NewsAugust 23, 2012

The Killer Drought of 2012 Eases — But Not By Much

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Michael D. Lemonick

By Michael D. Lemonick

The historic drought of 2012 continues to parch the nation, according to the latest version of the U.S. Drought Monitor, released Thursday. Although conditions have improved somewhat in the hard-hit states of Ohio and Indiana, nearly 63 percent of the U.S. remains at some level in drought as of August 21, the most recent date for which statistics are available.

It’s possible to look at the new numbers optimistically. “The total area in moderate or worse drought actually increased, but that’s not as bad as it sounds, because the areas in severe and extreme drought decreased,” said Mark Svoboda, of the National Drought Mitigation Center in a press release.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

But “not as bad as it sounds” is still pretty bad. The drought is the worst to strike the U.S. since at least 1956, and is comparable in terms of its extent to the Dust Bowl droughts of the 1930s and has impacted food prices across the U.S. By one measure it now ranks fifth on the top 10 list of the largest droughts ever recorded in the U.S.

The hard numbers, according to the release: 63.2 percent of the lower 48 was in moderate drought or worse, up 1 percent from 61.77 percent the week before. The map showed 44.03 percent in severe drought or worse, compared with 45.54 percent a week earlier; 23.01 percent in extreme drought or worse, compared with 23.68 percent the week before; and 6.31 percent in exceptional drought, up from 6.26 percent the preceding week.

Regionally, there’s been some improvement in the hard-hit states of the Midwestern Corn Belt. Heavy rains in the Ohio Valley, combined with lower than normal temperatures, brought most of Indiana out of the most severe “exceptional drought” category; the entire state is still suffering from some level of drought, however, as is most of Ohio.

Conditions are also improving in the mid-Atlantic states, southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico.

But in the very center of the country, most of Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma are still struggling with extreme or exceptional drought. In fact, extreme drought conditions have actually expanded in Kansas and Nebraska.

Overall, the impact on agriculture has gotten a little less dire, but it’s still awful: 83 percent of the corn crop, 83 percent of soybeans, 63 percent of hay and 71 percent of the nation’s cattle-producing regions are still experiencing some level of drought.

The combination of extreme heat and dry weather during July has taken a heavy toll on crops. July was the warmest month on record in the contiguous U.S., beating out the Dust Bowl-era year of 1936 for that dubious distinction. Excessive heat increases the transport of moisture out of soils and vegetation, and into the atmosphere, thereby drying the environment faster than would occur in cooler conditions.

It’s worth noting that at this time last year, during the terrible, headline-making heat wave and drought that struck Texas and Oklahoma, only 45.19 percent of the nation was suffering drought conditions.