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Drought Tightens Its Grip on High Plains, Central States

By Climate Guest Contributor on July 27, 2012 at 2:43 pm

"Drought Tightens Its Grip on High Plains, Central States"

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Estimated rainfall totals for July 25, showing the dry weather in areas under the influence of the large "heat dome" over the Central States. Click on the image for a larger version. Credit: NOAA/Climate Central.

by Andrew Freedman, via Climate Central

The massive U.S. drought, which is already driving food prices skyrocketing and prompting federal disaster declarations, has only grown worse during the past week. According to the latest edition of the U.S. Drought Monitor, released Thursday morning, between July 17 and July 24, the portion of the country affected by “extreme” to “exceptional” drought jumped from 14 percent to about 21 percent. The portion of the country affected by exceptional drought, which is the most significant drought category, rose from 1 percent last week to 2.4 percent this week.

In all, 33 of the lower 48 states were experiencing moderate drought or worse, with every state in the lower 48 experiencing at least “abnormally dry” conditions. For the fourth straight week, the U.S. set a record for the largest area of moderate drought conditions or worse since the U.S. Drought Monitor began in 2000. And climate outlooks for the next few months don’t offer much hope for sustained rainfall in the most severely affected drought regions, with above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation likely during the rest of the summer.

As it has for most of the summer so far, the weather pattern across the U.S. was dominated by a huge dome of High Pressure, more popularly referred to as a “heat dome,” that brought stifling air to the Central states. High temperatures were in the 100s Fahrenheit from the Great Plains to the Midwest. St. Louis, Mo., for example, set a record for the most days with a high temperature of 105°F or greater in a single calendar year with 11. That beat the record of 10 such days, set during the Dust Bowl year of 1934, and included a high temperature of 108°F on July 25.

While the drought is likely related to natural climate variability, including a long-lasting La Niña event that is still winding down, manmade climate change has likely made the drought worse by making the drought hotter than it otherwise would be. Extreme heat can help perpetuate drought conditions, since soils dry faster during periods of higher temperatures. This dynamic occurred during the 2011 Texas drought and heat wave, which cost farmers and ranchers in that state billions in losses.

“This drought is two-pronged,” said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Minitgation Center in Lincoln, Neb., said in a press release. “Not only the dryness but the heat is playing a big and important role. Even areas that have picked up rain are still suffering because of the heat.”

The drought mainly intensified in the region that was under the influence of this High Pressure area, since the sinking air near the High prevented showers and thunderstorms from forming. In Nebraska, for example, the area affected by extreme-to-exceptional drought increased from about 5 percent on July 17 to 64 percent on July 24, a 13-fold increase. Similarly, in Illinois the area affected by extreme-to-exceptional drought jumped from about 8 percent to about 71 percent. Large increases in the most severe drought categories were also seen in Indiana and Kansas.

Some beneficial rainfall has occurred in the Midwest, Northeast, and parts of the Mid-Atlantic states, including rains that fell since July 24. However, the rain has been too little, too late to help farmers, and little rain fell in the most hard-hit drought areas.

According to the latest national drought summary, 55 percent of the country’s pasture and rangeland was in poor to very poor condition, setting a record that was originally set just last week. On July 25, the U.S. Department of Agriculture expanded its drought disaster declaration to cover 76 additional counties, for a total of 1,396 counties in 31 states.

In Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana, more than 80 percent of the pasture and rangeland was rated in poor or very poor condition, the drought summary said. “Corn, soybean, sorghum, and alfalfa losses continued to mount, ponds dried up, and wells failed in several of the[se] states,” the summary said.

Andrew Freedman is the Senior Science Writer for Climate Central. This piece was originally published at Climate Central and was reprinted with permission.

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16 Responses to Drought Tightens Its Grip on High Plains, Central States

  1. M Tucker says:

    “In Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana, more than 80 percent of the pasture and rangeland was rated in poor or very poor condition, the drought summary said. “Corn, soybean, sorghum, and alfalfa losses continued to mount, ponds dried up, and wells failed in several of the[se] states,”

    And The Wildfires! Let’s not forget the wildfires.

    Across the West, major wildfires are wreaking havoc this summer on the region’s economically fragile livestock industry. In areas such as remote Powder River County ranchers said they could be grappling with the devastation for years to come.

    Similar scenes are playing out in Oregon, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Idaho. Including Montana, the value of the six states’ cattle industries approaches $9 billion annually.

    Hundreds of thousands of acres of grazing land have burned so far — with months to go in the annual fire season.

    The number of fires and total acreage burned in the West this summer is roughly within range of the past decade’s average. What’s different is where those fires are burning, as major blazes erupt on grasslands and brush where livestock can be more prevalent, said Jennifer Smith with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

    And that’s all set against a backdrop of a crushing drought that has set in for much of the region. If the dry conditions persist, the recovery of burned areas could stall, forcing cattle owners to sell their animals or seek more lasting alternatives to the private pastures and public lands they’ve run livestock on for generations.

    Some ranchers say the federal government didn’t do enough to stop the spread of fires that have burned more than 3,000 square miles of range and forest in the West so far this summer. They contend that restrictions on logging and grazing allowed too much fuel to accumulate in forests and on the prairies, and that limits on road construction hindered access to fire areas.

    Environmentalists cite warming temperatures due to climate change as a major culprit. They also argue grazing spreads non-native plants that are quick to burn.

    Meanwhile, disaster programs ranchers normally look to are not available until Congress enacts a new farm bill.
    (Excerpted from: http://helenair.com/news/local/state-and-regional/wildfires-leave-wake-of-devastation-dead-cattle-on-western-ranchland/article_d2d99982-d7a9-11e1-b56b-0019bb2963f4.html )

    It now cost more to feed the livestock than they will bring at market. Livestock farmers and ranchers please note the Republican Congress does not care one bit about your plight! BTW – the Mississippi is still falling.

  2. JoeSnow says:

    That ‘heat dome’ looks frightening similar to an eye of a hurricane.

  3. Michael Stefan says:

    I find it ironic that La Nina is blamed for the drought, since where I live (St. Louis), last summer was far wetter, and wetter than average (if hot), despite actual La Nina/La Nina-like conditions, not developing El Nino conditions (moderate El Nino conditions already exist according the the MEI, which has all indicators showing El Nino, and none showing La Nina, features; which includes temperature, sea level pressure, winds, cloudiness, etc). If anything, La Nina years, at least recently, tend to be wetter (2008 was the wettest year on record for St. Louis).

  4. Eric Schubring says:

    Write, write write, talk, talk, talk. As Leonard Cohen wrote “Everybody knows that the ship is leaking/Everybody knows that the captain lied.”

    So now what? I offer this from In the Land That Never Was by Phil Rockstroh:

    ” On consideration of the path we are heading down, at exponentially increasing speed, UPRISING (engendered by moritification and propelled by outrage ) would appear to be an appropriate course of action. If you were embarked on a journey acdross the high seas and discovered the captain and his officers were all suicidal madmen — then mutiny would be a viable option.

    The data is in. The oceans are dying; the very air is bedizened with seeds of fire”

    But, if we’re not up for mutiny, if we are to remain self-imprisoned by these stupidifying pixels rather than taking action and standing resistant to this insanity then it will not be water, but fire next time. And soon.

    Joe, we get it, and we know that unless there’s change soon, we’re screwed, we’re cooked, we’re toast. So unless you think that who leads this country is not important to the fight agains climate change do you agree that yours and other voices must be raised against the duopolists Obama and Romney and their paymasters who are by neglect or design steering us toward the maelstrom?

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      Well said, Eric. Rockstroh gets it. That the choice for Americans is between a consummate con-man, but, in reality a Bligh, and a buffoon, plainly a Queeg, is disheartening, but, with both you get the voyage of the damned, full-speed ahead into one of those proliferating ‘Manhattan-sized’ ice-bergs.

  5. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    If you consult the Environment section of the ‘liberal’ The Guardian, today, there is an interesting article on how Osbourne and the Tory ‘Tea Party tendency’ are actively destroying the climate destabilisation consensus in UK politics. Driven on by Treasury, they are killing renewables and preferencing gas, a familiar fossil fuel industry tactic over recent years. What is really interesting, however, are the Comments, where one can see that even in the so-called ‘liberal’ MSM, the lunacy and fanaticism of the denialist droogs is not flagging one iota.

  6. Leif says:

    “Some ranchers say the federal government didn’t do enough to stop the spread of fires…”

    Others say that the ranchers did not do enough to help mitigate the problems when science first pointed it out to them. A strong energy policy would have had wind tribunes on appropriate locations by now. Solar PV on others. Even a lower chance of having to deal with these extremes. Augmenting the mitigation losses they now endure, as they plead for tax payer disaster assistance. From a government that they have been trying to bankrupt, to a large part successfully, for decades! Get the money and resources into the hands of the rich as quickly as possible. Before the public wakes up! That is the name of the game and they are winning!

    Time to change the rules. Give humanity a seat at the table.

  7. Tami Kennedy says:

    I am glad to hear more often this is being accepted as a man-made problem. That a technical solution along with revision of a very wasteful culture will be needed, promptly, to have a chance of recovery during this century. At least governors aren’t out there holding prayer sessions as have been tried in the recent past.

  8. “Drought” the term seems like another display of optimism bias.

    Like the Mohave drought? or the Sahara drought?

    This is more like climate change moving to desert conditions.

  9. Steve Bloom says:

    Joe, you may have already seen this method linking extreme heat days to crop outcome, but just in case here it is. It seems to be where the rubber really hits the road in terms of increased evapotranspiration (which is the factor that’s really doing the damage). By contrast, PDSI apparently doesn’t have a very good correlation with crop outcome. The post doesn’t show the actual crop outcome correlation, but presumably that’s available. It concludes:

    From the extreme heat measure, it looks like we’re on track for the worst yield outcome (relative to trend) in over 50 years. Precipitation doesn’t look quite as bad, but close.

    One key feature that I think makes this year especially bad: the slope of the extreme heat line during the month of July appears to be the steepest on record while the precip line for July appears to be the shallowest on record. This could turn out a good bit worse than 1988.

    • Steve Bloom says:

      Here’s the 2009 paper laying out the method.

      This seems to be a quite important result, yet I either missed it completely or managed to forget about it. :(