Midlands among hardest hit by hot, dry weather in 2012

Robert Dvorak checks out the effects of the drought at his farm near St. Paul, Neb., in this August 2012 photo.


A record-breaking year

Based on the first 11 months of 2012 and 118 years of data:

TEMPERATURE

U.S.: Hottest year on record for Lower 48 states.

Nebraska: Hottest year on record through November.

Iowa: Among three hottest years through late December.

4,583: Daily temperature records set in Nebraska and Iowa for hot days or warm nights.

29: Daily temperature records matched or set in Omaha; one was for cold.

69 degrees: Omaha's all-time highest January temperature.

10: Number of late winter or early spring days on which Omaha hit at least 90 degrees.

295: Consecutive snowless days in Omaha (Feb. 24 to Dec. 16).

905: Number of days without a record low in Omaha. Streak ended Aug. 17.

WORLD-HERALD NEWS SERVICE

THE HOTTEST MARCH

U.S.: Average temperature of 50.3 was 8.5 degrees above normal.

Nebraska: Averaged 50.8 degrees versus normal of 36.2.

Omaha: Averaged 56.4 degrees versus 39.5.

Iowa: Averaged 51.3 degrees versus 34.7.

DROUGHT

U.S.: Most comparable to the 1955-1956 drought but covered the widest area since the Dust Bowl; more than half the country in drought most of the year.

Nebraska and Iowa: 100 percent in drought by July. Ninety-six percent of Nebraska remains in severe drought; 32 percent of Iowa.

NEBRASKA WILDFIRES

1,400: Reported fires; at least one in every county.

395,000: Acres burned

Sources: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Climatic Data Center and National Weather Service; National Drought Mitigation Center; Nebraska Forest Service; Nebraska Emergency Management Agency; Iowa Bureau of Climatology


Ashen pastures.

Thinned-out cattle herds.

Brittle cornstalks rattling in the wind.

In a world that was hotter than normal in 2012, it would be hard to find a place where the heat was worse than in Nebraska and Iowa.

Final numbers are still out, but as the year drew to a close, the two states were trending toward one of their hottest and driest years on record. Nationwide, the Lower 48 states were expected to mark their hottest year in 118 years of records.

“The big picture is that this was a huge year in the climate history of Iowa and Nebraska,” said Deke Arndt, chief of climate monitoring for the National Climatic Data Center.

There were hotter places on the globe, but the relentlessness of the warmth and dryness made the central U.S. stand out, Arndt said.

The intense heat coupled with the lack of moisture sparked an unusual “flash drought” that galloped across the country in late spring and early summer. It led to billions of dollars in agricultural losses, sparked disastrous wildfires and claimed nearly as many lives — 123 — as the 131 killed by Hurricane Sandy, according to the National Climatic Data Center.

The drought took forecasters by surprise.

Most of the nation's breadbasket was drought-free when spring got under way. Yet by the start of summer, drought had spread across the farm belt, enveloping more than half the country. There's been no meaningful letup, and the latest forecast projects the drought lasting through winter.

Cattle wander into a dried-up watering hole in Kasey Tobias' pasture near Sargent, Neb., in this July 2012 photo. REBECCA S. GRATZ/THE WORLD-HERALD

Based on land mass, the drought was the most extensive of any since the 1930s, Arndt said.

Barbara Mayes, meteorologist for the National Weather Service office that serves Omaha, said the drought is just one example of the nature of 2012's weather.

“If there has been a story line, it's been all the extremes,” she said, ticking off a list of 2012 disasters that included the high storm surge during Hurricane Sandy in late October, the deadly storms and tornadoes in April and the intense drought.

“We're not any different from any other part of the country when you look at the whole pattern,” she said.

The effects of the hot, dry year have been far-reaching and are still unfolding.

More than 600 square miles of Nebraska burned in the state's worst-ever fire. The two biggest blazes were bigger than any previous fire on record. Hundreds of ranches were damaged.

So grave was the massive wildfire in the Pine Ridge that officials set fire to Nebraska's oldest state park, Chadron State Park, to lessen potential damage.

In Iowa, farmers lost more than $1 billion, largely because of high feed costs, especially for hogs, said Dave Miller, director of research for the Iowa Farm Bureau.

The reason behind 2012's extreme heat? Blocking patterns in the atmosphere and the jet stream staying farther north than usual, said Dale Mohler, senior meteorologist for AccuWeather Inc., The World-Herald's private weather consultant.

In the past decade or so, other areas of the globe experienced similar bouts of intense summer heat, Mohler said. In the summer of 2010, Moscow, Kiev and European Russia were at the heart of incredible heat, he said.

In 2012, two stretches of extreme heat — in March and July — drove the records across the U.S., Mohler said.

March was the hottest March on record in the United States and in Nebraska and Iowa.

Farmers and gardeners took to the land in earnest, planting crops that normally wouldn't be in the ground until late April.

The heat continued, and as records piled up, people were making Dust Bowl comparisons in June. Records that had stood since the 1930s were beginning to fall, even though the normal worst of summer's heat was still a month away.

Two Nebraska communities, McCook and Sidney, broke records for their hottest day ever. The 115 degrees recorded at McCook on June 26 edged out the 114-degree record that had stood since July 20, 1932.

As bad as 2012 was, the greater worry is this new year, because the ongoing drought has robbed the region of its resiliency.

Harry Hillaker, state climatologist for Iowa, said droughts typically occur in back-to-back cycles.

“Looking back at other big drought years, usually one very dry year tends to be followed by another somewhat dry year,” he said.

While no one knows if the drought will remain in force, Hillaker and Mayes said it's unlikely that 2013 will be as extreme as 2012. Last year's heat and drought were so far off the charts, they aren't easy to replicate.

Hillaker said his big worry will be water supplies if 2013 is another warm, dry year. Communities in Nebraska and Iowa experienced water shortages in 2012.

Last year, 81 Nebraska communities restricted water use, some modestly, others more aggressively. Lincoln issued its first mandatory water restrictions in 10 years because flows in the Platte River had dropped to historically low levels.

Going into this year, forecasters are at a disadvantage in projecting what could happen because Pacific Ocean temperatures, which typically provide a hint of the seasons to come, aren't behaving normally.

Ken Dewey, climatologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said this added uncertainty is one of the many lessons coming out of 2012.

“It's indicative of a climate system that is becoming more extreme, and when it becomes more extreme, it's unstable,” he said. “And that makes it more difficult to predict what's coming with any accuracy.”

Click here for a closer look at 2012 average land and ocean temperatures.

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