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Published July 19, 2012, 04:58 PM

Drought worsens across the U.S.

The largest drought in more than half a century strengthened its grip on the United States this week, particularly in the Midwest and High Plains farming states, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor report released July 19.

HOUSTON — The largest drought in more than half a century strengthened its grip on the United States this week, particularly in the Midwest and High Plains farming states, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor report released July 19.

More than 70 percent of the Midwest was in some stage of drought as of July 19, up from 63 percent the previous week, according to the report by climate experts. Half of the Midwest, which produces about 75 percent of the country’s corn and soybean crop, was in severe to exceptional drought, up from about a third the previous week week.

More than half of Iowa, the country’s top corn- and soybean-growing state, was in severe drought as of July 19, a marked increase from 13 percent the previous week.

About 64 percent of Kansas was in extreme to exceptional drought, up from 28 percent the week before.

Richard Heim, a meteorologist in the climate monitoring branch of NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., which helps compile the weekly drought reports said the forecast was grim, particularly for crops in the nation’s breadbasket.

“If the crops don’t get relief, some of them are going to be a total loss. The yields are going to be reduced regardless of what happens in the coming weeks,” Heim told the Los Angeles Times.

The weekly drought report takes into account data on agriculture and large wildfires, Heim said. Although the number of large wildfires dropped, he said, it’s difficult to gauge the impact of the drought overall because the statistics don’t include smaller wildfires, which have also proliferated in recent months.

Heim said there’s no doubt the drought has reached historic proportions; it’s the largest since 1956 and comparable to a 1988 drought that devastated the nation’s corn crop.

As in 1988, this year’s drought formed “an inverted ‘U’ shape” over the Ohio, Missouri and Mississippi river basins, Heim said, putting river traffic at risk in the long term. He noted recent reports of barges encountering lower river levels.

“The longer this drought lasts, the lower those rivers will get and the more effect it’s going to have on that barge traffic,” he said.

He said authorities will also likely be monitoring river temperatures near nuclear power plants, which often use river water to cool the reactors.

“That’s an issue we need to really be aware of and keep tabs on,” Heim said.

While some parts of the Midwest saw scattered showers July 19, Heim said the rain was unlikely to make a dent in the ongoing drought.

“There is a front with some good rains occurring in northern Indiana and Ohio — those are areas that really need rain, and it stretches into Kansas. But it doesn’t look like it’s doing much good for Illinois or Missouri,” he said.

“We need 10 or 20 more of these fronts coming in and stalling out over the next few weeks — that’s not going to happen,” he said.

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