2:09pm

Mon January 28, 2013
Environment

The Silver Lining In Drought: 5 Upsides To Rain-Free Weather

Originally published on Mon January 28, 2013 3:23 pm

Drought is mostly seen as a bad thing — and for good reason. It dries up crops, destroys landscaping and stops ships from moving. But even the lack of rain clouds has a bright side.

Good For Grapes

Last summer it seemed like all Midwestern farmers were upset over the lack of rain. But not all of them were; those growing grapes were embracing the drought.

John Larson makes wine at Snus Hill Winery in Madrid, Iowa. This time of year, he's not growing grapes but instead mixing wine in giant, silver tanks. While his corn- and soybean-growing neighbors were anxiously watching their thirsty crops, Larson's vineyards were looking great, and his grapes were ripening two to three weeks early.

Iowa isn't Napa Valley; Larson says the damp weather here can breed mold and insects and some generally funky flavors.

"I wouldn't want the drought to continue for the general agriculture here, but it was really good for grapes," he says.

Fewer Bugs That Bug

Another upside of the drought? Fewer pests. And not just those plaguing grapes, but fewer bugs that, well, bug humans.

Mike McClain at Metropolitan Mosquito Control District in the Twin Cities says the types of mosquitoes that drive people crazy tend to multiply after it rains.

"And when you have real dry conditions that we did the last half of 2012, the actual number of complaints about mosquitoes and the number biting people tends to go way down," he says. "And that's a good thing. People are a little less irritated by mosquitoes during drought."

Although, he cautions, the less obnoxious but more dangerous mosquitoes — the ones that spread West Nile Virus — continue to thrive, especially in a drought.

Pheasants Don't Freeze

Also benefiting from the dry, hot weather are some birds, and the people who like to hunt them.

Kevin Baskins with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources says extreme weather of any kind is generally hard on wildlife, but the region's pheasant population, for instance, has been suffering under a series of damp, chilly springs.

"They basically freeze to death; they can't survive colder, wetter conditions right after hatching. They need time to dry out and warm up," Baskins says.

Less Runoff

Another benefit of drier weather is that there's less agricultural runoff.

Nancy Rabalais heads Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium. In normal years, she says freshwater from streams and rivers combines with pollutants, like nitrogen fertilizer, to fuel the Gulf of Mexico's "dead zone."

Rabalais says less of that mix flowing into the ocean is a good thing.

"A temporary positive because the area was smaller this year — not as many nutrients and not as much freshwater," she says.

Last year, the area was the fourth smallest since researchers started measuring it in 1985.

Climate Change Awareness

Another benefit of sustained drought is that it raises awareness of severe weather. Ann Owen, a former Federal Reserve economist who now teaches at Hamilton College in upstate New York, has studied the attitudes of people living in areas affected by extreme weather conditions. She says they're often more willing to support efforts to curb climate change.

"We know that if you lived through a severe weather event, you're more likely to say you're concerned about these issues, so we're inferring that they're getting more information," Owen says.

The biggest upside of drought, she says, could be getting people thinking about the downside of doing nothing to try to prevent it.

Copyright 2013 Iowa Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.iowapublicradio.org.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

In the past year or so, we've reported on lots of problems caused by a lack of rain. And for good reason, the historic drought plaguing much of the nation is hurting crops, killing fish, changing ecosystems. Still, even with the drought, there can be a silver lining. In fact, Sarah McCammon of Iowa Public Radio found more than one.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Remember last summer when it seemed like all Midwestern farmers were upset over the lack of rain? Well, actually, not all of them were. Those growing grapes were embracing the drought.

JOHN LARSON: What you see is actually carbon dioxide that's in the wine that's being shaken out by the pump.

MCCAMMON: John Larson makes wine at Snus Hill Winery in Madrid, Iowa. This time of year, he's not growing grapes, but he is mixing wine in giant, silver tanks.

LARSON: Much like taking a soda and shaking it and then watching it fizz.

MCCAMMON: While his corn and soybean-growing neighbors were anxiously watching their thirsty crops, Larson's vineyards were looking great, and his grapes were ripening two to three weeks early. Now, Iowa isn't Napa Valley. Larson says the damp weather here can breed mold and insects and some generally funky flavors.

LARSON: I wouldn't wish the drought to continue for the general agriculture here. But it was really good for grapes.

MCCAMMON: Do you feel guilty at all?

LARSON: No.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCAMMON: Another upside of the drought: Fewer pests. And not just those plaguing grapes but fewer bugs that, well, bug humans.

MIKE MCCLAIN: I'm Mike McClain at Metropolitan Mosquito Control District in the Twin Cities. The mosquitoes are something that we live with in the summertime here.

MCCAMMON: But not so much this past summer. McClain says the types of mosquitoes that drive people crazy tend to multiply after it rains.

MCCLAIN: And when you have real dry conditions, like we did the last half of 2012, the actual number of complaints about mosquitoes and the number of mosquitoes that are biting people tends to go way down. And that's a good thing. And people are a little less irritated by mosquitoes during drought.

MCCAMMON: Although, he cautions, the less obnoxious, but more dangerous mosquitoes - the ones that spread West Nile virus - continue to thrive especially in a drought. Also benefitting from the dry, hot weather are some birds and the people who like to hunt them.

KEVIN BASKINS: 2012 was a real break for us.

MCCAMMON: Kevin Baskins is with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. He says extreme weather of any kind is generally hard on wildlife, but the region's pheasant population, for instance, has been suffering under a series of damp, chilly springs.

BASKINS: They basically freeze to death. They can't survive the colder, more wetter conditions right after hatching. So they need a little bit of time to kind of dry out and warm up.

MCCAMMON: Another benefit of drier weather is that there's less agricultural runoff. Nancy Rabalais heads Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium. In normal years, she says freshwater from streams and rivers combines with pollutants like nitrogen fertilizer to fuel the Gulf of Mexico's dead zone.

Rabalais says less of that mix flowing into the ocean is a good thing.

DR. NANCY RABALAIS: Well, a temporary positive because the area was smaller this year. Not as many nutrients and not as much freshwater.

MCCAMMON: Last year, the area was the fourth smallest since researchers started measuring it in 1985.

Another benefit of sustained drought is that it raises awareness of severe weather. Ann Owen is a former Federal Reserve economist who now teaches at Hamilton College in Upstate New York. She studied the attitudes of people living in areas affected by extreme weather conditions. Owen says they're often more willing to support efforts to curb climate change.

ANN OWEN: If you lived through a severe weather event, that you're more likely then to say that you're concerned about these issues and we're inferring that, OK, they're now getting more information.

MCCAMMON: So Owen says the biggest upside of drought could be getting people thinking about the downside of doing nothing to try to prevent it in the future. For NPR News, I'm Sarah McCammon in Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.