Intensifying Midwestern Drought Threatens Farmers, Water Supplies

by Max Frankel

The toll from record high temperatures across the United States is mounting. As triple digit temperatures and an intense drought spread, conditions for wildfires continue to get worse, livestock suffers, and corn crops are under threat. Even the mighty Mississippi River is seeing its waters recede.

St. Louis, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Chicago are just some of the Midwestern cities with record high temperatures this week. In St. Louis, a record high high temperature of 105 was followed up by a record high low temperature of 83. Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin also set records with their low temperatures.

The heat wave isn’t limited to the Midwest. Here in Washington DC, we’re experiencing our record ninth consecutive day over 95 degrees, with at least two more days in the 100’s on the way.


Compounding the issue are massive power outages still seen in parts of the country — a consequence of severe storms that hit last week. In Michigan, around 300,000 residents are still without electricity.

According to NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, over 4,000 daily heat records have been broken in the last 30 days, including 224 all-time heat records. Tomorrow, the expected high in Washington, DC is 106, which would be the highest recorded temperature since 1930.

The heat and associated drought are wreaking havoc on the nation’s corn crop. The U.S. is the world’s largest producer of corn and 2012 was supposed to be a banner year. Farmers planted 96.4 million acres of corn, a 5 percent increase over last year. But the heat and drought have already caused much of it to shrivel and die. “We’re talking five-feet-tall corn with no ears, no shoots and no tassels,” said Randy Anderson, a farmer from Illinois. “It wears on your nerves to even look.”

Temperatures soared in places like Jefferson County, Missouri, where the high hit 111 and parts of five corn producing states are now suffering from drought conditions. Almost all of Ohio is now officially in drought. Columbus, Ohio had only 2.01 inches of precipitation in June, a full 2 inches below normal — and experts believe that between 5 and 10 inches of rain is necessary to fully end the problems.

As the corn crop now enters a crucial pollination phase, it is even more vulnerable to the heat and lack of rain: “This is a very narrow window for corn, and there’s little room for error,” said Brad Rippey, an agricultural meteorologist for the United States Department of Agriculture. “Whatever happens in that window, it is what it is — that cob is made or broken.”

This is a moving target,” said Darrel L. Good, a professor emeritus of agricultural and consumer economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “But what we know is this: There’s been some permanent and substantive yield reduction already, and we’re on the cusp, depending on the weather, of taking that down quite a bit more.”

The Mississippi River is also being impacted by the extreme weather conditions. In Vicksburg, Mississippi, the river is 4.79 feet deep, more than 38 feet below its flood stage depth. Some boats, such as the American Queen — one the largest paddle boats ever built — can’t access Vicksburg’s docks.


According to Robert Latham, the director of Mississippi’s Emergency Management Agency, the drought conditions, in conjunction with the lack of northern runoff from melting snow pack due to the mild and dry winter, have contributed to the low water level.

“When you look back at this past winter, one of the things that impacts us is the snow pack and the melt that causes the fluctuation in the river levels,” he said. “We didn’t have that snow pack that we had over a year ago.”

Although this is the time of year when the Mississippi sees its lowest water levels, depths are usually closer to 20 feet.

According to NOAA, El Niño conditions may be starting this summer. Though this may bring some much needed immediate relief to much of the country, it sets the stage for even higher temperatures next year.

As drought conditions worsen, climate scientists warn about the role of man-made climate change in intensifying the problem.

Speaking about last year’s devastating drought in Texas and Oklahoma, Texas A&M, climate scientist Andrew Dessler said last August that “there is absolutely no way you can conclude that climate change is not playing a role here.” Texas climatologist Katherine Hayhoe also recently explained that “our natural variability is now occurring on top of, and interacting with, background conditions that have already been altered by long-term climate change.”


In addition, NASA climatologists, including James Hansen, released peer-reviewed research concluding that the Texas heat wave was “a consequence of global warming because their likelihood was negligible prior to the recent rapid global warming.”

Max Frankel is a senior at Vassar College and an intern at The Center for American Progress.