Winter Wheat Crop Now Feeling Impact of U.S. Drought

During the past week, drought conditions have improved slightly across the U.S., but the majority of the lower 48 states continue to suffer from what is proving to be a widespread and pernicious drought event, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor statistics, released on Thursday. The drought put a major dent in the U.S. corn and soybean crop, and now it is delaying the emergence of winter wheat, which is grown in some of the hardest-hit drought states, such as Nebraska.

The U.S. Drought Monitor as of October 16.
Click to enlarge the image. Credit:National Drought Mitigation Center.

Two storm systems brought rain to the middle of the country during the past week, and that was enough to knock the drought footprint down from 63.55 percent of the contiguous U.S. to 62.39 percent. All categories of drought show slight improvements, including “exceptional drought,” which is the worst category. On October 9, 6.18 percent of the lower 48 states was experiencing exceptional drought conditions, but as of October 16, that had fallen to 5.84 percent. It may not be much of a gain, but any improvement is welcome news to those who have been impacted by what has already been the worst drought event since the 1950s, and is comparable in some ways to the Dust Bowl droughts of the 1930s.

According to Eric D. Luebehusen, a meteorologist at the Agriculture Department’s Office of the Chief Economist, 68 percent of the U.S. winter wheat crop is in drought. More than a third of the crop had emerged, but in Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, and South Dakota, the emergence of the crop was running well below average.

Nebraska, the hardest-hit state, saw scant improvement, with the portion of the state in exceptional drought dropping slightly to 95.31 percent from 97.94 percent. More significant improvement occurred in Oklahoma, where extreme to exceptional drought fell from 95.70 percent on Oct. 9 to just 77.8 percent on Oct. 16. Other improvements occurred in Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Wisconsin.

Drought conditions did expand, though, in parts of the Upper Midwest and Plains states, such as in Minnesota and the Dakotas. According to the winter outlook that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released on Thursday, these regions are likely to see a drier and warmer-than-average winter, although they are currently having a colder-than-average fall. The Western U.S., in general, is projected to be drier-than-average this winter, and drought conditions are forecast to spread westward from the Plains to the Pacific Northwest, and then southward down the West Coast to Central, and possibly even Southern, California.

While the drought was most likely triggered by a particular pattern of ocean temperatures in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, it was likely aggravated by extreme heat this summer. July was the warmest month of any month on record, and the summer was the third-warmest on record. According to Deke Arndt, head of climate monitoring at the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., 2012 will most likely wind up as the warmest year on record in the contiguous U.S. Instrument records stretch back to 1895.

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