The drought of 2012 at Rurikia

In school I learned about the Dust Bowl and how the lessons learned from it had led to better farming techniques. I read The Grapes of Wrath. I had seen museum exhibits of FSA photos and reports . I had lived in agricultural areas during dry years, and once even had my well run dry. I thought I had an idea of drought from both a physical and emotional level.

To an extent I did. I understood the physics behind it and how the economics resulting from it could impact markets around the world. I understood the stress that it placed on those living in it.

But I had never truly felt it.

Last year was drier than normal at Rurikia and at times technically in a drought, but some rain did fall on a somewhat regular basis, and from autumn into January the moisture returned to near normal levels.

Then it started to go down again. February and March had a surprisingly mild start with reasonable, if below average, rainfall. By mid May, despite the rain basically stopping the week before, all plants at Rurikia were still doing well. Through June the rains basically stopped, and by early July nearly all the plants were suffering.

Making it worse, the difference between wet and dry was a fairly clearly defined line about 35 miles north of Rurikia and rain was falling reliably about 60 miles to the south. It’s one thing to watch trees lose leaves and field crops shrivel when it is all around, but it is much harder to take when you are on the edge and can see the storms passing along on the north and south horizons with perfectly clear and dry skies overhead. There is a noteworthy feeling of helplessness as you watch that which you are personally involved with struggle to survive or, as things progress, wither and die, with nothing you can do about it while relief passes by just miles away.

This difference in moisture was particularly visible one day in mid July while flying out of the Indianapolis airport; just after takeoff the flight path took us over a field by a creek, and the field was marbled in swirls of green and brown. The green areas were nearly the only green in sight, and on closer inspections were over former streambeds of the creek where some water still flowed under the surface. No more than 10 minutes of flight time to the northeast, there was not a brown field in sight.


 

In July I began to worry about my well and began measuring it on a regular basis. The well is 26 feet deep, and on the 4’th of July it had 14.5 feet of water in it. By the 6’th of August it was down to 8.5 feet. At the end of August it had recovered to 10 feet, and by the 9’th of September, following the very welcome rain from the remnants of Hurricane Isaac, it was up to 19 feet.

Had Hurricane Issac not followed the path it did and bring with it enough moisture to the west of Rurikia to re-establish more typical rain patterns, there is no telling how long this year’s drought would have been. Although there were improvements in the situation prior to Isaac, they were mainly in the form of scattered storms which would deluge one area but leave others dry. Reestablishing the typical patterns brought widespread slow and soaking frontal rains which finally allowed recovery.

The official statewide record (from the Indiana State Climate Office monthly reports, available at http://www.iclimate.org/ ) has the following to say on an overall basis:

Numbers for central Indiana:

Month    Precipitation     Normal Precip     Percent of Normal    Notes
April                   2.47                   3.91               63%                            19’th driest (of 117 years)
May                   3.19                   4.40               73%                            22’nd driest
June                   0.86                  4.10                21%                           3’rd driest
July                    1.75                   4.26                41%                           3’rd warmest
August              4.47                    3.75                 119%
September       6.40                   2.99                214%                         12’th wettest
October           4.44                    2.82                 157%                        26’th wettest

April 2012
In this Indiana spring that seems backwards April 2012 will be noted for its much cooler temperatures, hard freezes, less rainfall, and near absence of severe weather when compared to the previous month. […]. The phrase heard around town is “calendar confusion”.


…The state has received below normal precipitation since February and that impact is starting to show on Indiana soils….

The state precipitation total of 2.32 inches, about 60% of normal, ranks as the 19th driest April on record and the third consecutive month with below normal precipitation

May 2012

The warmer and drier than normal weather trend rolls on. May extends this anomaly to become the 7th consecutive month with above normal temperature and the 4th consecutive month of below normal precipitation in Indiana…..

The state precipitation total of 2.79 inches is about 65% of normal and ties 1954 as the 22nd driest May on record…. After May 8th parts of Indiana received little rainfall to the end of the month….

June 2012

Moderate weather conditions at the start of June escalated into record setting heat and extreme drought at the end of the month that would catch the interest of national news media. June becomes the 8th consecutive month with above normal temperature and the 5th consecutive month of below normal precipitation in Indiana….

The state precipitation total was a meager 1.30 inch, about 31% of normal. This is the 3rd driest June on record. June 1933 with 1.18 inch was the 2nd driest June in Indiana while June 1988 was the driest on record with a state average 0.74 inch….

July 2012

The drought intensified statewide this month, reaching exceptional status in a quarter of Indiana. More than half the state now qualifies as a federal drought disaster area.

The state average July temperature was 80.5°F, a sweltering 5.9°F above normal. This ranks July 2012 as the 3rd warmest July in Indiana since 1895, behind second place 1901 (80.6°F) and first place holder 1936 (80.9°F)… July 2012 extends the string to 9 consecutive months of above normal temperature in Indiana.

The state precipitation total was 2.45 inches, about 60% of normal, and almost twice last month. But another below normal month extends the dry streak as July 2012 becomes the 6th consecutive month with below normal precipitation in Indiana.

The July 9th edition of Indiana Weekly Weather and Crops rates 97% of Indiana topsoil as short or very short of moisture….

Only 8% of corn and 11% of soybeans are now rated as in good or excellent growing condition…. There is still time and hope for soybeans to recover if rain returns soon.

The State of Indiana has issued their first ever water shortage warning to include the entire state. … In some central Indiana towns local wells have gone dry.

The drought of 2012 rolls on. In the July 31st edition of the US Drought Monitor 24% of Indiana is now rated as exceptionally dry, a situation expected only once in 50 years or longer.

Forestry experts note that trees are now starting to die from acute drought stress.

August 2012

A two month long heat wave finally subsided after August 8th, the last date thermometers in Indiana reached or exceeded 100°F this year… The end of the torrid heat coincided with the peak of the summer drought. After weeks of intensification the drought reversed course the second week of August and rains returned to Indiana.

The state average August temperature was 72.3°F, just 0.3°F below normal. This near-normal temperature breaks a 9 month long string of warmer than normal months in Indiana

The state precipitation total was 3.95 inches, slightly above the normal 3.79 inches… The slightly wetter than normal state average halts the 6 month string of below normal rainfall months.

A reversal of the summer drought trend from worsening to improvement took hold near the start of August. The deficit in annual rainfall to the end of August stands from about 5 inches in northern Indiana to as much as 12 inches in southwest Indiana. Some localized deficits in southern Indiana have reached in excess of 16 inches.

While conditions are slowly improving, impacts of the drought are ongoing. The State of Indiana continues its first ever water shortage warning asking for a voluntary reduction in water usage. There have been reports of home owner wells going dry.

September 2012

The state average September temperature was 64.2°F, a cool 1.5°F below normal. This created a 4-way tie with 1937, 1950, and 1994, as the 29th coolest September on record.

The state precipitation total was 5.38 inches, a surplus of 2.29 inches above normal. This ranks this month as the 12th wettest September on record since 1895.

Light to moderate rain fell every day this week [1 to 8 September] as fronts lingered in the state all week long. The heaviest rain coincided with the arrival of the two significant storms. Initial forecasts were for 6 to 9 inches of rain in Indiana from the remnants of Isaac. But very dry air over northern drought states infiltrated the core of Isaac as it moved slowly due north, drying out the storm from its inside out. The storm weakened as it sprawled over an ever larger area, unable to concentrate huge amounts of rain. In Indiana rainfall totals from Isaac ranged from just a half inch in northeast Indiana to a maximum of 4.5 inches in far southwest counties over 3 days.

Progress toward drought recovery is reflected in the September 9th edition of the Indiana Weekly Weather and Crop bulletin. The soil moisture survey finds 48% of Indiana topsoils rated as short or very short of moisture while 76% of subsoils are in these classes. The report notes that while improving, the drought is not over. Even though water content of topsoils is obviously increasing, water is not yet running through field tiles.

October 2012

In a reversal from the hot and dry summer, cooler and wetter than normal conditions are the new trend for a third month in Indiana. The 2012 drought continues to fade across the state. By the end of October less than 10% of Indiana area remains in at least moderate drought status according to the US Drought Monitor. More than half the state has recovered to normal soil moisture levels for this time of year.

The state average October temperature was 51.7°F, a departure of 2.2°F below normal and the 25th coldest October since 1895.

The state precipitation total was 3.97 inches, or 1.07 inches above normal. This total ties 1985 as the 26th wettest October on record.

Last week I watched the “Dust Bowl” documentary by Ken Burns on PBS, and in those images and descriptions I kept coming across ideas that aligned with mine of this summer. The hope, the uncertainty, the disappointment. For me it is generally a hobby that was threatened and not my existence, and it was only for a few months following on from one dry year before, but it is hard to truly feel what you have not been exposed to, and this time I felt.

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