John Larson, owner of Snus Hill Winery in Madrid, Iowa, blends wine from Iowa grapes with grapes from other parts of the country. He says the area's lack of rain was really good for grapes.
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.
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.