Drought improves slightly in U.S., intensifies in the West

Source: Elizabeth Harball, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, August 19, 2013

The overall area of U.S. land suffering from “exceptional” drought continued to shrink for the sixth straight week, according to the most recent U.S. Drought Monitor maps, although dryness is set to persist and even grow in several areas of concern.

By the end of last month, areas of “severe to extreme” drought had shrunk by 9 percent from the month before, covering around 20 percent of the contiguous United States, compared with the 38 percent seen in 2012.

But the country is by no means out of the woods yet, said Matthew Rosencrans, meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center.

“The area in moderate drought got smaller by 0.23 percent — it’s just such a tiny amount,” said Rosencrans. “Overall, the area that has no indication of dryness at all, that only went down 0.1 percent.

“The seasonal outlook does not indicate major improvements in the majority of the drought area,” he added. “The majority of the drought area is projected to persist and intensify.”

According to a map released yesterday, only very slight improvement is on the horizon for the long-suffering state of New Mexico, where water shortages and wildfires have plagued residents for months. According to NOAA’s seasonal outlook, the drought might abate only in the southernmost tip of the state by November (ClimateWire, June 28).

For a large portion of the Midwest, including much of Kansas and Nebraska, the drought retains its stubborn hold.

California’s forest fires more than double

Brad Rippey, meteorologist with the Department of Agriculture’s Office of the Chief Economist, said in a statement that the amount of U.S. corn production area in drought has increased from 17 to 24 percent since early July, as dryness returned to northern Missouri, eastern Nebraska and Iowa.

Despite these conditions, USDA predicted a 28 percent increase over last’s year’s corn crop Monday (ClimateWire, Aug. 13).

The drought has also grown in land used for growing soybeans, from 8 to 16 percent, but the amount of land devoted to hay and cattle both saw an improvement of 1 percentage point, “on the strength of heavy rain in Kansas, Oklahoma and the mid-South,” Rippey said.

California, which as seen a massive uptick in wildfires this year, now has an area of extreme drought blanketing 11.6 percent of the state. This is the greatest area of the state in extreme drought since 2009.

For California’s urban population and many of the state’s farmers, the drought has had a more minimal impact than it would in other states because their water delivery system is “highly managed,” according to a statement from the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

But for forests, the effects have been severe. This year’s fire season began early, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, after one of the driest winters on record. As of Saturday, the agency reported that 4,514 fires had burned through 92,353 acres, compared to 3,260 fires and 42,916 acres during the same period last year.