Midwestern Drought Intensifies: ‘I Don’t Remember Anytime It Was This Dry, This Early’

A mild snow-less winter, an unusually dry spring, and debilitating heat in May and June have created serious drought conditions in parts of Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana, among other states.

Despite recent severe storms that dumped more than 7 inches of rain on Duluth, Minnesota, last week, (causing chaos, especially in the city zoo), much of the Midwest is experiencing severe water shortages exacerbated by record high temperatures. According to the National Weather Service, there is no end in sight.

Global warming directly worsens droughts because hotter temperatures dry out soils and lead to earlier snowmelt, which reduces vital streamflow during the dry season (see here). As Texas state climatologist, John Nielsen-Gammon, explained last year:

There is evidence that global warming has had an effect on the drought, primarily by increasing the surface temperature, which increases the drought severity by increasing evaporation and water stress, and by decreasing stream flow and water supply

Global warming also shifts the precipitation zones, expanding the semi-arid subtropics. And there is emerging evidence that warming in the Arctic drives more extreme, prolonged weather events in the northern hemisphere “such as drought, flooding, cold spells and heat waves.”

Heading into the typically dry summer months, the average rainfall over many Midwestern states has been down dramatically. Rainfall in Carbondale, Illinois is less than 50 percent of normal levels at this time of year; in  Akron, Ohio rainfall is five inches below average, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal:

“Going into that dry period already dry is not looking good,” said Jim Keeney, weather program manager for the National Weather Service in Kansas City.Swaths of Texas and the western U.S. have faced drought conditions for much of the year, including parts of Colorado where wildfires continue to burn. But drought conditions only recently have built in the Midwest—a sharp change from a year ago when heavy rains and swollen rivers led to historic flooding.

Jeff Scates, a farmer in Southern Illinois, said about 75% of his family’s farm was underwater last spring, and he didn’t finish planting his corn crop until early June. This year, he got his crop into the ground by late April, but dry conditions are now causing damage and reducing the number bushels his fields will produce.“I don’t remember anytime when it was this dry, this early,” the 42-year-old farmer said.

According to US Drought Monitor, streams are low, ponds are shrinking, and crops are stressed throughout the region. The Drought Monitor [below] shows that an extreme drought has now developed in parts of Missouri, Indiana, Illinois, and Kentucky. A severe drought is already underway in “most of Arkansas and … in southern Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana, [as well as] western Kentucky and Tennessee.  Islands of D2 (severe drought) appeared in northern Missouri and Indiana as well as central Illinois”:

The monitor shows areas of abnormally dry conditions have developed in “eastern Tennessee, western Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and the westernmost county in Maryland, and northward … into Lower Michigan.”

Moderate drought conditions already exist in most of Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana. The drought “expanded in Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, and crept further into Iowa.”

The dry weather is a worry for a number of reasons. First, the Midwest is a major agricultural producer and the abnormally dry and hot conditions are taking a toll on the farms in the region. Already, before the harvest, speculation of a poor crop has driven prices up: “Corn prices for the coming crop hit their highest level since March, while soybean prices climbed to a nine-month high at the Chicago Board of Trade.”

The higher prices for farm goods ripple into the food market as producers at every level pass on the higher costs to their customers.

Also, in advance of the July 4th holiday, some counties in Indiana have asked residents not to launch celebratory fireworks next week. Some counties have outright banned the practice. These fears are not unfounded as a fire has ravaged more than 130 acres in Colorado over the past 2 weeks, destroying almost 250 homes, and is still only 45% contained.

For other debilitating effects of severe drought, one has to look no farther than last years’ record breaker in Texas. That event, which many experts linked to manmade warming, cost farmers more than $7 billion.

Max Frankel is a senior at Vassar College and an Intern at the Center For American Progress. Joe Romm contributed to this story.

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29 Responses to Midwestern Drought Intensifies: ‘I Don’t Remember Anytime It Was This Dry, This Early’

  1. prokaryotes says:

    Debby stalls, drenches Florida; 114° in Colorado ties state heat record

    Both are scenarios which have been predicted by scientist to become more likely with cc (long lived and staling systems + 3 digit temps).

  2. David F. says:

    The lack of rainfall is only part of the problem. What’s really causing the extremely dry surface conditions is the incredible man-made warmth this year. I’ve seen graphics comparing the future climate of Midwestern cities with the 20th century climate of cities in the upper South. I was kind of curious as to how this year stacked up, so I compared Detroit’s temperatures for January 1 through yesterday with the corresponding 1971-2000 normals for Covington, KY (Cincinnati Airport) and Lexington, KY. I used 1971-2000 normals, because the values for 1981-2010 had increased some already due to global warming. The mean temperature at Detroit so far this year has been 49.4. The 1971-2000 normal for the January 1 through June 24 period at Covington, KY was 48.7 and for Lexington, KY was 50.0.

    In other words, southeast Lower Michigan has seen temperatures typical of late 20th century normals for northern and central Kentucky. I think that’s a good illustration of just what six or seven degrees of sustained warmth means. These “unusual” temperatures are likely to be normal for the Detroit metro area by mid-century. By 2100, the climate of Detroit will probably be more similar to that of 20th century Memphis or Little Rock.

    Now that we’re actually experiencing a harbinger of things to come, it’s not too hard to fathom anymore.

  3. Peter M says:

    Migration of climates is well under way- and the extrapolation given for Southern MI being closer now to the Ohio KY border is accurate, compared to 30 years ago.

    Same is true along the east coast. Southern New England’s climate now resembles that of temperature central NJ. While southern Vermont more resembles northern Connecticut of 30 years ago.

    If we continue on a higher then average emission scenario- Central Connecticut will be like Richmond VA by 2050- and by 2090 the border of coastal Georgia and South Carolina. GA and SC by century’s end will resemble a scrub like savannah of unrelenting heat with intermittent violent storms and hurricanes.

  4. Chris says:

    I was afraid this was going to happen this year. After that hot March and low snowfall totals for the winter, we didn’t have much moisture near the surface. Now the rains can’t get fed, it gets dry, then hotter and drier. It is not going to be a good summer.

  5. climatehawk1 says:

    I think the Colorado fire must be 130,000 acres, not 130.

  6. Berbalang says:

    Several years ago we had so much rain that water trickled over the spillway at the local reservoir for the first time ever. Two years ago we had a major drought. Last year we had so much rain that water gushed over the spillway at the local reservoir, flooding large areas downstream. This year we are back to a major drought after a Winter that was more typical of Alabama than the Midwest.

  7. David F. says:

    I just checked the linked article. It says 130 square miles, not acres.

  8. Greg says:

    Duluth now gets it:

    They see the writing on the wall.

  9. David F. says:

    I’ve noticed the same trends. We’re in the midst of a drought here. Last year was the wettest on record with heavy, flooding rains in the spring.

    I guess it shouldn’t be unexpected. A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, making heavy rainfall more likely. But, on the other hand, a warmer atmosphere also promotes greater evaporation and moisture loss from the surface. Dry ground also warms much easier as less of the sun’s energy goes into evaporation & transpiration.

    While deniers often make light of people who connect climate change to every event, a warmer atmosphere really can manifest itself in a number of ways. It can indeed make it wetter and drier. I guess that’s why I’ve seen some scientists frame it as “climate disruption.”

  10. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Now are we getting that drought, drought, flood drought is not good for crops despite the nice average?

    Are we still as sure about US food security?

    Mono-cultures were efficient, but vulnerable. We have extreme mono-cultures. Fairly soon we are going to have to change how we do things in food production.

  11. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    At least in Duluth they are considering getting ready for a wetter climate. This surprised me, we are not good at adaption.

  12. Patrick Linsley says:

    Also the wind has been something else this year. I don’t know how anomylous it has nationally, however here in S. Wisconsin we’ve had several incredibly windy days while up north they’ve been getting drenched it seems we get some clouds, winds that snap branches and litter the roads with debris and drop no rain at all. The winds (especially on hot days) I’m sure are helping to dry the soil out even further.

  13. Mike G says:

    Well lucky nold you over there in N America. Sun, sun, sun. And here in Blighty we have had the wettest coldes greyest mdreariest most flood prone “summer” in anyone’s memory. March was glorious. Then April-May-June a disaster. Wait till the opening ceremony of the Olympics from London as the deluge cascades doen on the massed Morris Dancing ensemble and the Queen God Bless her shrivels and shrinks. What is going on? Interesting that on the map of the US showing drought conditions, the NW – Wasington – Oregon and presumably BC in Canada, are suffering the same soggy conditions as NW Europe. My suspicions are that the temperature differential between the Tropics and the Poles has diminished, resulting in a weakening of the Jet Stream. Genrally higher temperatures over the wast Atlantic and Pacific cause high evaporation into the atmosphere, and westerly travelling depressions then trundle slowly and sluggishly over to Ireland/Britain/Norway/N France to bless us with a cornucopia of rain, and frequent influxes of chill air from the poles. Meanwhile, as we suffer in the sog, you lot gripe about a bit of sun. Do let us have some PLEASE.

  14. M Tucker says:

    Since the federal government refuses to take action and since some US states deny that climate change is happening, cities are left to fend for themselves.

    At least the cities with the economic wherewithal to begin to adapt to drought or unprecedented deluges are beginning to make the attempt. MIT recently published a survey titled “Progress and Challenges in Urban Climate Adaptation Planning.” In the conclusions they report that even though “…the US has the lowest percentage of cities engaged in assessments and planning relative to other regions” still 59% of US cities “are engaged in climate adaptation planning.” So even though US cities are moving forward slowly they are doing much more than state or federal government.

  15. paul magnus says:

    Yep, hell on earth and not by 2050. Well before.

    Large sections of Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Kansas face drought conditions after a mild winter, little spring rain and recent scorching temperatures. The National Weather Service predicts drought conditions will persist or even intensify over the next three months in much of the lower Midwest.

  16. ozajh says:

    I understand some of the most fervent Deniers on the planet were quite literally praying for Debby to track West and North a few days back. Looking at that map I can understand why.

  17. Spike says:

    I’m sure you are correct about warmth – in SE England rainfll levels are very low (comparable to some meditteranean countries) but it remains green and pleasant due to our much lower temperatuires in summer.

  18. Ian P says:

    High Pressure to the W of Greenland continues to funnel N winds down the E side of Greenland to the UK. It also is helping early and rapid melt of sea ice.

  19. Rob Painting says:

    Global warming directly worsens droughts because hotter temperatures dry out soils

    That’s actually a fallacy. Not that drought in North America is not going to be a ginormous problem, mind you. But it’s not because of warmer air temperatures drying out the soils. Were that so much of the planet would have been desert in Earth’s past when it was much warmer than today, yet we know that wasn’t the case.

  20. Michelle M says:

    Having been to Europe during one of its epic heat waves (and swearing that I would never go there in summer again, it certainly wasn’t anything like the summers of my childhood in France), I’m certain that no matter how unpleasant a cool summer is, it is far more bearable than those killer heat waves. The problem is that you are going from one extreme to the other…as much of the world is!

  21. Lucas says:

    In northern Indiana we are more than 7 inches of rain below normal and have almost already seen the average annual 90 degree days and its not even July.

  22. Mike 22 says:

    You appear to be saying a that drier soils in a region would make them into a desert.

    I think drier soils will just wreak havoc on agriculture, drive the farmers into poverty, hammer local ecosystems, and bring on dust bowls. No dunes however.

  23. Joe Romm says:

    drier soils plus higher heat over many decades in a semi arid climate that starts to see less precipitation will get you a Dust Bowl.

  24. BillD says:

    My home in northern indiana is adjacent to a corn field. The farmer planted during the first week of May and I remember thinking that his timing was great because we had 0.2 inches of rain the day after planting. However,we have not had another tenth of an inch since then. The corn is beginning to shrivel and my lawn is the shade of straw; something that we only occassionally see in early August. My understanding is that the corn acreage is a new record, but I am doubting that the harvest will be high.

  25. Rob Painting says:

    You appear to be saying a that drier soils in a region would make them into a desert.

    No, but the writer’s misunderstanding seems to imply this. Drought is going to be a problem for many US states, the writer is just confused on one particular aspect. But it is a popular misconception.

  26. Lollipop says:

    I’m in central Indiana and we’ve been dry as a bone for weeks now. Our corn is just tasseling and with the lack of rain and forecast heatwave, I don’t see how we don’t have major yield reductions. My poor CSA farmer hasn’t even sent out one box yet. My own garden is struggling too and it’s small enough to water. But with it so hot the water just evaporates, even in the evenings. Even my watermelon looks sad.

  27. BillD says:

    Lollipop–I am beginning to doubt that the northern Indiana corn will reach the tassle stage. It’s stopped growing at about 1 foot tall. On the other hand, we have heavy soil, so my garden is fine with watering. Unfortunately, the rabbits or deer ate the peas.

  28. I’m located in the Carbondale, IL, mentioned in the post.

    We’re in extreme drought conditions right now.

    Beginning tomorrow, we expect temperatures to go above 105 and stay mostly in the 100+ range for a week. We’ve already had mostly 95+ for the past week. Today was a much cooler day at 97, wunderground predicts up to 113 by Sunday.

    Corn pollen cannot pollinate the tassels after two days of 95 F, not even it there is enough water.

    This past winter was no winter at all. I was running around in flip-flops and T-shirts for most of it, even after 9 p.m.

    I will say that the farmer mentioned above is not old enough to have remembered the drought of 1971 around here.

    That drought was bad, but the temperatures were no where near as high as they are now, not by a long shot.

    If we have two or three droughts in a row like that, southern Illinois may look like west Texas.

    And last year in May, it flooded higher than anybody’s ever seen it, covering half of Hwy. 51 between Carbondale and Desoto. I’d never seen a flood anywhere close to that bad.

    So farmers around here are taking a beating.

    But this is better than where I was living last year at this time — Vitoria da Conquista, Bahia, Brazil, a municipality with 400,000 people. Drought conditions are so bad there that they only have enough water for about another month. The rainy season doesn’t begin until October or November (if it arrives on time or at all). I think we are going to get to see what happens when a modern city runs dry.