"I don't think we're ever going to see rain, ever again," Susan West lamented one Saturday. West is owner of Lone Oak Farms and director of the Ohio Valley Farmers Market. She and other Belmont County farmers were hopeful when a warm March provided an early spring and a head start on the growing season. Now, after the warm, dry winter and daily summer temperatures in the upper 80's and 90's, they are watching the results of their labors literally dry up.
Most farmers were able to get their first cut of hay in before a too-brief stint of rain, but the subsequent growths have slowed down, and fields are dry and dusty. Others point to inch-wide cracks in the soil, and lawns that have turned brown.
What is causing this pattern of hot, dry weather, and how does 2012 compare to other years? First, droughts are somewhat cyclical, many times alternating with years of flooding and rain. Most decades since the Dust Bowl years in the 1930's have seen at least one significant dry period lasting a year or more.
A daisy struggles in the dirt on a recent day when temperatures topped 100 degrees. Most of the country is now suffering drought conditions thanks to a high pressure system fostering hot, dry air.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the winter of 2011-12 was a "La Nina:" a winter where water temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean (eastern Pacific) were cooler than normal, setting up generally drier weather conditions in the southern U.S. During an "El Nino" winter, these waters have higher than normal temperatures and spur phenomena like storms and flooding over the spring and summer.
The most relevant cause, however, is an upper level high pressure system that parked itself over the midsection of the United States during the late winter and hasn't moved on. On The Weather Channel, Senior Meteorologist Tom Moore compares this system to "putting a large block in a stream," forcing the normal flow to go around it. Now a normally-fluctuating jet stream is pushed away by the high pressure, flowing across the north rather than dipping with alternating high and low pressure systems. Weaker tropical low pressure moisture is also no match for this high pressure block, dissipating or diverting as it nears. He says that what is unusual about the system is that it's so widespread, extending from eastern California to western Ohio, and that it is affecting most of the contiguous United States and even Hawaii. At the end of June, more than 54 percent of the lower 48 were experiencing drought conditions, the sixth highest percentage recorded since the 1930's.
The most historically significant drought in U.S. history was that of 1930 to 1940, known as the Dust Bowl years. Actually four different drought events, it happened on the heels of the Great Depression. The series of droughts followed each other so quickly that areas did not have time to recover. Analysts now blame not only the weather, but poor land management and the economic climate in gauging its severity.
Ohio's most serious drought to date occurred in 1988. This was also widespread, with related deaths totaling nearly 17,000 people. It killed livestock and caused wildfires at Yellowstone National Park. At its end in 1990, costs exceeded those of Hurricane Katrina. The National Weather Service has assembled some statistics comparing the drought of 1988 to the current event.
In a temperature comparison, the 1988 information shows that temperatures in the Ohio Valley were normal from May 1 to July 16. The 2012 data indicates that temperatures have averaged five to six degrees above normal for the same time period and that the same is true for most of the state.
Data from Columbus shows that for the entire year in 1988, there were 43 days with temperatures over 90 degrees and six over 100 degrees. From January 1 to July 17 in 2012, there have been 26 days that topped 90 degrees and four over 100 degrees.
Whereas the Palmer Drought Severity Index shows the Ohio Valley in a moderate drought situation in July 1988, the projection indicates a severe drought situation for July 2012. The average annual Ohio temperature over the past 82 years is 45.8 degrees. In 2012, from January to June, the average temperature was 51 degrees. A warmer than average March and fewer cold air masses had already put this summer's event in motion.
And experts are predicting that the affects will be felt well into next year, especially at the grocery store. Already the harvest at the farmers' markets is smaller in quantity and size. Interstate 70 travels through approximately 1,400 miles of corn country from Nebraska to Ohio. This is also dead center in the severe drought area of the U.S. Even worse, the drought hit this area at pollination time. This means less corn on the stalk and a lighter crop, leading to all-time high prices this past week.
Corn, or a corn derivative, is prevalent in the American diet. Farmers will be looking at higher feed costs which will affect both beef and dairy products. Corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup are in everything from soft drinks and candy to tomato sauce and ketchup. Ethanol is made from corn and added to many fuels, which means pump prices will rise again.
Locally, Jerry and Lova Ebbert are coping as well as they can. The Ebberts are known for their corn and produce, sold at the family market. Lova says that for the first time in the farm's 93-year history, they had to put a tank on one of their trucks so they could water their 4,000 tomato plants. Corn yields have been roughly one-third to one-half of a normal season, partially because of low pollination.
Because they plant corn in stages to extend the growing season, according to Lova, the inch of rain their fields in Bethesda received Wednesday night "will do wonders" for the still-developing corn. Jerry adds that he was "feeling better" about the crop Thursday morning, especially with more rain in the forecast.
"One inch of rain equals 27,000 gallons of water per acre," notes Jerry, quoting a statistic he found on the internet. He also says that in a normal season, approximately one inch of rain per week is necessary just to sustain the plants because that much is lost in transpiration (moisture going back into the air.)
The Ebberts are hoping for the best, though. "The soils here hold moisture really well. It's heavier and has more clay," Jerry says. "We have a lot of corn still coming up. We could still turn things around."
Valenti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.