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Serving: United States
lying snow after the last snowfall. ligora/ThinkstockPhotos

The sneaky drought

With a dry spell affecting the most acreage since 2013, should we worry?

Don’t look now, but the U.S. drought footprint is the largest it has been since February 2013.

Some are starting to take notice, including USDA. At the end of January, the agency significantly downgraded its winter wheat crop condition estimates in some key production states.

For winter wheat rated good-to-excellent, Kansas’ rating fell to 14%, compared to 51% back in November. Oklahoma’s rating was down to 4%, compared to 30% in November. Farther north, crop conditions improved slightly, with South Dakota moving from 18% in November to 24% in January, and North Dakota moved from 28% to 37%.

Winter wheat’s plight is largely tied to overly dry conditions that have steadily built over the past several months. By the end of January, 67% of the country was enveloped in varying degrees of drought. That’s the largest drought footprint in five years.

It’s a bad bet to compare current conditions to what happened in 2012 and early 2013, however, according to University of Missouri climatologist Pat Guinan.

“The magnitude of the current situation is not near what we were at the same time five years ago,” he says. “In early 2013, Missouri was experiencing a severe hydrological drought that had carried over from the historic drought of 2012.”

Slow, steady

What’s more, drought has been slowly but surely building throughout winter. When the Jan. 30 report was released, it marked the 12th consecutive week that the footprint had increased — a trend stretching back to Nov. 7, when just 32.8% of the nation was affected.

Some regions are more severely affected than others. As of Jan. 30, 81% of the High Plains region was categorized by the U.S. Drought Monitor between D0 (abnormally dry) and D3 (extreme drought) conditions. The South (characterized here as Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee and Mississippi) is 83% affected. The Midwest, meantime, is relatively drought-free, at 35% (the bulk occurring in Missouri and southern Iowa).

A lack of moisture in the Plains has resulted in a relative lack of snow cover in those areas, says Laura Edwards, South Dakota state climatologist.

“This is not too concerning at this point, but snow cover does provide a lot of benefits,” she says.

Snow cover does much more than protect winter wheat from extreme cold, Edwards notes. It also generates topsoil moisture in the spring when it melts and even serves as habitat for pheasants and other wildlife.

What’s next?

Although winter wheat acres are eager for a moisture recharge, even corn and soybean farmers will be asking: “How long will these conditions stick around?”

A peek at NOAA’s three-month outlook offers an uneven answer to that question. The agency’s outlook for March through May does carry an expectation for wetter-than-normal conditions across the far northern Plains, upper Midwest and eastern Corn Belt.

But will it be enough? It’s too early to tell, but Edwards says it may pay to prepare for another drought year.

“Areas currently in drought will be very reliant on spring and summer precipitation, which is not guaranteed,” she says. “In many locations, we may not have good soil moisture reserves to draw from.”

Currently, La Niña conditions are not likely to hold on through springtime. But if they do, that could result in more cold extremes reaching the Northern Plains and Upper Midwest, and would have drought persisting or building across the Southeast, Southwest and western Corn Belt.

The good news — timely spring rains have quickly erased many prior winter droughts with relative ease.

“There’s still time for notable improvement,” Guinan says.

But as with everything else regarding weather prognostication, past performance is no guarantee of future results.

The current drought’s footprint is relatively wide but not very deep, with some notable exceptions, including Oklahoma and northern Texas.


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