Repercussions of the 2012 drought are set to challenge the 2013 growing season. The Corn Belt is especially vulnerable.
“Yes, it could be worse but we’ve seen changes in our vulnerability to drought,” said Mark Svoboda, University of Nebraska-based climatologistwith the National Drought Mitigation Center.“There are more straws in the drink putting more demand on a finite water resource.”
Svoboda spoke at the March “Too Hot, Too Wet, Too Dry: Building Resilient Agroecosystems” conference sponsored by the Global Harvest Initiative, which largely focused on global water-use trends and food needs going into the future with a burgeoning world population.
“(We’re here) to talk about perhaps the greatest challenge of our time when we think about the sustainability of resources to meet a growing demand for food around the world,” said moderator Ronnie Green, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska vice chancellor. “As we move out over the next several decades, (there will be) as additional two billion people in our population on the planet.
“Think about the resources that will be required to meet a growing food need and a growing quality of food need around the world. We certainly have challenges ahead.”
Green continued: “What has the 2013 drought meant? What does it look like currently? How are we looking at the out years ahead of us – not only in terms of the ongoing nature of potential drought but also the recovery and what it will mean for agriculture…
“Where I come from, Nebraska, we’ve been dead center in the drought. The state has a higher percentage of landmass in the state (in ‘exceptional’ and ‘severe’ drought categories) than any other state in the United States. It’s had a huge impact on us.”
Drought, Svoboda reminded, is a normal part of the climate cycle. He compared the 2012 drought with those in the 1930s and 1950s. “The one difference between them (and now) is those were single spikes (of drought). We’ve had three to five spikes over the last five years.
“The Missouri Basin is the largest drainage basin in the country. Drought goes in cycles hydrologically-speaking just as it does for agriculture for those relying on rivers for navigation, for transport of goods, for irrigation. It was really interesting to look at 2011 right before the drought of 2012 when we had record-high run-off into the Missouri Basin and record flooding. The very next year: record-low inflow and severe drought throughout.”
Not only was 2012 a terrible drought year for the United States, it was also the hottest year on record – going back to 1895.
2012 “only came in as the fifteenth driest year if you look at the big picture,” said Svoboda. “But that’s only if you don’t zoom in and look at some of the individual state numbers.”
Zooming in, Svoboda said 19 states had record warm years. Two states, Nebraska and Wyoming, had their hottest and driest years on record. “That isn’t a combination you want to see.”
Drought costs soar
And the costs of the 2012 drought have soared. According to data from the Climatic Data Center, “we had 11 disasters that cost at least $1 billion. Those were highlighted by Hurricane Sandy, of course, but also by the drought.
“Droughts, typically, are on average the Number One cause of economic loss in the country. People used to think that (designation belonged) to hurricanes, tornadoes and floods. The fact is, droughts cover potentially millions of square and effect millions of people and last a lot longer than most other hazards.”
From Indiana all the way to Nebraska – virtually the entire Corn Belt – has been, or is, in drought. Immediate concerns include winter wheat in Oklahoma, Kansas and parts of Texas.
Winter wheat “has taken a real beating in the Southern Plains. There are a lot of issues with dryness and, in fact, many didn’t bother to plant. They’re hoping for a good spring, good moisture. Otherwise many say, ‘We aren’t going to bother.’ So, there isn’t a good situation for the early estimates for winter wheat.”
What set apart the 2012 drought – “and we hadn’t seen heat like this since 1988/1989” – was the number of 100-degree heat days. “In Nebraska there was over a month of 100-degree heat. We also saw that press into the Midwest into Missouri, southern Illinois. That isn’t usual for those states and it exacerbated the drought.”
Svoboda said the evolution of the drought can be traced back to the fall of 2010. It emerged in the Southeast and Southern Plains. That fall, “we started to see signs of it pushing up the Mississippi and Missouri Valley. It was a dry fall followed by a very mild winter with warm temperatures, not a lot of soil freezing, and a continuing drawdown of the Great Lakes – which, by the way, are at or near record lows depending on the lake.”
The most recent data shows over half the country remains in drought. That is down from the apex of around 65 percent in late September of 2012.
Depending on the report or who you speak to, drought losses for agriculture vary widely. “No two groups do it the same. Some consider livestock part of ag, some don’t.” Regardless, losses, “are big and we haven’t seen the final numbers. We’re still seeing indemnity payments that are expected to top out at over $20 billion, according to the USDA’s Risk Management Agency.”
Corn, as of last September when the drought was peaking, had over 84 percent of the crop under drought. The same was true for soybeans. Livestock, which had been hammered in the Southern Plains in 2011, peaked at over 73 percent under drought.
The bigger issue now for livestock is forage. Much of the forage, “has been sent south to help (fellow ranchers) with feed issues. … So, forage has had to come in from the coasts, there were high fuel prices, and that led to a lot of culling of livestock herds.”
Further, range, forage and pastureland, “doesn’t just bounce back after a drought of this nature. Things are desiccated and so the feed won’t be there. … There are some real issues.”
The strain on water supplies was also quick to arrive. “It was quite interesting that in a one-year drought, we saw a rapid onset of water-related issues for supply. Some rural communities’ well-levels (dropped). There was a rapid drawdown, along with heat during the high-demand season really put a strain on our water resources.
“You might expect to see that in Year Two or Year Three of a drought. We were already seeing it by late summer or early fall (last year). And it’s still there going into 2013.”
As for breaking the drought, there has been some recent recovery. “We did see Isaac come ashore” to the benefit of the Mississippi Delta. It also helped Ohio and the eastern Corn Belt.
What does the future hold?
Unfortunately, computer models don’t shed cohesive light. “They’re really undecided on what we’ll see in the Pacific as far as El Nino or La Nina. … From March through May, they show a greater likelihood of above normal temperatures. Precipitation is a mixed bag – mostly dry in the West with a slight chance of greater-than-normal precipitation in the Great Lakes region.”
The bottom line, according to Svoboda: the country needs a wet spring. “We don’t have the buffer carryover coming into 2013 that we did in 2012.”
More from Western Farm Press