Though rains brought some relief to Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and parts of the southeast, much of the nation’s heartland continued to wither under drought. Conditions worsened throughout Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Arkansas, and Missouri.
In total, about 62 percent of the United States experienced some level of drought, a slight fall from last week, but still encompassing much of the country.
Impacts to US farming, however, remain devastating. According to the Drought Monitor, as of last week, 87% of the U.S. corn crop, 85% of soybeans, 63% of hay, and 72% of cattle areas were experiencing drought. This translates to very poor conditions for many crops. According to the US Department of Agriculture, 51% of the corn crop was in poor or very poor condition as was 48% of sorghum and 38% of soybeans. The percentage of corn rated in the poor to very poor category is just below the 53% value that occurred during August of 1988, a drought that some are claiming the current drought has surpassed.
Ongoing dry conditions have also severely hampered US rivers and river traffic. In areas of the plains, midwest, and west, rivers have dried up completely or heated to such a degree as to result in massive fish kills. The Platte River, for example, dried out in a 100 mile section. Many of these rivers feed the Mississippi and the drying has severely impacted water levels there. Barge traffic along the great river was forced into narrower and shallower channels. In many cases one-way lanes were necessary. In some areas, the mighty river has experienced its lowest levels ever recorded forcing barge companies to lighten their loads in order to prevent running aground. Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers has been dredging furiously in an attempt to keep river traffic flowing. Despite these efforts, nine barges have run aground since mid July.
The fall forecast provides some hope for areas on the periphery of current drought zone, but shows large areas of drought persisting well into November. Much of the heartland, the mountain west, north Texas, and a large section of the central west are forecast to remain under drought conditions. Areas forecast to receive relief include parts of the northeast, the Ohio river valley, a smattering of areas in the central north, the southeast, southeast Texas, and Arizona. However, the hardest hit areas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Missouri, and Arkansas, are under the region where drought is expected to persist.
Overall, this forecast shows large areas of the US remaining under drought through late fall.
Year after year of dry or drought conditions over many regions of the US throughout the past decade has taken its toll. It is worth noting that US Department of Agriculture soil moisture monitors are well below their usual climatological range for many regions. This rain deficit would require a long period of above average rainfall to completely alleviate. For many regions, this level of rainfall is still not in the forecast.
That said, the end of summer should bring some respite from the combined heat and dryness. A return to El Nino conditions in the Pacific would likely increase rainfall for the east and southeast with the potential to bring powerful winter storms to the west coast as well. Current ENSO forecasts, however, aren’t clear on the expected strength of the predicted El Nino, which would impact any new rainfall.
Overall, the US is experiencing increased long-term heat and dryness due to a slowly intensifying regime of global warming. This climate change, unless slowed or altered by long-term policy measures, will continue to bring periods of increasingly severe drought over the coming years and decades. Such a pattern would have intensifying detrimental impacts to US agriculture, water security, food security, river transport, trade and poses a long-term threat to stable coastlines. The most recent drought is, likely, just one in a long parade. So any serious policy to address the plight of US farmers must also take a long, hard look at the underlying conditions of global warming which continue to harm their prospects.