Temperatures soaring until the very hot category of weather in many areas during the past U.S. Memorial Day holiday weekend did more than bring comments of "Where did spring go?" The heat also rewrote many records, and led to comparisons with the year 2012. At least in eastern Nebraska, May of 2018 is the hottest since the month of May six years ago. Everyone in the ag world remembers that year; it was the most recent time that corn yields were below trend line, and they were by a long way. The U.S. national corn yield in 2012 was just 123.4 bushels per acre.
With that ominous year in mind, a look at drought conditions does offer a review of some differences between then and now. In the U.S. Midwest back in 2012, there were more dry areas than were tallied in the latest Drought Monitor map of May 22. The most recent Drought Monitor indicates more than 75% of the region with no dryness or drought in effect. Six years ago, the dryness or drought-free area amounted to just over half (53%).
And, whereas the late-May 2018 Drought Monitor shows Level 1 (Moderate) Drought in portions of southern Iowa, northern Missouri and extreme western Illinois, the May 22, 2012 Drought Monitor shows Level 1 Drought over much of northern Minnesota, a portion of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a fair amount of northwestern and northern Iowa through southern Minnesota, and the Missouri Bootheel-lower Ohio Valley area, with Level 2 (Severe) Drought in the Bootheel, far southern Illinois, and southwestern Kentucky. So, there were already developing pockets of dryness, or the early stages of drought, in place over the Midwest in 2012 even before the damaging hot and dry months of June and July set in.
Could the pattern of 2012 revisit crop country? Certainly. We're already looking at an upper-atmosphere pattern for the early part of June that features generally hot and dry upper-level high pressure over much of the southwestern U.S. and bubbling northward, with the boundary between the hot high and cooler conditions out of the Pacific Northwest setting up over the northern tier of states.
But, there are two big differences between now and 2012 to note. First of all, the 2018 spring season, while offering only nominal season-type temperatures, loaded up the soil moisture profile in much of the north-central Midwest, which is a significant departure from six years ago.
Also, a major rain-making event occurred over the holiday weekend that definitely did not in 2012 -- and that event was the subtropical storm "Alberto" system. Rain from Alberto fell in much of the southeastern U.S. along with the mid-South; and indications are for moderate to locally heavy totals in the eastern Midwest. The benefit from the generally wetter north-central Midwest, and the episodic rains from Alberto, offer much-improved soil moisture overall right now than in the infamous year of 2012.
Where to from here is the perennial question. A fair assessment is that soil moisture is much better in general now than then. It's also fair to say that the upper-air configuration may be the pattern that we live with for much of June -- and in that case, that soil moisture supply will get a fair drawing-down.
Bryce Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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