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U.S. is driest in a decade, as drought moves eastward

More than six of every 10 acres in the continental United States is in drought, with arid conditions stretching from the Appalachians to the Pacific Coast, said the weekly Drought Monitor on Thursday. Conditions worsened in the Ohio Valley, as warm weather combined with below-normal precipitation to dry the Midwest.

“The extent of dry conditions is on par with 2012, as drought expanded this week across more than half of the U.S. states, particularly in the Midwest and Southeast,” said the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska on social media. The Drought Center produces the Drought Monitor in partnership with the USDA and NOAA.

In total, 62.95% of the contiguous states were affected by drought ranging from moderate to exceptional, an increase of 20 percentage points since Labor Day, said the Drought Monitor. Drought crossed the Missouri and moved through the Midwest during a dry September and October.

At this point in October 2012, drought covered 61.8% of the country, down slightly from 63.55% at the start of the month, said a Drought Monitor database.

“Given that much of the [Midwest] region experienced above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation again this week, it warranted another round of 1-category degradations, particularly across the Ohio Valley,” said the weekly report.

Drought also deepened in the central Plains. “Stock ponds for cattle remain low to nonexistent, and pastures are providing marginal feed, with supplemental feed required for many.”

The growing season is over for most field crops, but drought affects pasture conditions for livestock as well as the winter wheat crop, which accounts for the lion’s share of U.S. wheat production. A dry winter would leave 2023 crops short of moisture as the new season begins.

Low water has hindered barge traffic on the Mississippi River and grain exports from the Gulf of Mexico. Water levels in the St. Lawrence River, another major shipping conduit, have fallen to 10-year lows near Montreal, reported Bloomberg. An official with an international control board for the river said ships have had to lighten their loads to cope with the low water. At least one shipping company raised its rates to carry cargo to and from Montreal.

The 2012 drought was a “once-in-a-generation crop calamity” that grew out of back-to-back La Niña weather patterns and caused $30 billion in damages, mostly agricultural, wrote USDA meteorologist Brad Rippey in the journal Weather and Climate Extremes. La Niña weather patterns typically bring drier-than-usual weather to the U.S. southern tier. The summer of 2012 was the second hottest in U.S. history, trailing only 1936, and the driest since 1988, another drought year.

“More than one-quarter of the corn and sorghum was lost to the drought,” wrote Rippey. More than three-fourths of the U.S. cattle herd and two-thirds of hay territory was in drought.

A week ago, NOAA forecasters said the United States would go through its third La Niña winter in a row, suggesting little relief for winter wheat or low water on the Mississippi. “Drought conditions are now present across approximately 59% of the country, but parts of the western United States and southern Great Plains will continue to be the hardest hit this winter,” said Jon Gottschalck of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. “With the La Niña climate pattern still in place, drought conditions also may expand to the Gulf Coast.”

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.

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