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Drought: When should we worry?

More than two-thirds of the United States is currently affected by drought conditions.

Winter isn’t usually the season to be overly concerned with drought conditions, but they have worsened enough in recent months to warrant some extra attention.

Currently, 67% of the country is afflicted with varying levels of drought, with 22% in the two most severe categories – “extreme” and “exceptional.”

With corn and soybean harvests complete, that leaves winter wheat as the major crop exposed for now. According to governmental data, nearly 40% of the 2020/21 crop is experiencing drought. And of course, if overly dry conditions persist into the spring, it could prove problematic for next year’s corn and soybean crops, too.

The drought’s current footprint has a dramatic line of demarcation near the Mississippi River. Areas east have little to no problems, with massive portions of the western U.S. struggling right now.

In the Midwest, 39.5% of the region is currently affected. Problem areas include northern Indiana, central Illinois, northern Missouri, western Iowa and most of Minnesota. And it’s a dramatic shift from a year ago, when just 0.26% of the region was covered by drought.

The High Plains are nearly totally covered by drought, in contrast – 96.2% of the region is currently affected. Compare that to a year ago, when the footprint only covered 26.1%.Large pockets of D3 (extreme) and D4 (exceptional) drought are dispersed across much of Colorado, western Kansas, western Nebraska and central North Dakota.

Forecasters are concerned that soil moisture in the High Plains will stay low heading into the spring as drought conditions have spread and intensified.

Over the past month, “drought has gotten progressively worse” in large parts of Minnesota, the Dakotas and Nebraska, according to Indiana state climatologist Beth Hall: “Many states were near average in precipitation between September and November, but the Northern Plains were much drier-than-average this fall.”

Some relief may be on the way, however. NOAA’s three-month outlook for January, February and March predicts some seasonally wet weather possible for the eastern Corn Belt, along with parts of the upper Midwest and Northern Plains. Warmer-than-normal conditions are also likely for much of the country this winter.

La Niña conditions are expected to weaken over the first half of 2021, but forecasters generally don’t expect a return to ENSO-neutral or El Niño conditions until at least next spring or even summer.

“We don’t’ expect La Niña to stay particularly strong past March or April,” Hall notes.

So the question remains: When should we start worrying about drought? Given that the 2021 planting season is still a few months away, it’s not time to panic just yet, but it will be important to monitor conditions throughout the winter to watch for signs of drought either strengthening or weakening its hold in the Midwest and Plains.

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