The current multi-year drought is still nowhere near as severe as the Dust Bowl of the 1930s—but it's not over yet.
Drought conditions have rapidly spread and worsened in Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois over the past six weeks, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. But longer term, odds are that conditions will improve in the eastern half of the Corn Belt, while worsening again in the western half, experts say.
This week’s hot, dry weather helped late-planted corn and soybeans catch up, but lack of water could also prevent proper ear filling in non-irrigated corn.
University of Minnesota agronomist Jeff Coulter says that above-normal temperatures into September could accelerate development of Minnesota’s corn enough to make up for late planting. While that bodes well for the short term, some scientists are worried that drought conditions could persist, causing yield loss and further deterioration of soils, leading to more problems next year.
The difference between the 2012 season and this year is that last year the season began with ample soil moisture, says Brian Fuchs, climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb.
"The drought began in Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma in 2010," Fuchs says. "After so many years, not only is there damage to the vegetation but the water supply has also become vulnerable."
Recent rains in the Southwest, particularly in New Mexico, have soaked right into the ground, doing little to recharge rivers, lakes and aquifers, Fuchs notes. And due to the age of some aquifers, sediment and holding capacity are now a problem.
The current multi-year drought has spread as far north as Minnesota’s northern forests this year but it is still nowhere near as severe as the drought that turned the Great Plains into the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. But it’s not over yet.
Regional Climatologist Mike TImlin of the Midwestern Regional Climate Center says that drought covered an extensive part of the country in the 1930s in six out of eight years. The current drought is still far from reaching that degree of longevity or geographical span.
"We had a stretch of relatively benign weather in the latter part of the 1900s," Timlin says. "We are now coming out of that pattern and shifting to one with more variability."
Regional Climatologist Natalie Umphlett of the High Plains Regional Climate Center says that while more than half of her region is still experiencing drought, conditions are variable and have improved somewhat over the past few weeks. An area along the border of Kansas and Colorado, which has been in drought for three years, has been particularly hard hit, says Umphlett.
"Some photos from eastern Colorado look exactly like photos of the Dust Bowl with wheat fields covered with dust," she says. "It looks more like sand dunes that agricultural fields."