Gateway to the Parched Midwest

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Not even a hurricane could hault the Great Drought of 2012

Mark Twain once described the Mississippi River as having “a soul … of having it’s own way. No engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise.” And nearly 10 years ago, in the Great Flood of 1993, St. Louisans found out why.

Under the anxious shadow of the Gateway Arch, the river swelled to heights unseen: cresting at 49.6 feet on Aug. 1, 1993, nearly 20 feet above flood stage, it had a peak flow rate of 1,080,000 cubic feet per second, enough to fill Busch Stadium to the brim in 69 seconds.

Travel down to the Arch today and you’ll glimpse a vanishing river. Water now stands at just 11.72 feet, its lowest level since President Roosevelt roamed the Oval Office. Engineering skill, in the form of barge dredging, is keeping the waterway open to commerce. The U.S. Corps of Engineers has to keep the river at least nine feet deep or traffic stops. Each day of stoppage costs the American economy $300 million; with over 500 tons of grain, coal and goods moved each year down the Mississippi, over 400,000 jobs are dependent on this flow.

Mark Twain’s beloved Mississippi is drying up.

This is the Great Drought of 2012.

With high temperatures scorching the Midwest, moisture has been evaporating much more quickly than usual.  This, combined with lack of rain, has created a parched environment.  What started as an abnormal winter for the western U.S. has spread east, becoming not only an environmental, but also a human emergency.

The Great Drought of 2012 was born out of the waning months of 2011. The development of a La Niña weather pattern – characterized by elevated sea temperatures in the Pacific Ocean — limited snowfall in St. Louis to just 6.3 inches and pushed temperatures to unconditional levels. According to Mike Roberts, a member of the American Meteorological Society and Saint Louis University adjunct professor, forecasters were warned.

“March was 14.8 degrees warmer than the mean. That’s warmer than the mean average. It was way, way beyond the pale,” Roberts said. “We knew we were going to have some problems. The seeds were sown. I don’t think anyone, however, was expecting this.” What resulted is being termed a “flash drought” by the National Weather Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Roberts attributed the ripe conditions to a series of abnormalities – the La Niña pattern, a northern storm tract that allowed warm, southern air to migrate north and limited thunderstorms across the Great Plains, and excess heat in the atmosphere due to man-made carbon emissions. While Roberts is hesitant to use the term global warming, he says “there is no question the climate is warming and it’s going to exacerbate every weather situation.”

“There are just too many studies that point to the jet stream slowing, and that the planet is warming,” he said. “We no longer have the discontinuity in temperatures between the North Pole and the mid-latitudes, so everything is getting amplified. Patterns are moving slower … therefore, this drought is longer and deeper than expected.”

Meteorologists grade droughts on their severity. The scale ranges from moderate, or D1, to exceptional, or D4. The St. Louis region is in a D3 drought, while parts of western Missouri and central Illinois are graded as D4. Consequently, 98 percent of Missouri and 95 percent of Illinois have been declared states of emergency. According to NOAA, 63 percent of the continental United States is in moderate drought or worse, up from 38 percent in May.

All of this adds up to a concerning and deepening agricultural crisis in the midwestern U.S.

The USDA has declared natural disasters in more than 1,800 counties in 35 states, more than half the nation’s total. 48 percent of the nation’s corn crop was rated poor to very poor; 37 percent of the 2012 soybean crop falls into that same category.

Meanwhile, U.S. rangeland and pastures remained at a record-high 59 percent very poor to poor. That could mean higher prices at the pump, at the grocery store, at the movie theater.

For their part, Missouri has pumped out $7 million to assist agricultural and livestock farmers; additionally, the Obama administration has pledged over $50 million so far to aid family farms and related businesses across the nation.

The big question for forecasters now is this: Does the Great Drought of 2012 soon become the Great Drought of 2013, too?

According to Roberts, the answer is: check your radar. He predicts above-normal temperatures through the fall but an equal chance for precipitation.

Ultimately, though, Roberts says a tropical storm will be needed to bring the St. Louis region back to normal levels of precipitation – see Hurricane Isaac, who soaked the mid-Mississippi River Valley on Aug. 31, delivering up to five inches of rain in some areas.

But what about long-term?

Will climate change – and the accompanying weather phenomenon – be enough to spark social change, as a 2009 Department of Defense study suggests?

What are the potential problems of a parched planet? Will states fight over the rights to water – as Tennessee and Georgia did in federal courts?

What will the skies bring tomorrow?

Mark Twain understood that no effort from man could command the river. He never envisioned man could reduce his mighty river to a trickle.