Iowa drought links and discussion thread (updated)

Most parts of Iowa are experiencing the worst drought conditions since 1988. Ten links on the drought and its consequences are after the jump. Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.  

This Iowa Interactive Drought Conditions Map shows how dry things are across the state.

Iowa Public Radio reported yesterday that nationwide, the drought conditions are the worst since 1956.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has streamlined the process for declaring a disaster area, reduced the interest rate for emergency loans to farmers, and allowed greater flexibility for emergency haying and grazing on farmland in the Conservation Reserve Program.

In addition, the USDA has declared the “largest natural disaster area ever” due to drought. That was before the federal agency expanded the disaster area to include the entire state of Missouri and ten Iowa counties along the southern tier: Appanoose, Davis, Decatur, Fremont, Lee, Page, Ringgold, Taylor, Van Buren, and Wayne.

According to Bloomberg News, the drought is “threatening to drive food prices to record levels.” However, Iowa State University economics professor Bruce Babcock commented, “If it’s a one-year drought you’ll see some impact on food-price indexes, but it will be a one-time shot. It won’t be a sustained inflation.”

Governor Terry Branstad held a hearing on the drought in Mount Pleasant yesterday. The president of the Iowa Pork Producers Association warned that high corn prices will force many hog farmers out of business. Radio Iowa reported from the same hearing,

Tom Miller raises hogs in Henry County and is a swine specialist for Iowa State University Extension. He said grain farmers will “make it through” the drought because most have crop insurance, but few livestock operators bought what’s called livestock gross margin insurance. […]

The governor expressed fears there will be a “massive liquidation” of livestock herds in Iowa.

“I know last year with the drought in Texas we saw them liquidate a lot of cattle,” Branstad told reporters. “We’d hate to see that happen in Iowa. We are the leading pork producing state. Our cattle numbers have been coming and that’s made a real difference in the State of Iowa’s revenue situation.” […]

Federal officials say about 90 percent of Iowa grain farmers have crop insurance that will cover drought losses.

In August the USDA has the authority to let cattle producers bale hay from ground that’s enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, a move that would help alleviate the shortage of forage for cattle.

Climate change does not appear to have been a topic for discussion at yesterday’s hearing. That’s unfortunate, because according to Tom Peterson, principal scientist at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center, climate change has made major heat waves and droughts roughly 20 times more likely than they were two generations ago.

FLATOW: Tell us about this packet of studies. A few of them do connect climate change to some odd weather. Give us, for eample, the one about Texas, the heat wave.

PETERSON: Well, thank you. So yes, our paper is trying to bring together a lot of quick analyses of the previous year and try to help foster the growth of the science. So the analysis of Texas was done by a group from both Oregon University or rather Oregon State University and some colleagues in the U.K.

And their analysis, in order to look at the tails of the distribution, when you try to do analyzings with climate models, in order to look at the tails of the distribution, you know, far out, the rare events, you need a lot of iterations of the models. And this was really kind of an interesting task because in order to run the climate models enough, it was sort of – it became a citizen science project, where people donated their home PCs to run the climate model at night when they weren’t using them.

And so with that result, they had lots of iteration using the existing sea surface temperature and atmospheric composition during the 1960s and then again later during the 2000s. And they were able to compare the El Nino years in the 1960s with the 2008 El Nino as a surrogate for the 2011 El Nino. And from looking at that, what they’ve discovered is that the probability of this magnitude of a heat wave and a drought associated with La Nina has become 20 times more likely under current climate conditions than they were back in the 1960s.

A few years back, the Iowa legislature ignored almost all of the recommendations from the Iowa Climate Change Advisory Commission. Although many farmers have altered their behavior in response to Iowa’s changing climate (“plant corn and soybeans earlier, select longer season hybrids, plant at higher populations, see less summer moisture stress, install more drainage tile”), most interest groups representing the agriculture sector fought federal legislation to address climate change in 2009 and 2010.

I don’t know what it will take to get elected officials to address this problem. Politically, it’s easier to fight for disaster assistance in the event of drought or flood than for policies that might reduce the risk of extreme weather in the future.

UPDATE: Iowa Public Radio’s Clay Masters reported on the problems the drought is creating for some Iowa cities.

SECOND UPDATE: More than half of Iowa’s counties are now subject to open burning bans. The Iowa Department of Public Safety posted a map as well as the date and time the burn ban was issued.

Agricultural meteorologist Bryce Anderson explains why the current drought is worse than 1988.

He says at this time in 1988, the drought was on its way to being broken due to some notable thunderstorms that worked their way across Iowa from west to east. […]

He says the extent of the heat waves has been something else, with three or four sustained heat waves that have resulted in pulling crops down into the disaster categories. […]

He says this event is more comparable to 1955, but there are some areas, like central Indiana, where the conditions are more like the 1930s. Anderson says some of the weather numbers are lining up with the dry period of the Dust Bowl. Rainfall in Iowa’s largest city has been very lacking, with numbers from June 1st through this week.

Des Moines has only had 2.45 inches in that time, the sixth-driest period for that stretch ever and the driest since 1933.

  • It's raining in Floyd and Cerro Gordo counties.

    About twenty minutes worth thus far.  Hooray!

  • The Big Heat

    from Elizabeth Kolbert at the New Yorker…

    “You couldn’t choreograph worse weather conditions for pollination,” Fred Below, a crop biologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told Bloomberg News recently. “It’s like farming in Hell.” Last week, the U.S.D.A. officially cut its yield forecast by twelve per cent, citing a “rapid decline in crop conditions since early June and the latest weather data.” Also last week, because of the dryness, the U.S.D.A. declared more than a thousand counties in twenty-six states to be natural disaster areas. This was by far the largest such designation the agency has ever made. In the past month, as the severity of the situation has become apparent, corn prices have risen by more than forty per cent. Since so much corn is used to feed livestock, it’s likely that the increase will translate into higher prices for dairy products and beef-although, as many have pointed out, beef prices were already rising, owing to last year’s devastating drought in Texas.

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