* California missing out on typical February rains
* Eastern Corn Belt moisture conditions improving
* Interagency group sees prospects for warmer than normal
By Environment Correspondent Deborah Zabarenko
WASHINGTON, Feb 21 The historic U.S. drought of
2012 could spread this spring to more of California and southern
Florida, balancing improvement expected in the upper Midwest and
parts of the South, government climate and agriculture experts
said on Thursday.
They also projected a warmer-than-normal summer over almost
the entire United States, except for the extreme northern Plains
and Rocky Mountain states and along the Pacific Coast. Even
northern Alaska is expected to see above-normal temperatures.
These forecasts were part of the National Drought Early
Warning Outlook produced by groups that included the U.S. Army
Corps of Engineers, the National Weather Service, USDA and other
California has the greatest chance of abnormally dry
weather, said David Miskus, a seasonal forecaster at the Climate
Prediction Center, part of the U.S. National Oceanic and
Parts of California were just beginning to recover from
drought at the end of last year, Miskus said. The northern half
of the state had been mostly drought-free of late but now a
drought seems likely to develop.
"They started out so well, in November and December they had
really good strong rains, they had good snow packs in the Sierra
Nevadas," Miskus told Reuters after the outlook's unveiling. By
February, however, conditions were dry, and this is typically
California's wettest month, he said.
Last year's drought is second only to the Dust Bowl year of
1934 as the one with the most widespread and severe dry
conditions in the United States. And 67 percent of the
contiguous United States are dryer than normal, and some places
are still experiencing exceptional drought.
"The 2012/2013 drought has serious implications for
agriculture, navigation, recreation and municipal water
supplies, costing the nation at least $35 billion in economic
losses," the drought outlook said.
This long-running drought is causing "imminent concern" for
the winter wheat crop from South Dakota to Texas, said Brad
Rippey, an agricultural meteorologist at the Agriculture
Department's Office of the Chief Economist.
A major snowstorm now hitting the Plains states will bring
much-needed moisture but might not be enough, Rippey said.
"Certainly this storm will help, and it buys us some time,
but it's the type of (weather) pattern we would need to sustain
all the way up until harvest to really make a good hard red
winter wheat crop," Rippey said. Typically, winter wheat is
harvested from May through July.
Another drought-driven problem is poor pasture and range
conditions for livestock. Because it has been so dry, there is
scant natural feed for animals, Rippey said.
"More than 80 percent of pasture and range was rated very
poor to poor in Kansas and Oklahoma, and it will take more than
one storm to bring the range and pasture back," he said in a
However, there has been significant recovery from drought in
the eastern corn belt - including much of Ohio, Michigan,
Indiana and Illinois - and there is a good chance for
improvement in the upper Midwest as well, Rippey said.
Also on Thursday, USDA's chief economist forecast record
U.S. corn and soybean crops this year, in part because of
improved conditions in key states like Illinois.
"We have already seen some improvement in the eastern Corn
Belt," USDA's Joseph Glauber said at the agency's annual
agricultural outlook meeting.
The U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook is available online here
(Reporting By Deborah Zabarenko; editing by Ros Krasny and