The extraordinary drought that has exploded across the country shows no signs of abating.
Instead, what began as a “flash” drought — a quick flare-up of extremely dry conditions — has settled in and is intensifying.
On Thursday, a fresh round of analyses by the nation's leading drought and weather forecasting agencies fleshed out a discouraging picture of what has become the most widespread U.S. drought since 1956.
The hope is that this drought, just like a flash flood, will come to an end quickly rather than lasting into next year.
According to the reports released Thursday:
» Sixty-four percent of the lower 48 U.S. states are in drought and an additional 17 percent are at risk of falling into drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
» The odds favor an August that is hotter than normal in nearly every one of the lower 48 states and drier than normal from Nebraska into Ohio, according to the U.S. Climate Prediction Center.
» Through the end of October, drought is expected to persist in the Plains and Midwest and spread farther north and east, according to the U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook. The Southwest and Southeast are forecast to get rains that would ease their drought.
Brian Fuchs, a national drought expert at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said this drought is unusual for how quickly it developed, which is why he and his colleagues at the National Drought Mitigation Center refer to it as a flash drought.
Droughts usually develop over months and years, rather than the few months it took this one to form, he said.
“You typically don't see these conditions develop and intensify this quickly,” he said.
UNL's drought center publishes its weekly drought map in collaboration with several federal agencies and 350 experts nationwide.
Fuchs said there's no way to know how soon this drought will ease.
“It is a developing drought. I would imagine it has not even peaked,” he said.
And while a federal report released earlier this week ranks this as the largest drought in the lower 48 states since 1956, Fuchs cautions against making too many comparisons to the droughts of the 1950s and 1930s.
Those were decades that saw successive dry years, with cumulative impacts that were more severe than the nation is now experiencing, he said. Also, the U.S. has developed better farming practices and policies that protect against some of the devastation experienced by previous generations.
A better comparison, especially when it comes to the impact on agriculture, is the 1988 drought, he said.
The drought of 1988 was the last serious one in the Corn Belt. That summer, drought covered about half of the country, eventually leading to one of the nation's costlier natural disasters.
This year, all of Nebraska and Iowa are in drought. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has severely cut back its forecast for the corn harvest, and the department is expediting federal drought assistance to 1,000 counties across the country.
The decade of the 2000s was rough for many farmers, but drought during that period was more regional, said Bruce Johnson, an agricultural economist at UNL.
This year “seems to be a pervasive kind of drought. Nobody seems to be spared,” he said.
The only good news, Johnson said, is that the state entered this drought from a point of relative strength due to recent, unusually wet years.
A fourth of Nebraska's economy depends on agriculture, so the impact of this drought already is being felt, Johnson said.
Different sectors of Nebraska's ag economy are seeing different effects. Some farmers have begun cutting down their corn, ranchers have begun selling off cattle, and ethanol plants are cutting back production or shutting down entirely.
Irrigated corn will survive but with diminished yields due to heat stress; non-irrigated corn already is withering; and soybeans, which are less vulnerable to drought, could rebound if timely rains occur.
Regardless, consumers are likely to feel the effects in higher food prices, Fuchs and Johnson said. How much of an impact is less clear.
“I don't like being the bearer of bad news ... but the forecast is not showing any improvement anytime soon,” Fuchs said. “With that in mind, conservation needs to be on the forefront of all of our minds.”
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