January 5, 2012 / 7:20 PM / 6 years ago

Warm weather threatens to extend U.S. drought

(Reuters) - A New Year’s Eve “heat wave” melted away welcomed winter snow that had brought some drought relief to the U.S. Plains, reviving fears that harmfully warm and dry conditions will persist into 2012, U.S. climatologists said in a report issued Thursday.

“The return of warm, dry weather to the nation’s southern tier could be suggestive of an increasingly La Nina-driven atmospheric regime,” said the U.S. Drought Monitor report, issued weekly by a team of national, state and academic climatology experts.

La Nina, a phenomenon in which the surface temperature of the east-central Pacific Ocean is cooler than normal, often results in dry weather in the central United States. It is already affecting crop conditions in South America where dry weather is hurting corn and soy production.

Record highs for December 31 were notched in Childress, Texas, where the thermometer hit 83 degrees Fahrenheit, and in Topeka, Kansas, where the mercury climbed to 66 degrees.

Texas remained fully in the grip of extreme and “exceptional” levels of drought, with more than 67 percent of the state considered to be suffering the worst levels of dryness.

An estimated 80 percent of the rangeland and pastures in Texas remain in very poor to poor condition due to lack of sufficient moisture, according to an early-January report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Wildfires raged through Texas, crops failed and cattle went hungry and thirsty amid the 2011 drought.

The one-year period between November 1, 2010, and October 31, 2011, was the driest in the state’s history, and the months of June through August in Texas were the hottest three-month period ever reported by any state in U.S. history, according to state and federal climate experts.

Recent rains have helped add to surface moisture, but deep moisture is still nearly nonexistent.

“We need 4-6 inches of rain to get the base moisture back. We’re still in a drought,” said Bill Hyman, executive director of the Independent Cattlemen’s Association of Texas.

Hyman said he has been culling his herd and will continue to sell if it remains dry.

“Pray. Pray for rain,” he said.

Oklahoma also continued to suffer from drought, with more than 27 percent of that farm state in extreme or exceptional drought and more than 50 percent rated severe or worse.

New Mexico, Louisiana and Kansas were also hit by drought, and in the Southeast, parts of Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina suffered from significant levels of dryness.

“Abnormal dryness” has also started to develop in western North Dakota, the Drought Monitor said. High temperatures remained at record-setting levels in the north-central United States, with Bismarck, North Dakota, hitting 55 degrees Fahrenheit on January 3, it noted.

For much of the nation, 2011 ended on a mild, dry note, though heavy precipitation and high winds hit the Northwest during the closing days of the year, the Drought Monitor reported.

Reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City; additional reporting by Theopolis Waters in Chicago; editing by Jim Marshall

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