The drought that covers almost 62 percent of the contiguous U.S. states is second in size only to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and may continue into 2013 in the southern Great Plains, government climatologists said.
Forecast models suggest an area from parts of western Kansas south into Texas and west to New Mexico will probably see the drought continue until at least March, said David Unger, a meteorologist at the U.S. Climate Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.
“The climate models have been quite consistent for below-normal precipitation amounts,” Unger said today in a conference call with reporters. He said he wasn’t confident about what will happen in other parts of the country, though there may be some relief in the Ohio Valley.
The drought reduced the corn harvest to the smallest in six years and sent prices up as much as 68 percent since June. The dry conditions also lowered the waters of the Ohio, Missouri and Mississippi rivers, shrinking shipping channels and crimping the flow of goods along the nation’s largest inland waterway, which carries more than 14.5 million tons of agriculture products, chemicals and coal.
Dryness is expected to persist through March from Nevada to western Missouri and from southern North Dakota to Texas, according to the prediction center.
Drought conditions now cover 61.79 percent of the 48 contiguous U.S. states and 51.7 percent of the entire country, including Puerto Rico, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor in Lincoln, Nebraska.
There is a chance the Ohio River valley will have above-average levels of rain and snow this winter, alleviating dryness in the soil before spring arrives, Unger said.
The drought is one of 11 natural disasters that cost more than $1 billion in 2012, said Adam Smith, an applied climatologist at the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, North Carolina.
The total cost of the events, which also included Hurricane Sandy, will probably exceed the $60 billion caused by 14 such disasters last year, Smith said. The amount will be released in early 2013 because the center is reviewing the methodology it uses to classify the occurrences.
“Sandy and the drought were the two drivers this year,” Smith said on the conference call.
The worst year since 1980 was 2005, which included Hurricane Katrina and caused about $187.2 billion in 2012 adjusted dollars, he said.
“Climate change had a role in these events but it’s too hard to tell how much it has had,” said Jake Crouch, a climatologist at the Climatic Data Center.