Is the U.S. headed for a 21st century dust bowl?

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dry crops worry farmers Are we headed for the next Dust Bowl?

That’s the question on the minds of many Midwestern farmers as rumors surrounding the historic disaster of the 1930s grow louder.  

Triple-digit heat waves and extensive drought plagued the nation’s heartland this summer, sending crop yields plummeting to 122.8 bushels an acre, the lowest average yield since 1995. Sixty-four percent of the continental United States is in now moderate to exceptional drought, according to the latest Drought Monitor.

This is a nearly 26 percentage points higher than reported in early May.

But does this mean we should prepare for an era of historic drought?

“Mother Nature holds all the cards,” Mark Svoboda, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center told CNN in a report available here. “You roll the dice…every year. Nothing will make you quote-unquote drought-proof.”

Unlike during the 1930s, farmers today have updated farming techniques, new tools and other develops to help manage drought situations, including more effective soil preservation measure, hybrid seeds and irrigation.

Svoboda point out that technological advances such as cell phones and computers make it easier for producers to understand what’s coming and adjust.

The animated maps to the right show that even though the drought continues to intensify, the drought severity is still mild when compared to 1934. click image to zoom Click on the image to activate the animation.

The maps show the Palmer Drought Severeity Index, a measure of the duration and intensity of the long-term drought-inducing circulation patterns. Learn more about the National Climatic Data Center's Palmer Drought indices here.

Another thing is on our side: time.

The Dust Bowl era stretched for eight years during the 1930s. For the majority of the country, this is just the first year of the drought.  If precipitation picks up, many crops will likely recover next year.

“If they have a normal rain pattern, it’s basically a zero recovery period,” USDA Meteorologist Brad Rippey said. “You are going from a (devastated) 2012 crop to normal.”

Livestock producers, however, won’t be as lucky and may feel the effects of the 2012 drought for a longer period, even if there is relief. Oklahoma State University Livestock Marketing Specialist Derrell Peel believes that the next few months are critical to help save pastures and hay fields from needing to be replanted.

If the drought does persist, it will become harder for new moisture to make an impact. Even so, the development of El Nino may bring more hope to the Midwest.  

“If we had a third consecutive La Niña, there are some statistics that would be scary. But the odds of La Niña continuing are very small right now. ,” Svoboda said.  

Read more from CNN here.



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