Devastating drought worsens

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 2:13 PM

Molly Hennessy-Fiske

HOUSTON - The largest drought in more than half a century strengthened its grip on the United States this week, particularly in the Midwest and High Plains farming states, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor report released Thursday.

More than 70 percent of the Midwest was in some stage of drought this week, up from 63 percent last week, according to the report by climate experts. Half of the Midwest, which produces about 75 percent of the country’s corn and soybean crop, was in severe to exceptional drought, up from about a third last week.

More than half of Iowa, the country’s top corn- and soybean-growing state, was in severe drought this week, a marked increase from 13 percent the previous week.

About 64 percent of Kansas was in extreme to exceptional drought, up from 28 percent the week before.

Richard Heim, a meteorologist in the climate monitoring branch of NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., which helps compile the weekly drought reports said the forecast was grim, particularly for crops in the nation’s breadbasket.

"If the crops don’t get relief, some of them are going to be a total loss. The yields are going to be reduced regardless of what happens in the coming weeks," Heim told the Los Angeles Times.

The weekly drought report takes into account data on agriculture and large wildfires, Heim said. Although the number of large wildfires dropped this week, he said, it’s difficult to gauge the impact of the drought overall because the statistics don’t include smaller wildfires, which have also proliferated in recent months.

Heim said there’s no doubt the drought has reached historic proportions; it’s the largest since 1956 and comparable to a 1988 drought that devastated the nation’s corn crop.

As in 1988, this year’s drought formed "an inverted ’U’ shape" over the Ohio, Missouri and Mississippi river basins, Heim said, putting river traffic at risk in the long term. He noted recent reports of barges encountering lower river levels.

"The longer this drought lasts, the lower those rivers will get and the more effect it’s going to have on that barge traffic," he said.

He said authorities will also likely be monitoring river temperatures near nuclear power plants, which often use river water to cool the reactors.

"That’s an issue we need to really be aware of and keep tabs on," Heim said.

While some parts of the Midwest saw scattered showers Thursday, Heim said the rain was unlikely to make a dent in the ongoing drought.

"There is a front with some good rains occurring in northern Indiana and Ohio - those are areas that really need rain, and it stretches into Kansas. But it doesn’t look like it’s doing much good for Illinois or Missouri," he said.

"We need 10 or 20 more of these fronts coming in and stalling out over the next few weeks - that’s not going to happen," he said.

"Some people will get lucky under a couple inches of rain, and others will only get a sprinkle. These are very localized storms this time of year. What we really need are two or three tropical storms to move up along the Mississippi," he said.

But such storms could also bring flooding and wind damage, he warned, especially with the ground so dry. In many parts of the country, the drought has been magnified by a heat wave expected to persist into August.

"This heat wave is not going to break," Heim said. "The forecast for the Central Plains over the next few weeks is dry, dry, dry."

Lester Brown, founder of the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute, made dire predictions about the drought’s impact on agriculture ahead of a Thursday briefing.

In a statement, Brown called the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s estimated drop in this year’s corn harvest overly optimistic, citing dry conditions and high temperatures in places such as St. Louis, along the southern end of the Corn Belt, where temperatures at the end of June climbed to 100 degrees or higher 10 days in a row.

Earlier this month, the USDA reduced its estimate of the corn harvest by 12 percent, from 376 million tons to 329 million tons.

"Stunning though USDA’s drop in the projected harvest was, it appears to be a gross underestimate of the fall, given the widespread deterioration of the crop," Brown said in a statement. "The actual decline in the harvest will likely be closer to 95 million tons, roughly double the USDA estimate."


)2012 Los Angeles Times

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