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New map shows the worsening drought

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 19, 2012 - The words that started this story when it first ran last week hold completely true with the update in reports from this week:

What seemed impossible to those already suffering through record-breaking heat and drought this summer was confirmed by the U.S. Drought Monitor on Thursday: The weather conditions lethally unfolding across the Midwest have gotten worse.

For the first time, the entirety of Missouri and Illinois are experiencing at least moderate drought conditions. In Missouri, where farmers and agricultural experts are already predicting widespread crop loss, the area that is categorized as extreme drought more than doubled to cover 22 percent of the state. While Illinois saw little increase in extreme conditions, the area experiencing at least severe drought jumped one-third to nearly 95 percent.

"It's just a really bleak situation that's affecting not only Missouri, but much of the country," Missouri State Climatologist Patrick Guinan said in an interview Thursday. "It's not going away any time soon." (Article continues below map.)

In response to the worsening conditions and pleas from Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack declared all 114 counties in the state areas of primary natural disaster on Tuesday. The distinction allowed the Missouri Treasury to immediately activate its Harmed-area Emergency Loan Priority program (HELP). Affected farmers will now have access to low-interest loans 24 hours a day.

As temperatures climbed past the 90 degree mark Thursday morning for the 23rd consecutive day, the summer of 2012's heat streak inched upward in the record books, tying that of 1941. One more day of 90 degree plus temperatures, and this summer's streak will become the second-longest run of 90 plus degree highs ever recorded, trailing only a 28-day streak recorded in 1931. Friday's forecast high by the National Weather Service is 96 degrees.

Guinan called the dual-impact of drought and heat affecting much of the country's midsection this summer historic. A drought comparable to that of 1988 and heat on par with the summer of 1980 has combined for some of the worst growing conditions this part of the country has seen in decades. (Drought reports to aid the U.S. Drought Monitor can be filed online.) 

"This is turning into one of those summers that will probably be locked into people's memories for the rest of their lives," Guinan said.

Nothing short of a complete weather pattern change will be able salvage the summer of 2012 from the less-celebrated annals of history, according to Guinan. While those changes can be abrupt and unexpected, Guinan said he does not foresee that change any time soon. Meteorologists releasing their latest long term outlook for the region agree: It very likely could be hot and dry well into the autumn.

The National Weather Service office in St. Louis is forecasting high temperatures upward of 95 degrees for each of the next seven days, with some of the hottest temperatures of an already-blistering summer expected by the middle of next week. Little to no rain is expected during that period, according to the office.

Bearing the burn

As millions across the region take air-conditioned refuge form the heat, commercial farmers can only watch as what was predicted to be a bumper crop does battle with Mother Nature.

In areas hardest hit, that means watching plants shrivel and burn as they fight to preserve their fruits. For a lucky few, spotty rain has thus far kept the battle in the crops favor, but gone are rosy crop outlooks and talks of record yields.

"There are a few spots here and there that have gotten timely rain, but a vast majority of farmers are going to have an impact to their crop because of this drought," Nathan Fields of the National Corn Growers Association said.

That effect will be felt in varying degrees, Fields explained, with some preserving a fairly full yield and others losing everything; and, he added, it is constantly evolving.

The problem farmers faced two weeks ago is not the same they face now. At that point, corn (and some soybeans) was at the height of pollination and at risk of having its pollen killed by excessive heat or the all-important silking process come to a halt. Either scenario would have affected kernel and ear development, either leading to fewer kernels or simply no ears at all. 

Two weeks later, the University of Missouri and Illinois Extension Services have lowered their outlook, and it is clear many plants suffered from the heat's effects. But for those plants that did make it through pollination and silking,  the battle is not over, Fields said. Fill, how many kernels or soy beans are harvested, is now once again at stake.

"(Corn) will start to sacrifice the lower part and brown up from the bottom as it tries to reinvest in the kernels," Fields said. "Leaves will curl and try to maintain moisture for the kernels."

The two processes — the first of which is called corn firing — often cause the plant to appear to be dead or dying. The appearance can be misleading. Though the plants are struggling, Fields said the outward signs of struggle indicate just that — that the plant is still fighting to preserve its fill.

For a while, the plant can hold its own, but without aid for the crops, sooner or later mother nature will win out. The U.S. Department of Agriculture report issued Monday identified 72 percent of Missouri's corn crop as poor or very poor.

"The plant will try to stall itself as much as possible until it gets rain," Fields said. "But the deeper and deeper you get into the season without yield filling, that yield will finally collapse."

The economic effect of such a collapse is hard to calculate. Corn future prices have been creeping up in recent weeks. Luckily, Fields said, farmers in Missouri and Illinois planted more acres than is usual this year, which could defray some of the loss. Still, he said, corn is one of the most expensive commercial crops to grow, and many farmers will likely be calling in help from insurers. 

"We haven't seen conditions like this in 15 or 20 years, since 1988. I think that with the way general agricultural production technology has come along, it won't have as deep as an impact at the '88 drought," Fields said, but it will be months before farmers know for sure.

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