Outlook for 2013 hinges on drought prospects

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Last summer’s drought will remain in farmers’ memories for years. Exactly how long its effects will remain, however, will depend on moisture levels to be recorded in the new year.

If above average moisture levels are not received through the end of 2013 planting, the drought will likely remain in effect, according to Elwynn Taylor, Iowa State University agricultural meteorologist. “We’re still going to be at risk of continued drought in a lot of places because soil moisture is less than usual.”

For a successful 2013 crop, Taylor estimates that 18 inches of moisture are needed between the fall of 2012 and the end of 2013 spring planting to restore adequate moisture to Midwest fields. Average moisture levels for November through May, however, total only 14 inches.

According to Taylor, there are reasons to expect a prolongation of the drought that began in late 2011 and hit hard in 2012.  “We are still going to be at risk in a lot of places to have the drought continue into 2013 because the soil moisture is still less than usual.”

On the heels of the 2012 drought, 2013 will begin with many of the same issues and impacts as were observed at the end of 2012, says Brian Fuchs, climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center at University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“The lack of soil moisture will continue throughout much of the region, including areas that received precipitation last fall,” Fuchs says. “Deep soil moisture is still lacking.” 

Through the end of February, drought will persist over the mid-section of the United States and in portions of the Southeast as the winter months are a dry time of year, according to Fuchs. “However, with no strong forcing mechanism in place, it is anticipated that the unseasonably warm and mild winter of 2011-2012 will not be repeated.”

For the balance of the current winter, Fuchs anticipates more variability along with more “typical” winter weather.  The Midwest and Southeast areas that received some soil moisture recharge last fall are also the areas with the best chance to see continuing improvements, building upon the relief from the fall season. 

The areas hardest hit are in Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota, Oklahoma and Georgia.  Many of the areas have only been in drought for the last five to seven months, and most of the observed impacts in 2012 were to agriculture.  “However, as the duration of the drought continues, more impacts will develop,” Fuchs predicts. 

Areas of the southern Plains and southeastern United States that have already been in multi-year drought episodes are going to continue to have water issues develop even in instances where precipitation provides some short-term relief.  “Going into 2013, the agricultural impacts are likely to persist while hydrologic impacts related to water supply will start to develop if we don’t see any relief,” according to Fuchs.  

Weekly updates can be found at the United States Drought Monitor

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