1988–89 North American drought

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Coordinates: 46°N 94°W / 46°N 94°W / 46; -94

Exploration of wooden hull wrecks in the Mississippi River in Memphis, Tennessee during the drought.

The North American Drought of 1988 ranks among the worst episodes of drought in the United States. This multi-year drought began in most areas in 1988 and continued into 1989. The drought caused $60 billion in damage ($120 billion in 2014 United States dollars, adjusting for inflation). The drought occasioned some of the worst blowing-dust events since 1977 or the 1930s in many locations in the Midwestern United States, including a protracted dust storm, which closed schools in South Dakota in late February 1988. During the spring, several weather stations set records for lowest monthly total precipitation and longest interval between measurable precipitation, for example, 55 days in a row without precipitation in Milwaukee. During the summer, two record-setting heat waves developed, similar to those of 1934 and 1936. The concurrent heat waves killed 4,800 to 17,000 people in the United States. During the summer of 1988, the drought led to many wildfires in forested western North America, including the Yellowstone fires of 1988. At its peak, the drought covered 45% of the United States. While covering less area than the Dust Bowl, which covered 70% of the United States, the drought of 1988 ranks as not only the costliest drought in United States history but also the costliest natural disaster in United States history before Hurricane Katrina. In Canada, drought-related losses added to $1.8 billion (1988 Canadian dollars).


The western United States experienced a lengthy drought in the late 1980s. Much of California endured one of its longest droughts ever observed from late 1986 through early 1991. Drought worsened in 1988 as much of the United States also suffered from severe drought. In California, the five-year drought ended in late 1991 as a significant El Niño event in the Pacific Ocean (and the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in June 1991) most likely caused unusual persistent heavy rains.[1]

Following a milder drought in the southeastern United States and California in 1987, this drought affected the Mid-Atlantic states, the southeastern United States, the midwestern United States, the northern Great Plains, and the western United States. Heatwaves that accompanied the drought killed around 4,800 to 17,000 Americans as well as livestock across the United States.[2] Farmers may have cultivated marginally arable land, contributing to the damage from this drought. Pumping groundwater to near depletion also contributed to the damage. The drought destroyed crops almost nationwide; lawns of residents went brown, and many cities declared water restrictions. More than four inches (100 mm) of helpful rain were brought to parts of the Midwest in September of 1988 by Hurricane Gilbert, which crossed Texas and Oklahoma as a tropical depression,[3] weakening as it moved further north into Missouri, and spreading rain as far as the Great Lakes.[4] In some areas Hurricane Gilbert was an outright drought-buster, but other locations were at -6 or lower on the Palmer Drought Severity Index by early autumn 1988 and a general change in the pattern which had held for nine or more months at that point was required to ease the hydrological impacts of the drought. The agricultural damage was essentially done by this point, resulting in record prices for commodities.

Wildfires in Yellowstone National Park burned many trees and created exceptional destruction in the area. This very catastrophic drought for multiple reasons continued across the Upper Midwest and northern Great Plains states during 1989, not officially ending until 1990.[5] The conditions continued in some areas into 1989 and 1990.[6] Dry conditions, however, increased again during 1989, affecting Iowa, Missouri, eastern Nebraska, Kansas and certain portions of Colorado.[7] The drought also affected some parts of Canada.[citation needed]

The persistent wind pattern brought hot dry air into the middle of the continent from the desert southwest week after week starting in the spring, whereas in most years advection of warm and humid air from the Gulf of Mexico is the rule; therefore, despite the extremely high temperatures, elevation of apparent temperature was not as severe as would be the case during the 1995 heat wave.


The drought of 1988 ranks as the worst drought since the Dust Bowl, which occurred more than 50 years earlier. The damages in the United States as of 2008, adjusted for inflation, put damages from the drought between $80 billion and almost $120 billion. The state of Minnesota alone saw $1.2 billion in crop losses. The drought caused more devastation comparable to that of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and Hurricane Katrina. In Canada, drought-related losses totalled $1.8 billion (in 1988 Canadian dollars).


  1. ^ Water Resources Support Center, Institute For Water Resources, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (1992). Lessons learned from the California Drought (1987-1992). ASCE Publications. p. 122. Retrieved 2013-06-11. 
  2. ^ Impacts of Recent Climate Anomalies: Losers and Winners (PDF) (Report). Illinois State Water Survey. Retrieved 2017-09-05. 
  3. ^ Hurricane Gilbert - September 14-21, 1988 (Report). National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Retrieved 2017-09-05. 
  4. ^ Weatherwise, January 1989: "The Weather of 1988"
  5. ^ Billion Dollar Disasters (Northern Plains Drought in Summer 1989) (Report). Live Science. Retrieved 2009-04-18. 
  6. ^ Robbins, William (1989-09-16). "Drought Stricken Areas Find Relief after Rains". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-04-13. 
  7. ^ Improving Drought Management (PDF) (Report). The University of Nebraska. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2010-06-15. Retrieved 2009-04-19. 

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