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Resilient Drought Holds on Through Dry Autumn

Another week of below-average precipitation across the lower 48 states has brought little relief to drought-stricken areas, making it increasingly unlikely that long-suffering regions will see the dry spell subside by the end of the year.

As of December 11, 61.87 percent of the land area in the continental U.S. was still under some degree of drought conditions, with the most severe impacts concentrated in the High Plains, Texas, and parts of the Southeast. Parts of the West are also experiencing severe drought conditions, including Colorado. This marks a slight change from last week, when 62.37 percent of the land area were in some form of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Departure from average precipitation during November 2012.
Credit: National Weather Service.

The heaviest rainfall observed this week occurred outside the areas that need it the most. Rainfall totals exceeding 2 inches fell over a region between the Mississippi Valley, the Southern Appalachians, and New England. Storms early in the week also brought heavy precipitation to parts of the Pacific Northwest and Idaho.

The rain that did fall in the driest areas of the country did little to change drought conditions. Enough rain fell in parts of Texas to change the classifications in some areas from “moderate drought” to “abnormally dry.” However, few such changes occurred across the rest of the country. Texas has been mired in drought since 2011.

Conditions have expanded and intensified slightly in some areas. In Kansas, 100 percent of the land area is now considered to be under “severe” drought or worse, up from 99.34 percent last week. 99.92 percent of Oklahoma is now under at least severe drought, compared to 99.64 percent last week.

The 2012 drought, which is the worst drought to strike the U.S. since the 1950s and has been compared to the Dust Bowl droughts of the 1930s, has seen little to no improvement since the end of summer. The drought is forecast to either persist or intensify across much of the current drought region before the end of February, according to the latest seasonal drought outlook from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

U.S. Drought Monitor as of December 11, 2012.
Click on image for a larger version.  
Credit: NOAA/USDA.

This ongoing dryness has already impacted the winter wheat crop, placing additional pressure on farmers in already arid climates. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), more than 40 percent of the crop has been rated “poor to very poor” in Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska. In South Dakota, 64 percent of the crop is in poor to very poor condition.

The drought is also lowering the river level along the Mississippi River, threatening the flow of commerce along that waterway. Officials are considering emergency dredging and rock blasting to keep barge traffic moving as water levels drop to about 9 feet in the St. Louis area.

The costs from this year’s drought may reach $12 billion just in agricultural losses, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, although some estimates place the total cost as high as $150 billion, which would put the drought above Hurricane Sandy as the most expensive natural disaster of the year in the U.S.

The majority of the agricultural cost will be absorbed by the federal government in the form of crop insurance. However, the complete and long-term economic effects of this drought are still uncertain. The USDA will release its official assessment of the drought’s impacts on crop production and agricultural prices in January 2013.

Part of what has made this drought so devastating was the lack of warning from forecasters and government agencies, many of which were unable to predict the onset of the drought before it began. This meant that during the spring planting season, when many farmers were planning how to use their land in the growing season, there was no indication that this summer would bring about the worst drought in 50 years.

Since then, the USDA and climate forecasters have sought better ways to predict and prepare for droughts of this magnitude. In a press conference held Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced that the USDA would be entering into an agreement with NOAA, in order to share and communicate drought forecasting efforts.

Vilsack also highlighted the efforts the USDA has made to help agricultural producers get though the drought, and reaffirmed the agency’s commitment to do so in the future. Thursday, he announced that the agency had opened and additional 2.8 million acres of conservation land for grazing, and provided $200 million in stockpiled grain for producers facing feed shortages. In August, the USDA bought $170 million of pork, poultry and fish products directly from farmers for use in federal food programs, in order to help stabilize the price of these commodities.

“Now we know that the actions taken by USDA and other federal agencies at the height of the drought provided much-needed flexibility during a difficult time,” he said.  “We also know that drought recovery is a long-term proposition, and we will continue to partner with producers to see it through.”

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