Parched Earth

A record-breaking drought has devastated much of the American South this summer. There's little relief in sight — and it could get a whole lot

George Steinmetz for TIME

Hurricanes announce themselves on radar screens before slamming into an unlucky coast. Tornadoes strike with little warning, but no one can doubt what's going on the moment a black funnel cloud touches down. If we're lucky, a tsunami offers a brief tip-off — the unnatural sight of the ocean swiftly retreating from the beach — before it cuts a swath of death and destruction.

But a drought is different. It begins with a few dry weeks strung end to end, cloudless skies and hot weather. Lawns brown as if toasted, and river and lake levels drop, like puddles drying after the...

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