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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