WALTONVILLE, Ill. – The nations widest drought in decades is spreading, with more than half of the continental United States now in some stage of drought and most of the rest enduring abnormally dry conditions.
Only in the 1930s and the 1950s has a drought covered more land, according to federal figures released Monday. So far, theres little risk of a Dust Bowl-type catastrophe, but crop losses could mount if rain doesnt come soon.
In its monthly drought report, the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., said 55 percent of the country was in a moderate to extreme drought at the end of June. The parched conditions expanded last month in the West, the Great Plains and the Midwest, fueled by the 14th warmest and 10th driest June on record, the report said.
Topsoil has turned dry while crops, pastures and rangeland have deteriorated at a rate rarely seen in the last 18 years, the report said.
The percentage of affected land is the largest since December 1956, when 58 percent of the country was covered by drought, and it rivals even some years in the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s, though experts point out that this years weather has been milder than that period, and farming practices have been vastly improved since then.
In southern Illinois, Kenny Brummer has lost 800 acres of corn that he grows to feed his 400 head of cattle and 30,000 hogs. Now hes scrambling to find hundreds of thousands of bushels of replacement feed.
Where am I going to get that from? You have concerns about it every morning when you wake up, Brummer said.
Around a third of the nations corn crop has been hurt, with some of it so badly damaged that farmers have already cut down their withered plants to feed to cattle. As of Sunday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said, 38 percent of the corn crop was in poor or very poor condition, compared with 30 percent a week earlier.
This is definitely the epicenter – right in the heart of the Midwest, said climatologist Mark Svoboda with the Nebraska-based National Drought Mitigation Center.
Drought’s fast onset
Climatologists have labeled this years dry spell a flash drought because it developed in a matter of months, not over multiple seasons or years.
The current drought is similar to the droughts of the 1950s, which werent as intense as those of the 1930s, said Jake Crouch, a climatologist with the National Climatic Data Center. And farming has changed a lot since the Dust Bowl era. Better soil conservation has reduced erosion, and modern hybrids are much more resistant to drought.
But Crouch said its important to understand that this drought is still unfolding.
We cant say with certainty how long this might last now. Now that were going up against the two largest droughts in history, thats something to be wary of, he said. The coming months are really going to be the determining factor of how big a drought it ends up being.
In northwest Kansas, Brian Baalmans cattle pastures have dried up, along with probably half of his corn crop. He desperately needs some rain to save the rest of it.
I have never seen this type of weather before like this. A lot of old timers havent either, Baalman said. I just think we are seeing history in the making.