The consensus of climatologists (be warned, these are scientists, not real Americans) is that the drought now affecting almost all of the US west of the Mississippi River — more than half of the 48 contiguous states — will be at least as bad this year as it was last (when it was in many places the worst in a generation), and may well be worse. According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, most agricultural operators in the worst-hit regions probably won’t pay any attention to the forecast. This is the equivalent of the captain of the Titanic, on being told there are icebergs ahead, saying “So what?”
The oracles at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, along with other practitioners of the dark sciences across the kingdom, have been assessing the signs and portents for the growing season about to begin, and have found:
That in February, 54 per cent of the country was already experiencing drought conditions, while last year only 39 per cent was;
That given such a start, this year will be drier than last even if rainfall and temperatures for the rest of the year are normal;
That there is virtually zero chance that rainfall and temperatures for the rest of the year will be normal — forecasters expect hotter for the whole country, and drier in big chunks of the drought-stricken area.
That the snowpack in California is about half of normal, while reservoirs lakes, rivers and aquifers throughout the stricken area are seriously depleted.
As the severity of the current drought approaches parity with that of the 1930s “Dustbowl” years, it is often said that, well, it won’t be that bad because “modern agricultural practices” have reduced the dust (those the words of NOAA climatologist Tom Karl, speaking with Inside Climate News.) Nothing could be further from the truth. While the use of no-till planting and cover crops have made spot improvements here and there, agriculture as a whole continues to over-cultivate, over-fertilize and over-crop, destroying several tons of topsoil each season for every ton of harvest.
Meanwhile, crazed by high corn prices, industry is plowing up marginal prairie grassland at rates not seen since the years just before the Dust Bowl. A study out of South Dakota University reported by IPS calculates that 1.3 million acres of grazing land in the semiarid plains have been ripped up in the last five years. Government subsidies, price supports, crop insurance and requirements for ethanol content in gasoline are accelerating the reenactment of the runup to the Dust Bowl.
How close are we getting? Last year, the hottest ever recorded in the US, 80 per cent of America’s farmland experienced drought, 2,000 counties were designated disaster areas, and 50% of the crops harvested were rated by the Agriculture Department as being in poor, or very poor, condition.
Yet nothing stays the industrial operator from his appointed rounds. The chief economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation, Bob Young, told Inside Climate News that his members, who are real Americans, probably will pay no attention to the dire forecasts of the scientists, for two reasons. One, “they” said March was going to be warm and it wasn’t; and two, the operators, most of which receive their government checks in city high-rise office buildings, “know what is going on in their own dirt.”
Seriously. He said that.