WASHINGTON – With nearly half the country reeling from a blistering drought, this summer is the hottest since the depression-stricken “Dust Bowl” era of the 1930s, U.S. government weather experts said last week. The summer’s scorching temperatures have sparked raging forest fires in the West, wilted crops in the Midwest and parched pastures in the Plains. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the average temperature for the contiguous United States from June through August was 73.9 degrees (23.3 degrees Celsius), the third hottest summer since records began in 1895. Summer officially ends on Sept. 22.
The only summers warmer were 1936 and 1934, when vast numbers of farmers were driven from their land by drought. “It’s very extraordinary to have the warmest summer since the 1930s Dust Bowl days,” said Douglas LeComte, drought specialist for NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.
Although the U.S. economy is no longer as dependent on agriculture as it was in the 1930s, a major drought two years ago caused damage worth $4 billion and claimed 140 lives nationwide. That summer in 2000 was only the 12th warmest on record. “Although the total costs of this year’s drought are not presently known, the drought-diminished water supplies … and contributed to an active wildfire season and extremely difficult farming conditions,” NOAA said. Moderate to extreme drought covers more than 45 percent of the United States.
UNPRECEDENTED DROUGHT IN 6 STATES
Six states – North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado, Utah, Arizona and Nevada – are suffering their worst drought on record, NOAA said. South Carolina, Maryland, Georgia, Delaware and Wyoming are also near unprecedented dry levels. The prolonged drought has scorched U.S. wheat, corn and soybean crops, which will be the smallest in years. More than 50 percent of pastures were classified as poor to very poor in 24 states, leaving ranchers with little to feed their livestock. So far this year, South Dakota officials have reported over $1.8 billion in agricultural losses, while Texas claims $316 million in damages. Costs to fight forest blazes this year are expected to amount to more than $1.25 billion, government officials said. NOAA officials predicted the direct loss of this year’s drought would certainly be in the billions of dollars. “It will be a significant dollar impact, but nothing similar to 1988 where the Corn Belt was devastated by drought – well over $10 billion of direct damage,” LeComte said. NOAA last week said this year’s drought would continue to linger for another six months due to the arrival of a weak El Nino weather anomaly. The Democratic-led U.S. Senate on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly to provide drought relief of $6 billion to farmers and ranchers despite objections from the Bush administration.
The most extensive national drought in the past 100 years was in 1934 when it hit 80 percent of the country. Studying tree ring records, NOAA researchers said the severity of the 1930s drought was likely surpassed only in the 1570s and 1580s.