Prolonged Drought, Searing Heat Threatens US Corn Crop
Drought hits 56 percent of continental US; 'significant toll' on crops
msnbc.com, July 7,2012
The prolonged heat across the Midwest has not only set temperature records, it is also expanding and intensifying drought conditions -- and relief isn't on the horizon for most areas, the National Weather Service reported.
Drought conditions are present in 56 percent of the continental U.S., according to the weekly Drought Monitor.
That's the most in the 12 years that the data have been compiled, topping the previous record of 55 percent set on Aug. 26, 2003. It's also up five percentage points from the previous week.
An Arkansas auction house has seen a jump in the number of cattle put up for sale as many ranchers are unable to afford to feed the animals due to an ongoing drought.
The drought hasn't been long enough to rank up there with the 1930s Dust Bowl or a bad stretch in the 1950s, David Miskus, a meteorologist at the weather service's Climate Prediction Center, told msnbc.com.
"We don't have that here yet," he said. "This has really only started this year."
But for a single year it's still pretty significant, not far behind an extremely dry 1988.
While 1988 saw much drier conditions and an earlier start to the drought than this year, said Brad Rippey, a meteorologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2012 has its own interesting qualities.
"This year the high temperatures have certainly played into this drought," he told msnbc.com. "There's a lot more evaporation ... and crop demands for water."
The Drought Monitor noted that the drought is starting to "take a significant toll" on food supplies. "In the primary growing states for corn and soybeans, 22 percent of the crop is in poor or very poor condition, as are 43 percent of the nation’s pastures and rangelands and 24 percent of the sorghum crop."
More than half the nation is caught in an intensifying drought, with record-high temperatures and thousands still without power. The deadly heat has taken an especially big toll on corn crops, sending prices skyward. NBC's John Yang reports.
"July 4–8, 2012, doesn’t look promising in terms of relief," it added. "Modest improvement is forecast for most areas that have endured the recent heat wave, but most locations from the Plains eastward are still expected to be warmer than normal."
Rain and cooler temps are forecast for many areas in mid-July but over the summer "drought is likely to develop, persist or intensify" across much of the Ohio and Tennessee valleys, the Corn Belt region, the Mississippi Valley and much of the Great Plains, the weather service said Thursday in its latest Seasonal Drought Outlook.
In Tennessee, the severity of the drought has been reported by county farm agents sending comments to the National Agricultural Statistics Service office in Nashville, the Associated Press reported.
"Crops have really begun to suffer and go backwards this week. Rain is needed yesterday," wrote agent Richard Buntin in Crockett County.
Crops and pastureland are "burnt to a crispy crunch," wrote Kim Frady of Bradley County.
"Need rain," in Loudon County, added John Goddard. "Saw a farmer digging a waterline about 4-5' deep. Nothing but powder!"
The weather service on Thursday did say there's a better chance that the El Nino weather system would return by winter.
If it's a typical El Nino, that would mean better than average rainfall for the southern tier of the U.S., Miskus noted.
"Maybe there's some hope," said Rippey, "but that's way on out in the future. That's not a short term relief."
Unrelenting Heat Wave Bakes All in Its Reach
The New York Times, July 7, 2012
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — An unrelenting and record-setting heat wave peaked this weekend, beating a broad swath of states into sweaty submission, with above-normal triple-digit temperatures stretching from St. Louis to Washington.
The searing heat withered crops in the fields, buckled roadways and caused at least two train derailments. At least 36 weather-related deaths have been reported since the temperatures first shot up 10 days ago.
“I’m avoiding the outside world,” Monica Fuhrman, 21, of Centreville, Va., said Saturday morning in Washington as she walked through Dupont Circle on her way to an indoor conference at Howard University. “I can’t handle heat like this. It’s too miserable.”
More than 200 record highs were broken on Friday throughout the Midwest and along the East Coast. And more records fell on Saturday. In Washington, the high was 105, which was a record for the day and 1 degree shy of the hottest temperature ever recorded there.
In St. Louis, the thermometer hit triple digits before 11 a.m., extending the city’s record streak of 100-degree days to 10 in a row.
The St. Louis medical examiner confirmed three heat-related deaths and said it was investigating six more. In Chicago, the authorities said the heat had claimed at least six lives as of Friday night. In Virginia, officials reported 10 heat-related deaths, and 10 people died in Maryland, health officials said.
Many of the deaths have been elderly people found in stuffy homes without air-conditioning.
Temperatures did not tell the entire story. Many places have felt several degrees hotter with the humidity factored in.
It was so hot on Saturday that even the regular haunts did not provide the type of relief from the sun that people have come to expect.
At Rock Creek Pool in Silver Spring, Md., a toddler touched the water and then quickly retreated. "Mommy, the water is hot!” he yelled as he ran back under an umbrella.
Andrea Kelly and her son Beckett, 5, changed tacks and headed for an ice cream truck outside the pool.
“What do you say to the nice man?” Ms. Kelly asked her son as he grabbed hold of a red, white and blue Cyclone Popsicle.
“Thank you!” Beckett responded, wasting no time enjoying his treat.
Ms. Kelly, a member at the neighborhood pool, had brought a few other families with her.
“When you live in D.C., you have to have certain coping strategies,” she said. “Like ice in my hat today.”
In the front seat of the ice cream truck, Arafan Kaba, 47, used his T-shirt to wipe beads of sweat from his face. His truck had a freezer, but it did not have air-conditioning.
In the Midwest, some residents were drawing comparisons between the current heat wave and the severe heat and drought of the 1930s. More than 420 deaths were recorded during a 1936 heat wave in St. Louis, which also saw 153 heat-related fatalities during a 14-day period in 1980.
Around the region, corn and soybean crops shriveled from the heat and the lack of rain. In the hardest hit and hottest areas, some farmers said they had already given up on their cornfields for the season. Others say much is riding on whether the heat subsides and rain arrives in the next few days, a crucial period for corn pollination.
“There’s vast uncertainty,” said Bob Nielsen, a professor of agronomy at Purdue. “There aren’t many years, though, when I get this pessimistic.”
Meteorologists said the recent hot streak, though not unprecedented, was unusual because of how early in the summer it struck and its duration.
The prolonged heat has been the result of a high pressure system that has set up over the central and Eastern parts of the country, said Katie Garrett, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. The system has been so strong that it has kept storm systems from moving in and has prevented cold fronts that usually provide relief from sweeping through. At the same time, moisture and heat from the Gulf of Mexico have been blowing into the Upper Midwest, Ms. Garrett said.
Even as relief is expected to come by Sunday evening in the form of lower temperatures, forecasters said there was still cause for concern. Severe thunderstorms are expected to bowl through the Midwest and along the Eastern Seaboard on Sunday and into the early part of the week. This is a particularly unsettling proposition for the Washington area, which was hit by severe storms last weekend that left millions without power and where more fragile, temporary power systems are in place.
In some areas, the lingering effects of hot temperatures could still present health risks.
“It really needs to get down to the mid-70s at night before we can lower our level of concern,” said Pam Walker, the director of the St. Louis Department of Health.
Transit officials in Washington imposed a 35-mile-an-hour speed limit on all trains that travel above ground — 20 m.p.h. slower than they typically travel — after a train derailed on Friday afternoon because of a “heat kink,” when a metal track expands because of the heat.
Searing Sun and Drought Shrivel Corn in Midwest
The New York Times, July 5, 2012
HARTFORD CITY, Ind. — Across a wide stretch of the Midwest, sweltering temperatures and a lack of rain are threatening what had been expected to be the nation’s largest corn crop in generations.
Already, some farmers in Illinois and Missouri have given up on parched and stunted fields, mowing them over. National experts say parts of five corn-growing states, including Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio, are experiencing severe or extreme drought conditions. And in at least nine states, conditions in one-fifth to one-half of cornfields have been deemed poor or very poor, federal authorities reported this week, a notable shift from the high expectations of just a month ago.
Crop insurance agents and agricultural economists are watching closely, a few comparing the situation with the devastating drought of 1988, when corn yields shriveled significantly, while some farmers have begun alluding, unhappily, to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Far more is at stake in the coming pivotal days: with the brief, delicate phase of pollination imminent in many states, miles and miles of corn will rise or fall on whether rain soon appears and temperatures moderate.
“It all quickly went from ideal to tragic,” said Don Duvall, a farmer in Illinois who, in what was a virtually rainless June, has watched two of his cornfields dry up and die as others remain in some uncertain in-between.
“Every day that passes, more corn will be abandoned,” Mr. Duvall said. “But even if it starts raining now, there will not be that bumper crop of corn everyone talked about.”
For farmers, especially those without insurance, the pressure mounts, they say, with each check on the morning weather forecast, with every stifling walk through a cloudless field. But the worries have quickly spread: corn prices have risen on the Chicago Board of Trade in recent days on the likelihood of a smaller crop, as analysts weigh the broader prospect of rising prices for food and effects on ethanol production.
“You wake up every morning with that churning in your stomach,” said Eric Aulbach, a farmer here in central Indiana, who gazed out across a field of corn he ought not to be able to gaze across by now.
The plants are short, leaves curling unhappily and with a telltale pale yellow hue rising from stems. Down the road, another farmer’s cornfield is still more shrunken, looking like rows of house plants better suited for a kitchen window.
Some experts are less pessimistic, saying the fate of the nation’s corn crop, the largest in the world, cannot be known until later in the summer, after pollination, when it is clear whether kernels or empty spaces fill the ears of corn and whether enough ears appear at all. They note that the driest, hottest conditions have steered clear of some crucial Corn Belt states, including Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and western Iowa, the nation’s most prolific corn producer. In those states, the crop appears healthy and strong — not to mention increasingly valuable. And while much of the nation’s corn is not protected by irrigation, some of it, especially in Nebraska and Kansas, is, though those areas have felt the effects of drought, too, requiring more water and, potentially, driving up costs.
“This is a moving target,” said Darrel L. Good, a professor emeritus of agricultural and consumer economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “But what we know is this: There’s been some permanent and substantive yield reduction already, and we’re on the cusp, depending on the weather, of taking that down quite a bit more.”In its most recent assessment, released Monday, the Department of Agriculture reported that 48 percent of corn crops nationally were in good or excellent condition, a drop from 56 percent of crops a week earlier. In some states, though, the circumstances were far worse. In Indiana, half of corn crops were designated poor or very poor, and in Illinois, another state among the nation’s top corn producers, only 26 percent of crops were considered good or excellent.
John Hawkins, a spokesman for the Illinois Farm Bureau, said those in the southernmost sections of his state “are close to or past that point of no return,” while elsewhere, “there’s a lot of praying; it’s hanging on by a thread.”
“These 100-degree temperatures are just sucking the life out of everything,” he said.
American farmers had high expectations for corn this year, planting 96.4 million acres of it — a number 5 percent more than the previous year. High prices and an expectation of strong returns made this year’s planting the largest corn acreage in 75 years. Those were heady times in farm country, with farmland prices rising on and on, even as the recovery moved sluggishly in other realms. An uncharacteristically warm March in the Midwest sent hopes still higher, allowing farmers to plant corn weeks earlier than usual. For some crops, including some cherries in Michigan and apples in Indiana, unexpected April frosts then caused damage, but the corn, said Randy Anderson, a farmer in Southern Illinois, went right along beautifully.
And then very little rain fell, and temperatures soared. By last week around corn country, scores of triple-digit heat records were being broken: Jefferson County, Mo., 111 degrees; Evansville, Ind., 107 degrees. That left corn, including Mr. Anderson’s crop, shriveling.
“We’re talking five-feet-tall corn with no ears, no shoots and no tassels,” he said. “It wears on your nerves to even look.”
For much of the region, the next few weeks — as the plants’ tassels shed pollen to fertilize the silks and create kernels — are crucial. The endless fields of soybeans are at risk in the Midwestern heat, too, though they are seen as more resilient and able to pollinate later.
But a stressed, withered corn plant may not pollinate at all. “This is a very narrow window for corn, and there’s little room for error,” said Brad Rippey, an agricultural meteorologist for the United States Department of Agriculture. “Whatever happens in that window, it is what it is — that cob is made or broken.”
By midday Wednesday, temperatures hovered in the 100s in St. Louis and Indianapolis. While some forecasts suggested relief in the form of lower temperatures in parts of the Midwest next week, some rain, but not the deluge many here say they need, was predicted.
“All we can do is hope and wait,” Mr. Aulbach said, lifting a handful of Indiana soil and trying to shape it in his fingers, only to watch it slip away, a dusty powder.