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* Drought expands, intensifies in southern U.S. Plains
* Exceptional drought over 70 pct Texas, 40 pct Oklahoma
* Rains benefit US Southeast drought areas, more expected (Adds details, quotes, links to graphics, adds byline)
By Karl Plume
CHICAGO, July 14 (Reuters) - The worst drought in decades tightened its grip on the southern U.S. Plains in the past week as triple-digit temperatures and a lack of rain scorched cattle grazing pastures and parched crops, according to a report issued by U.S. climatologists on Thursday.
Exceptional drought, the most severe category measured by climatologists, now encompassed more than 70 percent of Texas and more than 40 percent of Oklahoma.
It also stretched further into Kansas, a key cattle state and a major grain and soybean producer, as heavy rains missed the region to the north and temperatures topped 110 degrees Fahrenheit in some areas. <^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
Graphic: Drought in Texas:
Graphic: Drought in Kansas, 2001 to present:
Graphic: Drought in Oklahoma:
Graphic: Drought in Southeast United States:
Link to Drought Monitor map:
In the throes of its third worst drought on record, Texas has been the hardest hit state. The weather forecast promised little relief, with below normal precipitation expected across the southern Plains for at least the next two weeks.
"What's holding us back right now is mainly the lack of soil moisture, which reduces the evaporation and reduces the amount of moisture that can then return as rain," said Texas state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon.
"Unfortunately, things look like they will get worse before they get better," he said.
The "exceptional" drought covered 71.66 percent of Texas as of July 12, up from 71.3 percent the prior week, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The drought intensified in northeast Texas and eased slightly in far southern Texas, it said.
Meanwhile, conditions worsened in Oklahoma and Kansas.
The area gripped by extreme to exceptional drought grew to encompass 58.04 percent of Oklahoma and 17.08 percent of Kansas by July 12, up from 44.18 and 13.75 percent a week ago.
"With the extreme heat and the continued lack of rainfall, conditions just continue to deteriorate in western Oklahoma. And now the drought is advancing to the east as well," said associate state climatologist Gary McManus.
"We're really looking at a throwback summer to some of our more intense drought periods such as the 1930s and the 1950s and of course the 1980 heat wave as well," McManus said.
Average high temperatures in western Oklahoma have been above 100 degrees Fahrenheit for much of the past three weeks, the longest stretch of such heat in at least 30 years. he said. It has also, since October, been the driest period on record in western Oklahoma.
Temperatures last week topped 110 in southern Kansas, central Oklahoma and north-central Texas.
But as the drought intensified in the southern Plains, substantial rains to the east halted the recent dry pattern in the U.S. Southeast and more rain is expected over the next week from eastern Louisiana to South Carolina, climatologists said.
However, three quarters of Georgia, half of Florida and nearly 40 percent of Alabama remained under severe drought or worse in the latest week. (Reporting by Karl Plume; Editing by John Picinich and Alden Bentley)