Ag Weather Forum

North Dakota Drought Comparison

Bryce Anderson
By  Bryce Anderson , Ag Meteorologist Emeritus
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Crop-withering drought in North Dakota featured Extreme Drought (D3) forming in December 2020 -- the earliest on record. (National Drought Mitigation Center graphic)

A look at the catastrophic drought which covered the U.S. Northern Plains and Canadian Prairies during crop year 2021 in relation to another severe drought just a few years ago in 2017 shows just how extensive and long-lasting the 2021 drought has been -- and continues to be in its impact on world wheat supplies.

North Dakota state climatologist Adnan Akyuz noted in an email response to a question about these two drought years that the Northern Plains drought this past season actually began during the final months of 2020. Akyuz's comparisons emphasize the Drought Severity and Coverage Index (DSCI) -- a summation of Drought Monitor conditions that Akyuz created as a one-number way to classify the extent and severity of drought using Drought Monitor categories and length of time that those categories are in effect. The higher the number, the more extreme the drought situation.

"The 2021 drought was an early onsetter," Akyuz said. "Because of it, seeds in drought-stricken areas did not even germinate or poorly germinated."

Here's where the DSCI that Akyuz developed comes into stark relief for the North Dakota drought situation. "In 2017, the DSCI index did not reach 200 before June 6. Comparatively, in 2021 the DSCI index was 241 on Jan. 1," Akyuz wrote. "We did not introduce D3 (Extreme Drought) before June 6 in 2017. During the 2021 drought, D3 was already in full press in December (the earliest D3 onset on record)."

The calculations that drive the Drought Severity and Coverage Index continued to post records throughout the 2021 growing season, said Akyuz. "The maximum DSCI value in 2021 was 393 (the highest DSCI ever), occurring on May 18, 2021. On the other hand, the max DSCI was 295 in 2017, occurring on Aug. 8," he said. Drought in 2021 also covered more ground. "100% of the land (in North Dakota) was in drought for 16 consecutive weeks from March 9, 2021 through Aug. 24, 2021. 93% coverage in 2017 was the largest extent on Sept. 12, 2017," he said. Akyuz places the 2021 North Dakota drought on the same level as droughts in 1988 and in 1936.

Regarding damages, the total for the 2021 drought is still being figured by the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI). But it's sure to be high. The NCEI total for North Dakota damage due to the 1988 drought was between $5 billion to $10 billion dollars -- again, just for one state. The damage total from drought in 2017 was between $1 billion and $2 billion dollars for North Dakota alone.

So, drought year 2021 truly claims a place in the drought hall of fame.

Background on the drought damage totals is available here:…

For more information on the Drought Severity Coverage Index, go here:…

Bryce Anderson can be reached at

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Bryce Anderson

Bryce Anderson
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