‘Flash drought’ started huge percent of U.S. problem

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KANSAS CITY, Mo.—During the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, approximately 80 percent of the U.S. was in a moderate to extreme drought, and during 2012, at the drought peak, about 65 percent of the U.S. was in moderate to extreme drought, according to Brian Fuchs, climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center, School of Natural Resources, University of Nebraska.

Drought to some degree was in at least isolated spots of every state in 2012 for the first time in history, he said during an educational presentation during the opening day of Ag Connect, the agricultural machinery show.  

“We are going to be talking about drought for much of 2013 as little relief is being projected,” Fuchs said. “A lot of areas are going to go into this spring planting season with a deficit. We are seeing it already with winter wheat, and it is going to continue unless we see changes.”

Fuchs said even with predictions of lower precipitation, we shouldn’t lose faith that a major change could occur. “With the weather, I think everyone is smart enough to know that nothing is ever set in stone, as we saw a 100-year flood on the Missouri Basin followed by a historical drought. We have seen both ends of the spectrum.”  

There was no strong signal of the severity that the drought would reach going into 2012. He provided examples of the drought beginning in 2010 and progressing in different areas of the country. In October 2010, about 12 percent of the U.S. was in drought, most of it in the Southeast. As September 2011 began, about 33 percent of the U.S. was in drought but the area had moved to the Lower Plains, Texas and west with 88 percent of Texas and 69 percent of Oklahoma in drought.

January 2012 had 32 percent of the U.S. in drought with Texas and Georgia being the hardest hit states, and quite rapidly the drought spread to the Central and Northern Plaines so that 65 percent of the country was in a drought condition as of September 2012. As of early January 2013, the drought had subsided only a small amount to cover about 58 percent of the U.S.

Fuchs said the spread of the drought was referred to as a “flash drought” similar to a flash flood. What impacted the situation as much as a lack of precipitation was the high temperatures and high winds that occurred.

“As in 2010 and 2011, drought can be very intense but isolated. In 2010 and 2011, it was very intense over Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma to part of Louisiana, but it stayed down there. In 2012 and 2013, we saw drought explode with a large spatial footprint. Even the Hawaiian islands, which you think of as lush, green tropical paradise has had drought; the big island of Maui has been in a three-year drought,” he said.

“The first year of drought we see much of the impact to agriculture, but as you go forward, you start to see more impacts to water supply and availability for municipal water supplies. Those that use individual wells start having issues and require deeper wells. A lot of problems arise as you go past that first year. Think about it; we haven’t even been in one year of drought for the Midwest and Central Plains. It started back in June. We are not even talking 12 full months of drought yet. Some of those areas in Texas and Oklahoma are having some serious water problems with municipal water availability,” Fuchs noted.

As a conclusion, he spent quite a bit of time saying farmers and ranchers need to plan alternatives to their operations as drought might appear to be possible and continuing for a long period. Fuchs said, “Planning and monitoring conditions is important both before and during a drought episode. I hope you take away that I should be thinking about the next drought today. Even if I’m not in drought, I should be considering a plan; what am I going to do on my operation and how would a drought impact me.”

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