A terrible, swift drought plagues Pittsburgh region

The size and speed of the spreading dryness have surprised even those with years of weather-watching experience

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At Harvest Valley Farms in Middlesex Township, Butler County, the owners have spent the spring and early summer irrigating the corn crop because it's been so dry in the region.

It's a process that costs a good deal of money, particularly on one of their farms because they have to buy municipal water. The expense of irrigation also includes pipes, a drip system and maintenance, but it had to be done, said Art King, the past president of the Pennsylvania Vegetable Growers Association and one of the Harvest Valley owners.

"If you want to be successful at vegetable production, you have to have irrigation. Forget this 'hoping it will rain' stuff," Mr. King said.

Hoping it will rain has become the norm around much of the country this summer, as brutally hot weather combined with little moisture has begun to threaten corn crops across thousands of acres of crumbling soil, much of which does not typically rely on irrigation or other back-up watering systems.

Although most of Western Pennsylvania isn't officially in a drought yet, the speed and size with which the dryness has been spreading have surprised even those who have years of experience watching the weather and the agricultural industry.

PG graphic: Drought monitor
(Click image for larger version)

"The drought conditions are accelerating," said David Miskus, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center in Washington, D.C.

In Missouri, the term for the weather now battering that region is a "flash drought." It refers to a drought brought on by low rainfall, as they all are, but then intensified by high heat, low humidity and wind that sucks the moisture right out of the soil.

This year's drought, which isn't just hitting Missouri, developed quickly.

Mr. Miskus prepared the National Drought Monitor, a weekly publication, for June 11, then went on vacation for two weeks. When he returned to the office this week, he was surprised to see how badly the conditions had deteriorated while he was gone.

The most badly affected areas are in corn belt states, which are taking the hit right when it is time to pollinate the corn.

Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Colorado are all experiencing areas of severe drought. North Dakota and South Dakota, which just a week ago were dry but not classified as having any extreme drought areas, joined the ranks of the "extremely dry" states this week.

In Georgia, the drought has been rated as "exceptional," which is the highest rating that a drought can get. Florida, which had been very dry, was doused by Tropical Storm Debby and is now much improved.

The reason for the severely hot and dry weather across the central U.S. is that the jet stream is running above the Canadian border, so the hot weather is being pulled farther north.

Kathryn Vreeland, a climatologist at the Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., said it's not unusual for the jet stream to run north, pulling hot air up from the south.

The same system that is driving hot air into the Midwest is pulling it across Western Pennsylvania. She said there may be pop-up showers, but there are no signs of the intense heat easing.

"It is summertime," she said. "Often in the summer, you get stuck under high pressure."

The latest U.S Drought Monitor, issued Thursday, shows that the farthest western portions of Beaver, Erie, Lawrence and Mercer counties are in a moderate drought.

The western quarter of the state (think of a line from Bradford, McKean County, through Altoona, Blair County, and cover everything to the west) is suffering from abnormally dry weather, though not severe enough to call it a drought.

All of West Virginia is logging unusually dry weather, which is the step before a drought. Most of Ohio is in a moderate drought, with the northwest corner in severe drought.

That abnormally dry weather has been hitting the farmers who were celebrating a great growing season early on with early warm weather. The eastern part of Pennsylvania is not even near drought conditions.

About half of the corn in Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee was in poor to very poor condition last week, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Pennsylvania farmers are faring much better, with 68 percent of the crop conditions in the good to excellent range.

Only 10 percent of the corn crop in the state is considered "poor," with none that is "very poor."

Recent rain has helped. Tuesday night's pop-up storm, which provided over an inch and a quarter of rain, was helpful for some, Mr. King said.

But for others the impact was limited, as the hot weather is drying up the moisture that was there.

And for farmers who don't irrigate, it was just too late, Mr. King said.

Despite the irrigation, he said his farm has suffered from the lack of rain and will have much lower yields. The farmers who do not have irrigation have lost entire crops of sweet corn.

In the Midwest, the extreme dryness has come at a terrible time, when corn needs to be pollinated, a process known as silking. If an ear is not pollinated, the kernels will not grow.

Brad Rippey, an agricultural meteorologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said there is a limited time for corn to be pollinated, and if the corn is stressed from a lack of water, it won't happen.

"This is the worst drought since 1988," he said. "It's far worse than what we typically see."

An accurate assessment of the cost of the drought won't be available until August when the USDA releases its report on global supply and demand of agricultural products.

businessnews - environment

Ann Belser: abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.


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