LINCOLN, Neb. — The drought that swept across wide areas of the United States in 2012 was historically unusual in speed, intensity and size, and those dry conditions are expected to last at least through this winter, according to climatologists at the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Forecasts show little hope of quick improvement, deepening the negative effects on agriculture, water supplies, food prices and wildlife.
“We usually tell people that drought is a slow-moving natural disaster, but this year was more of a flash drought,” Mark Svoboda, a center climatologist and an author of the weekly U.S. Drought Monitor, said in late December. “With the sustained, widespread heat waves during the spring and early summer coupled with the lack of rains, the impacts came on in a matter of weeks instead of over several months.”
The result, according to year-end Drought Monitor data: More than 60% of the contiguous 48 states and 50% of the entire country was in severe to extreme drought for significant portions of 2012, Svoboda said.
The first wave of drought impacts has been agricultural: The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency says indemnity payments for 2012 were at nearly $8 billion. The winter wheat crop outlook across the Great Plains has been reduced, and ranchers are scrambling to find feed for cattle. Hay prices have risen, likely meaning bigger grocery bills as meat and dairy prices climb in response.
The second wave of impacts is often hydrological, according to Brian Fuchs, also a monitor author and center climatologist.
“In the Southeast and southern Plains, multiple years of drought have resulted in widespread hydrological drought issues with water supply and water quality as well as with declining storage and water tables,” he says. “In areas where the drought has been shorter, such as in the Midwest and Plains, there are some water systems that are already under stress and more impacts related to hydrologic drought will develop as the drought continues.”