Why we remember floods and forget droughts


When I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area 10 years ago, I bought a pair of rain boots. I wore them once. The region is currently undergoing what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls a “severe drought.” In the past decade, California has experienced two periods of “extraordinary drought,” the agency’s highest drought rating. The effects of such conditions are visibly apocalyptic: mottled street trees, empty orchards, horizontal stripes etched into the shorelines of lakes and reservoirs. Hillsides with orange pine trees killed by beetle infestations predict long and intense fire seasons.

However, I discovered flooding at a local flea market. Recently, while searching through a box of old photos, I turned over an early 20th-century postcard and found three women in a rowboat wearing long dresses and pretty updos. They are accompanied by a young boy, and all four casually float down a residential street. As a photo historian, I first tried to identify the image. Where and when was it recorded? Who were these stoic women? In searching for them, I stumbled upon something surprising: a trend in visual culture that extends well beyond California’s borders. Drought and flooding seem to be two sides of the same coin, but the former is far less documented than the latter.

In state museums and California archives, I discovered a veritable flood of flood images—more than 7,000 of them were of that state alone. But when I searched for relevant evidence of drought, very little turned up in the archives. Only a few dozen photos showed the drought in California.

The gap in the visual record is particularly noticeable during a summer, when parts of almost every state experience unusually dry conditions. In much of the West, water is scarce even in normal years. The lack of drought imagery suggests and contributes to historical amnesia. But instead of making for dry conditions that are likely to become far more common and deadly due to climate change, Americans don’t even seem able to remember them.

Around the world, the landscape itself records our long history of flooding. Recent floods are easily identified by flood marks, which trace the edges of the flood with soil and seed deposits. Sometimes people remember these marks by carving them in stone and writing dates along the lines, like a child’s growth chart drawn on a door frame.

Floods were also commonly depicted in sketches, engravings, and paintings, and more recently in photographs. Water is an enticing subject for the artist. The Japanese artist Hokusai depicted water in all its forms and seasons in his woodcuts. Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks are full of drawings of rivers, rainfall and turbulent waters. The sudden, eerie flood disaster was also a spectacular motif for photographers in the 20th century. In local history museums and archives, and even at flea markets, I have seen thousands of images of people paddling canoes down the streets, past peaked-roof islands and rafts with floating furniture.

By comparison, the history of drought—which has shaped humanity as much as floods—is almost invisible. The return to normal water levels erases evidence of previous scarcity. The harvest is revived and the trees sprout profusely. As John Steinbeck wrote on the first pages of east of Eden, “It never failed that in the dry years people forgot the rich years, and in the wet years lost all memory of the dry years. It’s been like that forever.” Out of sight out of mindsays the water as it rushes in to rewrite the past.

This is one of the reasons why drought is difficult to capture in pictures. Another reason is that there isn’t a single moment of action for the artist to focus on. Climatologists describe the drought as a slow-moving catastrophe, and below-average humidity is not only difficult to capture in a single image, it’s also kind of boring compared to the drama of the flood.

A drought, however, has etched itself into the visual memory of most Americans. The Dust Bowl remains, as the National Drought Mitigation Center puts it, “the record drought” in the United States. Four major drought events combined with economic depression drove farmers and farmhands from the Plains states in the 1930s. Government aid programs used photos of environmental degradation and mass exodus to garner further support for their funding efforts. These images also enhanced memories of the Dust Bowl compared to other droughts. Officials in the mid-1930s sent photographers to the region with “scripts” detailing the types of imagery they felt would most convincingly depict the dire situation.

Agencies needed dramatic, compelling imagery, but even at the height of the drought, its impact was not easily translated into print. Photographer Arthur Rothstein, who took two of the most famous drought images of the period, has been accused of filming or staging his shots – allegations that call into question their documentary value. An editor in a 1936 screenplay for Rothstein admitted that he had heard that cattle had done reasonably well over the winter and “that there were no ribs sticking out, or tongues parched and protruding”. The drought was bad, but it didn’t look like it the Poorly. After all, no sofas floated down the street.

Flood images and stories are not only passed down through generations; they also become founding myths. Civilizations thrived in the rich aftermath of the floods along the banks of the Nile, Yellow River, and Mississippi. The drought, on the other hand, pushed society away. It is associated with the decline and even collapse of societies such as the Maya and the people of Angkor. Disappearing is the deepest form of forgetting.

Paleoclimatologists can see the effects of ancient droughts in tree rings, growth bands that narrow under the stress of confined water. The effects of drought, especially forest fires, can be seen in the sediment of ancient lake beds. But these signs are only visible with instruments and training. Instead, in California during times of drought, we have flashing freeway signs warning residents about water usage, as if drought were nothing more than a traffic jam or construction delay.

What if Americans and people around the world commemorated drought the same way we record flood marks? These indelible stories engraved on buildings and bridges remind us that water is powerful and imperfectly predictable. As models based on old climate data become obsolete, we need to be more vigilant about how the landscape will reflect the changes we are making.

The barren landscape wants to be seen and not only when it is already a problem. Floating low water monuments in reservoirs and lakes could serve as a reminder; Perhaps if people understand how far the shoreline can retreat, they may better understand the urgency of preventing the climate from becoming hotter and drier. The designers of mapping apps and navigation systems could give us an easily accessible reminder by turning on another satellite layer that depicts the landscape in extreme conditions, so even driving through vernal green hills we can see what they used to be – and will be again when the drought returns. Popular smartphone services like iNaturalist and Apple’s Visual Look Up use image recognition to identify plants and animals. What if these also included warnings about how the species will suffer from prolonged drought conditions?

The drought story will not stay underwater. We may need to see the impact of our domestic and industrial water use to constantly remind ourselves of dry seasons. Otherwise one could wish that Steinbeck’s statement “It was always like this” was a promise, since it implies at least a temporary relief from the long-lasting, slowly progressing drought catastrophe.


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