
13 Grimond, Jesse, "Drought and Pesticides Sting Italy's Beekeepers," Independent Digital (UK), August 9, 2002 (http://news.independent.co.uk/europe/story.jsp?story=322778).
14 Baker, Nena, "Rabies' Spread Tied to Drought," The Arizona Republic, August 3, 2002.