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Is a flash drought underway in the Corn Belt? Or, is what’s underway in farm country just some passing dryness?

Those are questions USDA Meteorologist Brad Rippey is evaluating as the month of May comes to a close. He says it’s easy to see why farmers in some parts of the country are concerned.

“It has been dry over much of the Midwest for the last one to three months, depending on the location,” Rippey says.

That four- to 12-week period of dryness fits the classic definition of flash drought provided by the American Meteorological Society. It classifies a flash drought as “an unusually rapid onset drought event characterized by a multi-week period of accelerated intensification that culminates in impacts to one or more sectors, such as agricultural or hydrological impacts.”

Chicago Area Reports The Second-Driest May On Record 

Rippey says the area in and around Chicago is exhibiting symptoms of a flash drought. Historical weather data shows Chicago is headed for its second-driest May on record, with a likely 2023 rainfall total of only 0.42 inch, he says. 

The driest May on record in Chicago occurred in 1992 with only 0.30 inch. 

“In 1992, it was also a very cool year, partly due to the influence of Mount Pinatubo (in the Philippines), which had erupted the year before,” Rippey recalls. 

This year, farmers aren’t seeing volcanic ash, but instead hazy Midwestern skies due to rampant Canadian forest fires.  

“It’s not a viable comparison, but still rather interesting that in both 1992 and 2023, the Midwest has been dealing with varying degrees of spring dryness, along with upper-atmospheric particulate matter that has reduced the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth’s surface,” Rippey says.

The good news for farmers in 1992 was that rain arrived in the nick of time before Midwestern crops entered the reproduction period. That moisture was credited with delivering bumper yields for many growers that fall. USDA-NASS records show that corn yields in 1992 reached a new average high of 131.5 bushels per acre. 

What Crops Are Experiencing Drought Now?

Some parts of the U.S. have seen prolonged periods of drought since last year. “(Much of the) longer-term dryness has been showing up west of the Mississippi River,” Rippey reports.

A look at the U.S. Drought Monitor released on Thursday shows that nearly 100% of Kansas and Nebraska are experiencing moderate to severe drought, and the core of Kansas is in exceptional drought. 

Portions of Illinois, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Texas are also enduring drought conditions.

How does the drought areas match up with what crops are experiencing? The U.S. Drought Monitor shows that the percentage of crop acres currently in some level of drought include:
•    26% of corn acres
•    36% of cotton acres
•    20% of soybean acres
•    47% of wheat acres

The good news, though, is these percentages are currently no where near what farmers saw play out in their fields in 2012. This story provides a reminder of the drought that unfolded that season: Drought Levels Enter 2012 Territory

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