Historic US Drought Still Ongoing; Isaac Brings Little Relief

The most recent report from the US Drought Monitor shows Isaac had little overall impact on this year’s historic drought. Areas in Arkansas, Missouri, and Indiana did receive substantial rains and farmers in those regions are experiencing much-needed relief. This year’s rains, however, have come too late for many crops.

Though drought conditions improved in these regions, overall US drought conditions remained severe.

In total, the land area currently experiencing drought remained at 63% of the contiguous United States for this week. The amount of area experiencing severe to extreme drought fell only slightly from 23% the week before to 22%.

Hard hit areas in the US, Europe and Russia have resulted in rising food prices this summer. However, this week, food prices stabilized even as the United Nations urged action to prevent hunger. The UN went so far as to say the world is not currently in a food crisis, but that conditions were very fragile and any additional stresses may push food markets over the edge.

Isaac’s rains may have provided some relief to farmers in states affected, but it has done little to alleviate low water levels on the Mississippi. River traffic is still severely constrained and is likely to become even moreso if rain conditions upstream do not improve. Sections of the Mississippi have been sporadically shut down to traffic since last month while up-river sections have been impassible since June.

The most recent ‘Drought Outlook’ does show some reason for hope. A large section of the heartland is expected to improve as new weather patterns emerge. Lower temperatures will also aid in moisture retention. However, a large area west of the Mississippi is expected to see persistent or intensifying drought. Overall, this forecast shows that the very large swath of drought should shrink a bit through fall, but that no major abatement is likely through late November.

Warmer than usual winter temperatures for the US are also likely to enhance drought in the areas in which these conditions persist. A return to El Nino conditions and a change in the blocking pattern could spell an abatement of current US drought conditions. However, this year’s expected El Nino has been rather weak and slow to develop.

Many climate scientists, including James Hansen, have attributed the severity of this year’s drought to human caused global warming. So as the underlying conditions of human caused climate change intensify, it is likely that potentials for droughts and severe droughts will continue to rise for the US in coming years and decades.

Historic Drought Persists, Isaac Likely to Bring Relief to Some Areas


According to reports from the US Drought Monitor, historic drought conditions persisted throughout much of the drought-stricken US this week. In total, about 63% of the country is still experiencing drought. Impacts to crops remain high. However, large areas planted earlier this year have provided some mitigation to what would otherwise be a terrible farming year. Nonetheless, food prices are expected to rise due to combined impacts from the US and Russian droughts.

Isaac, after lashing the Gulf Coast earlier this week, is expected to bring beneficial rains to much of the Mississippi valley. States in this region will likely see some abatement of drought conditions as many areas expect in excess of 5 inches of rain. A long, wet period would provide more overall benefit than a sudden tropical deluge. However, any major rainfall event should help conditions for ailing crops and struggling farmers. These rains are also likely to help relieve low water levels and increase river traffic for the Mississippi.

You can view expected rainfall amounts in the image, provided by NOAA, below:

West of the Mississippi, however, is a different story. Drought conditions are expected to continue or, potentially, worsen for parts of Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska. And large sections that include Iowa, the mountain west and parts of Texas are still under the gun.

Overall, the worst drought in more than 50 years persists, still troubling many regions. Under a continued and worsening regime of global warming, such conditions are expected to become more frequent and intense. Alleviation for these self-inflicted problems require long-term policy action to drastically reduce fossil fuel consumption as well as measures to mitigate current and likely future damage to US agriculture due to drought.




Mississippi River Traffic Closed By Drought

News reports began flowing in Monday that an 11 mile section of the Mississippi had been shut down by the ongoing and historic drought. This section of the Mississippi, running close to Memphis Tennessee, has been plagued by low water for weeks. But the one-day halt in traffic was the first of the summer.

Coast guard dredges worked furiously to clear the channel and managed to open it for traffic again late Tuesday. However, another section of the Mississippi, this one near Greenville, Mississippi, was closed when a barge ran aground there this morning. The Coast Guard is currently working to re-float the stranded vessel, but would not indicate when the river would re-open to barge traffic.

In total, more than a hundred barges have now been halted at two locations on the Mississippi due to low water or grounding. Coast guard efforts to keep the river open have included major works such as underwater dikes that increase the speed of water and clear silt from the main channel as well as ongoing dredging since early summer.

River levels are expected to fall later this year when sources up stream close water flows to the Mississippi for the season. The annual closing usually brings with it a two foot drop for the river. With low water levels expected to continue until October, further traffic interruptions seem likely.

New Orleans, a bustling port for US grain and minerals could be seriously impacted if traffic flows on the river are drastically cut. Furthermore, countries reliant on US supplies may also feel the pinch. As noted in a previous article, the value of US trade flowing up and down the Mississippi is about 300 million dollars each day. In total, more than 400,000 jobs are directly supported by river traffic.

Increasing instances of extreme drought in the United States like the long periods of dryness experienced since 2000 have been linked by NASA to climate change. And with world temperatures continuing to rise, the Mississippi and its flows of trade and commerce fall under threat of increased interruption. Currently, the US is engaged in an engineering operation to adapt to this climate change. Efforts to dredge, structures to alter the flow of the river, and other heroic works are all going into keeping the river flowing. However, the river still requires water to remain open. So, at a certain threshold, loss of that water due to global warming will cause a shut-down, no matter the engineering effort involved.

The current drought is the worst since 1956. It is not likely the US has the ability to maintain river traffic should it experience worse conditions. Yet worse conditions are in the long-range forecast. So if we are to be serious about protecting our river, we need to be serious about lessening the impacts of climate change.




For Much of US, Historic Drought Persists, Expected to Continue Through November


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.

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Worst Drought in 50 Years Risks Shutting Down Mississippi River


(An aerial photograph of the Mississippi taken near Vicksburg, MISS, on August 2nd, photo credit: Shreveport Times)

According to news reports, the ongoing drought affecting much of the United States is now the worst drought in 50 years. Impacts are being felt all over the country where rivers and wells are drying up. Even the mighty Mississippi, one of America’s greatest superhighways for transport and trade, is feeling the effects.

Overall, the river is now 13 feet below average levels. But in some areas, the river is running up to 20 feet below average. In Vicksburg, Mississippi, the river gauge on August 2nd (photo above) measured the lowest daily river level ever recorded there. These record low river levels have had a serious impact on shipping and, in total, nine barges have run aground since mid July. Barges have been forced to lighten their loads in order to remain afloat — losing 17 tons for every inch of extra free-board.

In many places, river levels are below the record lows set during the 1988 drought, which temporarily shut down the Mississippi to river traffic. Shutting down the Mississippi would have a devastating impact on commerce. As much as $300 million dollars would be lost each day. And since 60 percent of US grain, 22 percent of our oil and gas, and 20 percent of our coal are transported by river, these commodities are likely to see increased prices, further harming already hard-hit consumers.

Already, river traffic has been hampered. In many places, traffic is now one-way. One cargo towing company that operates on the river has been losing $500,000 dollars per month since May.

In response to the drought and increasingly low river levels, the Army Corps of Engineers has been dredging non-stop. The corps now has five dredges operating around the clock on the upper Mississippi. Of the $21 million set aside for corps river operations, $17 million has been spent on dredging alone. In the south, the corps is installing a $5.3 million dollar salt barrier to keep salt from invading further inland and harming water supplies for communities up river.

Forecasters, unfortunately, expect drier than average weather to continue for the Plains and Midwest: http://www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/products/expert_assessment/DOD.html. These regions provide the primary water supply for the Mississippi and some forecasters are calling for river levels to fall further.

This drought is abnormal by any measure. But climate scientists such as James Hansen are stating that it is an extreme event resulting from human-caused climate change. In the past, scientists like Hansen had warned of increasingly extreme conditions due to climate change. And the past two years has been an excellent allegory for these predictions. Just last year the Mississippi experienced record flooding. Now, we are in a record drought that threatens to shut down commerce on the river.

Most climate models show that, as climate continues to warm, the United States continues to grow drier and drier. And though these impacts may already seem severe, they are mild compared to what lies ahead if carbon emissions aren’t drastically reduced by all countries around the world. This is the beginning of an ongoing crisis and the nations of the world will need major policy measures to responsibly deal with this crisis. To fail to act is not an option for a functioning civilization.

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