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What the future looks like with the new normal of hotter, drier and longer droughts

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

More than half of the continental United States is currently experiencing drought, according to official measurements. Scientists say the situation can teach us how to prepare for a drier, hotter future as the earth continues to warm. Elizabeth Rembert of Harvest Public Media reports from Nebraska.

ELIZABETH REMBERT, BYLINE: I'm walking through the Platte River right now to get to a sandbar that's right next to a bridge. You can hear the cars passing overhead. The reason I'm able to walk right now in the Platte is because there's just a couple of inches of water in the river. It's so shallow that I actually saw some guys driving their pickup truck in the riverbed. Even so, the fact that there's any water in the Platte is a little bit unusual. For the past few months, parts of the river have been bone-dry.

LIZ ELLIOTT: Every time I do drive across the Platte, you just see the dryness.

REMBERT: That's Liz Elliott. She works for the city of Lincoln, which relies on the Platte for some of its water.

ELLIOTT: You just kind of hold your breath a little bit.

REMBERT: She's part of a team searching for another water source as the world gets drier and hotter.

ELLIOTT: We know to make sure that we have water for the next hundred years that we need to find a second source of water.

REMBERT: Thinking far ahead is a good idea, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center. In the coming decades, higher temperatures and lower rainfall will mean more dry years. Downpours will be intense and short, and the sunbaked soil won't be able to take in the moisture. Nick Jordan is an ecologist at the University of Minnesota.

NICK JORDAN: That is going to substantially limit the ability of this part of the world to function as one of the major, quote-unquote, "breadbasket regions."

REMBERT: He says U.S. agriculture is going to have to change significantly to find its place in a drier future. It could mean fewer corn and soybean fields. They have to be planted every year and take a lot of water.

JORDAN: We have to move away from that, or we're going to have a food system that's really vulnerable to the variable weather that we expect to have.

REMBERT: So instead of corn flakes, we may be eating something else, like Kernza flakes. Kernza is a perennial grain which Jordan says could do better in future droughts. It doesn't have to be planted every year, and its deep roots can track down water. But the economy would have to change a lot for farmers to opt for perennials over good old reliable corn. It's in candy bars, antibiotics, gasoline. And corn isn't the only thing that takes a lot of water. One pound of beef costs 40 bathtubs. Enter lab-grown meat. Emma Ignaszewski researches alternative proteins with the Good Food Institute.

EMMA IGNASZEWSKI: Communities have been forced to adapt to increasing droughts, floods, fires and crop failures, all while the demand for meat is set to double by 2050.

REMBERT: She says meat that's grown in a lab can still get people their protein fix without relying on Mother Nature.

(SOUNDBITE OF WIND BUFFETING)

REMBERT: Dry ground can also hurt people by making its way into their lungs through dust storms like this one, which hit western Kansas earlier this fall. Jesse Bell studies climate and health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. He says air pollution from dust storms and wildfires could cause serious problems for people with asthma or increase heat-related deaths.

JESSE BELL: Drought changes the environment, and that change in the environment can lead to human health outcomes.

REMBERT: He says it's a good time to start preparing for how a future with less water and hotter days will change our lives. For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Rembert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elizabeth Rembert