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Only time will tell if it’s a multi-year drought

By Tim Baker
Northwest Region Horticulture Specialist

It seems to be a common theme in American music that clear skies are good. Cloudy, stormy skies are bad.  When Irving Berlin wrote “Blue Skies” in 1926, he seemed to have that idea.
Even the frontier physician, Dr. Brewster M. Higley, felt that way when he penned the words to what is now known as “Home on the Range,” – where the “skies are not cloudy all day.” I can certainly understand where they are coming from. Clear, blue skies definitely are beautiful.
Some songs do paint the opposite picture when it comes to cloudy skies. The writers of “Stormy Weather” certainly showed their bias against clouds and storms, equating them with gloom and misery, when they wrote the words to that song in 1933.
But from our perspective in the midst of a serious drought, I think we all would like to see a few clouds.  Rain clouds, to be specific.  I wouldn’t even mind seeing a bit of “Stormy Weather,” as long as the storms did not become severe.
I have been thinking a lot about our drought lately, as I prepare a talk on the topic for our annual Ag Update meetings, which I have discussed in a previous column.  Since I am not a meteorologist or climatologist, I have relied on Dr. Pat Guinan, as I put the presentation together.
(Dr. Guinan will be one of the featured speakers Feb. 6 at a Soil and Crops Conference in Richmond. For information, call 776-6961 or email rayco@missouri.edu.)
Dr. Guinan is the Missouri State Climatologist, and is with our Commercial Ag Program for MU Extension. I have heard him speak on the drought several times recently, and it’s pretty interesting to hear his perspective.
First of all, he cautions us to remember that this is still a young drought.  The droughts of the 1930’s and 1950’s lasted much longer.  Consider that it wasn’t until last June that northwest Missouri was even classified as “Abnormally Dry” on the drought monitor. Before that, we were considered normal.
But the drought developed quickly into an intense drought, spurred on by the excessive heat. By mid-June, we had entered the D1 stage of drought, and by the end of July, most of Missouri was in the D3 stage – “Extreme Drought.”  And by the end of August, much of Missouri was in the D4 stage – “Exceptional Drought”.
But where do we stand now?  How much rain will it take to get us out of this drought? The year-end deficits were released by the National Weather Service.  The shortfall ranged from a whopping 17.34 inches below normal in Kansas City, to 12.33 inches below normal in St. Joseph.
As you go further east and south, where the effects of Hurricane Isaac were felt, it’s not so bad, but major deficits were still recorded.  Chillicothe, for example, was 8.15 inches short for the year. My own observations in Gallatin were 8.85 inches below the 30-year normal.
We clearly need precipitation amounts above normal, in order to erase this deficit. But that isn’t in the forecast.  The U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook released on Jan. 17 calls for persistent drought in western Missouri. That’s not good news.
As a Horticulture Specialist for MU Extension, I am particularly concerned for agricultural producers.  Soil moisture levels are too low. Ponds are far below their holding capacity, which certainly affects livestock producers. Vegetable growers, many of whom rely on ponds for their drip irrigation, will have it pretty rough unless the rains come to recharge their ponds.
Will this turn out to be another multi-year drought, like we saw in the 1950’s? Dr. Guinan is the first to point out that no one knows for sure. As a climatologist, he can point to wet and dry cycles throughout history. So there’s no doubt that eventually we will see another multi-year dry spell. The question is, are we prepared for it?

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