The motorized growl from an idling John Deere tractor drowned out the sounds of nature on a recent morning on Chris Webber’s central Missouri family farm.
As he checked the 40 acres of muddy field he wanted to plant that day, Webber worried about getting more rain, even as he worried about the lack of it.
“The drought is over at the moment,” he said, “but in Missouri, we tend to say that in 10 days or two weeks, we can be in a drought again. That’s how fast it can get back to dry.”
Midwestern farmers like Webber are suffering from “weather whiplash,” according to meteorologist Jeff Masters. In the last three years, there’s been flooding, then record-setting drought, and now flooding again.
“It’s a term I’m going to be using a lot in the coming years, I think, because the jet stream patterns that we’re familiar with have changed in the last few years,” said Master, who co-founded the Weather Underground website. “They’ve slowed down, exposing us to longer periods of extreme weather and they’ve gotten more extreme.”
Research is ongoing, but Masters says the jet stream patterns may have changed because the polar regions are warming faster than those around the equator.
Such extremes have led to something other than classic drought, said Brian Fuchs of the U.S. Drought Monitor.
“We’ve seen drought jump around,” he said. “Where typically we identify drought as a slow, creeping type of phenomena that takes time to develop and takes time to improve, last summer was more of a flash drought, where we saw this drought rapidly develop and rapidly intensify.”
Fuchs credited his colleague, Mark Svoboda, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska, with the term “flash drought.” It was brought on by a mild winter in 2012, followed by an extremely warm spring with no precipitation, followed by a similar summer, Fuchs said.
Much like flash flooding, a flash drought comes on quickly and can be dangerous, he said. The drought racked up $35 billion in losses, according to one analysis of natural disasters.
Will it happen again this year? Probably not, thanks to a cool, wet spring in most of the Midwest, Fuchs said, but the flash drought wasn’t predicted last year, either.
“Mother Nature is always going to throw us that curve ball,” he said. “As much as we think we have things cornered and we know what’s going to be happening, you just don’t know what will happen.”
The most recent report from the U.S. Drought Monitor, released each Thursday, shows no drought conditions in most of the Midwest, but it still affects 44 percent of the U.S., mainly in the West.
“I don’t see any change from the pattern that we’ve had for about the last month or two: very wet over the central U.S. and eastern U.S. and very dry over the West,” Masters said. “There’s just going to be a very sharp dividing line. There’s going to be the haves and the have nots, right next to each other.”
So what can farmers do in the face of such quick-moving drought? Webber said many of his neighbors bought extensive irrigation systems this year, despite all the wells, ponds and lakes that went dry last year, leaving the equipment useless.
There’s also the financial protection offered by crop insurance – a national issue now being debated by Congress as part of the Farm Bill, as NPR’s Tamara Keith reported.
Last year in Audrain County, Mo., where Webber lives, $60.7 million in crop insurance payments were made, according to USDA statistics. That’s one of the highest in the country, rivaled by just a few counties in Illinois.
Meanwhile, as of last week, Webber had only planted 750 acres of what he hoped would be a total of about 1,200 acres in corn, scaled back from his usual 1,600. He’s also started planting soybeans, which can go in a little later than corn, and that will fill out the rest of his 4,000-acre operation.
“We could still have a good crop,” he said, “but not a record crop.”