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FOR EXPERT COMMENT: Summer Drought Worse this Year Due to Warm Winter; No Significant Rain Expected in the Long-Term Forecast, MU Experts say

June 26, 2012

Story Contact(s):
Christian Basi, BasiC@missouri.edu, 573-882-4430

The views and opinions expressed in this “for expert comment” release are based on research and/or opinions of the researcher(s) and/or faculty member(s) and do not reflect the University’s official stance.

COLUMBIA, Mo. ­— With the last significant rainfall in the Midwest in mid-May, crops, livestock and homeowners with brown grass are suffering with no immediate relief in sight. Two University of Missouri say the drought’s impact on the soil has been made worse by the previous warm winter.

“This drought actually started last August and the warm winter did not help us at all,” said Randy Miles, a professor of soil science in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. “With high temperatures and very low humidity in the fall and winter, what little water was in the soil quickly evaporated. In our current summer climate, the soil can lose up to one-quarter inch of water per day.”

Miles said that the soil is dry down to nearly five feet, which is the depth where most crops get the moisture needed to thrive. The warm winter, with its low humidity, essentially pulled moisture from the soil that would have been available in the spring growing months. Winds and a lack of snow cover also helped evaporate soil moisture that would have been “banked” until the spring, Miles said.

“What little rain and snowfall we got wasn’t enough to allow the soil to ‘recharge’ for the spring,” Miles said.

Miles said that the Midwest is going through its driest period since 1988. While the drought could spell obvious problems for farmers, it might also put a dent in grocery shoppers’ pocketbooks in the coming months. Miles expects food prices to rise, with products that rely on soybeans leading the way as the drought will likely affect soybeans first.

“The dry winter and current drought also can affect farmers by hurting the ‘grain fill’ of a harvest,” Miles said. “Grain fill is how heavy or full a seed or kernel becomes as it finishes growing. A lower ‘grain fill’ means more seeds or kernels are needed to make the same amount of food.”

While irrigation can help, the only real answer is to wait on Mother Nature, but the Midwest might not see any relief until late fall, said Anthony Lupo, professor and chair of atmospheric sciences.

“We’re seeing an El Nino, or warming pattern, develop in the Pacific Ocean,” Lupo said. “Right now, the odds are favoring a weaker El Nino, which would mean a colder winter and more precipitation in the Midwest. However, the current long-term forecasts are not predicting any significant rain for the rest of the summer season.”

Miles serves as director of Sanborn Field and the Missouri Wastewater Small Flow Research and Training Center. He holds a master’s degree in agronomy from Purdue University and a doctoral degree in soil science from Texas A&M University. Miles serves on the board of directors of the National On-Site Wastewater Recycling Association and has published more than 20 refereed journal articles. He has received a special commendation from the Missouri Milk, Food and Environmental Health Association for work in developing on-site wastewater treatment and disposal standards, as well as several campus awards for excellence in teaching.

Lupo received his doctorate from Purdue in 1995 and is currently the principal investigator at the Global Climate Change Group, which investigates how global climate change may impact long-term weather patterns and the growing season in the Midwest. He has written 34 papers on factors that influence large-scale weather patterns. Lupo also is a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore in October 2007.

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