Dangerous drought on doorstep

Dangerous drought on doorstep

July 18th, 2012 in Opinion Times

Don't be deceived by appearances. The landscape in Chattanooga and the surrounding region might suggest that there has been adequate recent rainfall and that the area's forests, farms and pasturelands are in good shape. Green prevails for the moment, and the soil appears moist. What you see, though, is misleading. The area, experts agree, is precariously balanced on a line that separates the region from one that is moderately dry and one that is rapidly nearing severe or excessive drought. Without adequate rainfall soon, the latter is a possibility.

Rains last week -- about three inches here -- helped avert what could have been a disaster for farmers, said Kim Frady of the Agricultural Extension Service office in Cleveland, Tenn. That rain helped alleviate immediate problems -- dry fields, low stream flow, for example -- but it did little to erase rainfall deficits that stand at 7-to-10 inches in many places in Southeast Tennessee. Indeed, there are tell-tale signs that change -- none of it good -- is on the way if adequate rainfall does not occur soon.

Soil moisture in many areas is approaching dangerous lows. Crop and silage growth is slowing or, in the driest areas, simply stopping. Those conditions mirror similar woes elsewhere across the nation.

Indeed, the United States currently is mired in its worst drought since the 1950s. Fifty-five percent of the nation was in moderate to extreme drought at the end of June, according to the National Climatic Data Center. Prospects for improvement are slender. Long-range forecasts predict more of the very dry and extremely hot weather responsible for current conditions, especially in the hard-hit heart of the nation. If that proves true, the damage to national and personal economies and political candidates' hopes could be great.

The price of meat already is on the rise as ranchers reduce herds and flocks because grazing lands have dried up and it is too expensive to buy feed. Drought has severely reduced corn, wheat, oats and other grain production. Given the presence of those products in the American food chain, drought-induced low harvests could lead to additional and significant price increases at the supermarket.

At the moment, there seems little chance for an immediate end to the drought or to the almost certain rise in the cost of food that will result. Summer's showers and thunderstorms are welcome but do little more than provide a quick greening that is nothing more than cosmetic change. True relief will come only when the slow, persistent and soaking rains that are the only real remedy for drought arrive.

When and where those will occur is uncertain. Historical data used by forecasters is less helpful in predicting the weather now that global warming is increasing the frequency and the ferocity of extreme weather events -- like the severe drought that already has enveloped much of the nation and that now threatens this region and beyond.