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‘What’s the future going to be?’: This summer’s drought warns of increasing climate variability in years to come

The effects of the drought are evident on a front lawn in Sharon on East Street.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Fires racing through dry brush. Wells and rivers running low. Fairways and front lawns parched under the hot August sun.

This summer’s drought, with parts of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island at extreme levels, may be but a preview of the future as climate change brings prolonged dry spells alternating with periods of heavy rainfall. July 2021 was the wettest on record for the state.

“We’re going to be locked in with these droughts and floods for decades,” said Stephen Young, an environmental sustainability professor at Salem State University. “It really is a crisis.”

These extreme weather cycles will test the fortitude of the hardiest New Englanders and likely require changes to their lifestyles.

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“In the last three years, we’ve had two major droughts and then the wettest growing season on record in the last 30 years,” said Trevor Hardy, a seventh-generation fruit and vegetable farmer with a farm in Hollis, N.H. “We’re talking about complete opposites.”

The US Drought Monitor map as of Aug. 16.US Drought Monitor

The projected swings between wet and dry periods may seem counterintuitive, especially with scientists predicting that, on the whole, New England is trending wetter as a result of climate change. But Young said the intensified climate variability is a consequence of a warming planet: Higher temperatures allow the atmosphere to pull more water out of the ground and hold it for longer, resulting in periods of drought. Because a warmer atmosphere can hold more water, when atmospheric conditions call for it, the rainfall is much heavier. The warming atmosphere will at times pull more water from the earth for extended periods, while at other times it will release more water.

While the bone-dry fire-prone West captures the headlines, all or large portions of the New England states are experiencing drought conditions.

And it came on fast: Three months ago, only about 15 percent of the Northeast had drought conditions. Unlike in the West, where droughts can span years, the Northeast usually experiences short dry periods of a few months.

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Kearney Kirby, 71, went on vacation for a month and came home expecting her small lawn in Dorchester to be overgrown. Instead, it was “half-dead,” with the exception of weeds. Her little 13-year-old chihuahua mix, Sophie, sometimes struggles to navigate the spiky dead grass. Kirby finds the lawn disconcerting.

“It freaks me out a little,” she said. “When I walk across, it crunches.”

Kearney Kirby and her dog, Sophie, in her Dorchester front yard.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

The most severe drought conditions are concentrated in eastern Massachusetts, eastern Connecticut, and almost all of Rhode Island that have been designated by the US Drought Monitor as experiencing a “D3″ extreme drought, the second-highest classification on the agency’s scale. The data, released Thursday morning, do not capture the recent rainfall. But the rain, while welcome, will not be enough to alleviate drought conditions in many areas.

“The rain parts of the Northeast received [Wednesday] is the proverbial drop in an empty bucket,” said Michael Rawlins, the associate director of the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Climate System Research Center. “Given the existing rainfall deficit, we’ll need normal, ideally above normal precipitation, for several weeks or a few months to alleviate the current drought.”

Massachusetts has its own classification system, with much of the state currently in a “Level 3″ critical drought. The conditions have led to increased fire risk across the state, and Governor Charlie Baker activated the National Guard on Thursday to battle a wildfire in Rockport that has been burning for about a month.

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Gloucester Assistant Fire Chief Robert Rivas said he can’t remember the last time he’s seen a Level 3 drought in his time as a firefighter. He grew up in San Diego, Calif., and his mother lost her home in Paradise, Calif., to the 2018 Camp Fire. Rivas worries about Massachusetts’ fire risk.

“Anything that lights up is going to take off because it’s so dry,” he said.

Gloucester battled a brush fire that broke out at the start of August and grew to about 20 acres. Over two days, a National Guard helicopter dropped 600 gallons of water at a time about 80 times, Rivas said.

Municipalities across the region have either mandated water restrictions or urged residents to limit their use. Rhode Island issued a drought advisory last week, and around 150 cities and towns in Massachusetts have implemented mandatory water restrictions.

A man golfed at Norfolk Golf Club. The staff has let the rough go brown and the fairway is being hand watered due to the drought.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

In Westwood, the Dedham-Westwood Water District upgraded its restrictions in early August to broadly prohibit outside lawn watering. Though golf course greens were exempt from the restriction, Chad Brown, superintendent of the Norfolk Golf Club, still hustled to conserve water, having spent about $20,000 to truck in water after the club’s storage pond ran “drastically low.” He sends his staff out with hoses to water the greens, tees, and fairways with more precision than could be achieved with sprinklers.

“We’ve gotten dinged up on the edges,” he said. “We’ve definitely taken our licks this season, but overall, the fairways are hanging in there.”

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In addition to financial and ecological consequences, drought can take a toll on health. Aaron Bernstein, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital and the interim director of Harvard Chan’s Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment, said his biggest concern right now is the safety of well water.

About a half-million people in Massachusetts and many more elsewhere in New England rely on private wells, Bernstein said, and as water levels drop, toxic pollutants and pathogens that can make their way into groundwater become more concentrated.

Bernstein said he’s also worried about the effect on the health of farmers, especially the stress from worrying about crops and livestock. Researchers have observed increased rates of suicide in farming communities during severe drought, and the financial burden can affect farmers’ access to health care.

“We are not the West, and in some ways, that makes us complacent,” Bernstein said. “We don’t have the mindset that water is precious and that we should design water systems to conserve what we have.”

Hardy, the seventh-generation farmer, agreed. He’s the president of the New England Vegetable & Berry Growers Association and said farmers need to be able to handle extremes in precipitation, such as by switching from overhead to drip irrigation and installing soil moisture sensors.

“If you’re not preparing yourself to be a farmer for the future, it’s going to be harder for you to produce a crop,” he said.

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Ed Hennessey, who owns Hennessey Brothers in Machias, Maine, said he wants to expand irrigation on his 700-acre blueberry farm. But it’s expensive for smaller farmers, even if it pays off in the end.

His farm started the harvest a week earlier this year, and the blueberries, especially those picked later in the summer, were smaller, though they are still sweet. Blueberries are mostly water, he said, and larger farms, such as Wyman’s, have plump fruit thanks to irrigation.

His three sons now run the farm. “If they continue to install irrigation and improve the land, I think the land will give them a good future,” he said.

But buying water costs money, and the drought has also hurt hay and grain yields for farmers, driving up the costs of raising and feeding livestock.

Mark Duffy, who operates Great Brook Farm in Carlisle, said this is the worst drought he’s seen since getting into the farming business nearly five decades ago.

Duffy, a dairy farmer, is trucking in feed from Vermont, New York, and Canada to keep his herd of over 100 cows healthy since his fields haven’t produced enough. The cows are fine, but Duffy’s bottom line is not: Each cow requires 120 pounds of hay and grain a day. He is not sure what the coming years will bring.

“What’s the future going to be?” he asked. “Drought after drought?”


Kate Selig was a Globe intern in 2022. Follow her on Twitter @kate_selig.