U.S. drought expands, concerns mount about wheat and rivers

Thu Dec 6, 2012 12:56pm EST

* Drought expands in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas
    * Winter wheat crop devastated
    * Warm weather worsens drought impact

    By Carey Gillam
    Dec 6 (Reuters) - Drought continued to expand through the
central United States even as winter weather sets in, wreaking
havoc on the nation's new wheat crop and on movement of key
commodities as major shipping waterways grow shallow.
    Unseasonably warm conditions have exacerbated the harm
caused by the lack of needed rainfall. The average temperature
for the contiguous United States last month was 44.1 degrees
Fahrenheit, 2.1 degrees above the 20th century average, and
tying 2004 as the 20th warmest November on record, according to
the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
    The year-to-date marks the warmest first 11 months of any
year on record for the contiguous United States, and for the
entire year, 2012 will most likely surpass the current record as
the warmest year for the nation, NOAA said.
    The warm weather accelerates evaporation of any
precipitation that does fall, and keeps plants - like the new
wheat crop - trying to grow, rather than slipping into normal
winter dormancy.
    "We have not seen hardly any rain or snow around the Plains
states. It is still very dry. And with these temperatures when
you are having 60- or 70 degrees and high winds... it's going to
be problematic," said Brian Fuchs, climatologist with the
National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of
Nebraska-Lincoln.
    Areas of drought expansion last week were noted across parts
of Texas, central Louisiana, east-central Missouri, eastern
Kansas, and the Panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, according to
the Drought Monitor's weekly compilation of data gathered by
federal and academic scientists and issued each Thursday.    
    The U.S. High Plains, which includes key farm states of
Nebraska, South Dakota, and Kansas, are the hardest hit. In that
region, 58.39 percent of the land area is in extreme or
exceptional drought, the two worst categories of drought. A week
ago, the tally was 57.89 percent.
    Nebraska remained by far the most parched state in the
nation with fully 100 percent of the farm state in severe or
worse drought, and 77.46 percent of the state considered in
"exceptional" drought - the worst level, according to the
Drought Monitor.
    Overall, roughly 62.37 percent of the contiguous United
States was in at least "moderate" drought as of Dec. 4, a slight
improvement from 62.55 percent a week earlier, 
    The portion of the contiguous United States under "extreme"
or "exceptional" drought expanded, however, to 20.63 percent
from 20.12 percent.  
           
    
    Roughly 65 percent of the new winter wheat crop is in
drought-hit areas, according to the U.S. Department of
Agriculture and many producers might elect to abandon the crop
due to its extremely poor condition, the government said.
    Since the 1950s, there have been only two years when U.S.
winter wheat abandonment reached or exceeded one-quarter of the
crop - the 1988-89 season and the 2001-02 season. Current U.S.
winter wheat conditions are worse now than in November of those
seasons, USDA said.
    Worries about the wheat crop come alongside worries about
movement of already harvested crops and other commodities down
the Mississippi River, a critical waterway for shipping goods
from the central states.
   Water levels are forecast to drop to near-historic lows by
mid-December on the "middle river" of the Mississippi- the
stretch from St Louis to Cairo, Illinois. More than 100 million
tons of cargo, half of it corn and soybeans, float through that
stretch of river annually.
    Some relief may be in sight, according to Brad Rippey, USDA
meteorologist. Portions of the northern and central Plains and
upper Midwest should see snow from Dec. 8-10, he said. 

 (Reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City; Editing by Bob
Burgdorfer)
Comments (0)
This discussion is now closed. We welcome comments on our articles for a limited period after their publication.