Lower Temperatures and Rain Won’t Be Enough to Ease U.S. Drought

Lower Temperatures and Rain Won’t Be Enough to Ease U.S. Drought
Corn prices have risen 56 percent since mid-June. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Lower temperatures and rain forecast for parts of the Midwest won’t be enough to reverse the drought that has pushed crop prices up for months.

In July, drought covered 57.2 percent of the contiguous 48 U.S. states, the worst since December 1956 when 57.6 percent of the country was dry, according to the latest Palmer Drought Index. The Palmer records, which date to 1895, are used to make comparisons to drought years before 2000.

“The primary corn and soybean agriculture belt has been especially hard-hit by drought the last four months,” the Palmer index showed. “By the end of July 2012, about 86 percent of the primary corn and soybean belt was experiencing moderate to extreme drought, surpassing all previous droughts except those in 1988 and the 1930s.”

A large part of the Midwest will be drier than normal through the end of the month even with the rain and lower temperatures, said Joel Widenor, co-founder of Commodity Weather Group LLC in Bethesda, Maryland. He said time may be running out for soybean yields.

“Once you get past the end of the 10-day forecast the soybean crop will be too far along in most areas to benefit from rain as far as yield potential goes,” Widenor said.

Corn output will drop 13 percent to a six-year low of 10.78 billion bushels this year while the soybean harvest slips to 2.692 billion bushels, the lowest since 2007, the U.S. Agriculture Department said on Aug. 10. Corn is the biggest U.S. crop followed by soybeans. Corn prices have risen 56 percent since mid-June.

Iowa Corn

In Iowa, corn has passed the point at which rain could help harvests and soybeans still have a few weeks to go, said Harry Hillaker, state climatologist for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, in Des Moines.

The two worst drought categories grip 24.1 percent of the contiguous 48 states, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. That data will be updated tomorrow.

The lower temperatures in the Midwest result from a shift in the pattern that brought record-high temperatures across the central U.S. in June and July, said Tom Downs, a meteorologist with Weather 2000 Inc. in New York. The heat exacerbated drought conditions.

“We’re winding up with more West Coast heat, interior west, allowing for some cooler conditions to drop down from Canada,” Downs said by telephone. “The bad news is there isn’t expected to be too much precipitation in the Midwest.”

Larger Shift

A larger shift in U.S. weather patterns may develop in the coming months as an El Nino, or warming of ocean water, develops in the central Pacific. Both the U.S. Climate Prediction Center and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, the two agencies that track El Ninos, say the ocean is on the verge of an event.

An El Nino may have started already, said Klaus Wolter, a researcher at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He said he expects the agencies to make the announcement soon.

“We hope this signals a shift in the atmospheric moisture patterns,” said Mark Svoboda of the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Nebraska. “Typically, El Nino brings about cooler and wetter winters to the southern tier states so that could be good news in breaking the two-year drought in the southern Plains and Southeast.”

The Midwest and central Plains are harder to predict, Svoboda said by e-mail. Their rainfall depends on where the U.S. jet stream goes.

Hillaker, the Iowa climatologist, said he is optimistic conditions in Iowa will improve by December. If the state gets 10 inches of rain through the fall and early winter, soil moisture levels may be back to normal when the corn and soybean planting begin again next spring, he said.

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