TIME photo essay

Picturing the American Drought: George Steinmetz

As renowned aerial photographer George Steinmetz documented the effects of the recent record-setting drought in the American South, he discovered that even in driest parts of the country, the cliched idea of the bowl of cracked earth and dust was neither common nor representative of the crisis.

As Bryan Walsh writes this week, drought is one of the most insidious types of natural disaster, but no less devastating. The recent record-setting period of dry weather in the American South has caused billions of dollars of damage, ruined crops, and altered entire ecosystems, and it may get worse.

TIME commissioned renowned aerial photographer and photojournalist George Steinmetz to document the effects of the drought in Texas, New Mexico, and Georgia. On his journey, Steinmetz quickly found that even in the driest sections of the country, the cliched idea of the bowl of cracked earth and dust was neither common nor representative of the crisis. In many places, green on the ground was simply evidence of the intensity of water usage for irrigation, homes, and recreation. The effect of the drought can only begin to be appreciated when we see the lakes and reservoirs where the water is coming from, or what the land looks like when we are forced to stop watering.

Reporting by Alyson Krueger

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