MAILBAG: Your drought questions answered

We received several questions about the recent drought and heat wave. I'll try to answer them all at once.
Mark Brooky
Jul 18, 2012

Jim asked: "How long have we been in our present drought, compared to prior times?"

Kristin asked: What is the longest Grand Haven has gone without rain (outside winter months)?"

Tricia asked: "What is the daily record of rainfall for the city of Grand Haven? My husband and I are trying to remember the last time it actually rained in the city."


George Lessens, the chief meteorologist for WZZM-TV in Grand Rapids, said: "Areas along and south of I-96 are in a D-1 or moderate drought as of July 10." That would include Ottawa County. He said new information will be released today.

"No measureable rain has fallen in the Grand Haven area since June 21, when 0.06 inch fell," Lessens said. "The last significant rain was on June 18 (1.15 inches)."

The National Weather Service's closest official weather data is from the Muskegon County Airport. As of Tuesday night, Muskegon has received 2.92 inches of rain since June 1, nearly 1 inch from the normal 3.77 inches.

Tuesday's high of 95 in Muskegon tied a record for July 17 that dated back to 1901.

The Associated Press provided this on the heat wave and drought:

"Heat like this is hard on the very young and very old," said Nikole Montalbano, spokeswoman for St. Mary's of Michigan Hospital in Saginaw, where the temperature hit 96 Tuesday. "It makes everything worse."

CMS Energy Corp. said its Consumers Energy unit set a record for hourly power use of 9,086 megawatts from 3-4 p.m. Tuesday. The previous high was 8,930 megawatts on July 21, 2011.

"We haven't experienced the 100s like this since the 1930s," Mike Kalembkiewicz, a meteorological technician at the weather service's Grand Rapids office, told the Morning Sun of Mount Pleasant.

The hot, dry summer has hurt Michigan's field crops. U.S. Agriculture Department Undersecretary Michael Scuse toured farms in Onondaga and elsewhere Tuesday. He said the drought shows the importance of passing the farm bill now before Congress. The bill contains disaster relief programs that otherwise will expire Sept. 30.

The nation's widest drought in decades is spreading, with more than half of the continental United States now in some stage of drought and most of the rest enduring abnormally dry conditions.

Only in the 1930s and the 1950s has a drought covered more land, according to federal figures released Monday. So far, there's little risk of a Dust Bowl-type catastrophe, but crop losses could mount if rain doesn't come soon.

In its monthly drought report, the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., announced that 55 percent of the country was in a moderate to extreme drought at the end of June. The parched conditions expanded last month in the West, the Great Plains and the Midwest, fueled by the 14th warmest and 10th driest June on record, the report said.

Topsoil has turned dry while "crops, pastures and rangeland have deteriorated at a rate rarely seen in the last 18 years," the report said.

The percentage of affected land is the largest since December 1956, when 58 percent of the country was covered by drought, and it rivals even some years in the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s, though experts point out that this year's weather has been milder than that period, and farming practices have been vastly improved since then.

Around a third of the nation's corn crop has been hurt, with some of it so badly damaged that farmers have already cut down their withered plants to feed to cattle. As of Sunday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said, 38 percent of the corn crop was in poor or very poor condition, compared with 30 percent a week earlier.

"This is definitely the epicenter — right in the heart of the Midwest," said climatologist Mark Svoboda with the Nebraska-based National Drought Mitigation Center.

Monday's report was based on data going back to 1895 called the Palmer Drought Index. It feeds into the widely watched and more detailed U.S. Drought Monitor, which reported last week that 61 percent of the continental U.S. was in a moderate to exceptional drought. However, the weekly Drought Monitor goes back only 12 years, so climatologists use the Palmer Drought Index for comparing droughts before 2000.

Climatologists have labeled this year's dry spell a "flash drought" because it developed in a matter of months, not over multiple seasons or years.

The current drought is similar to the droughts of the 1950s, which weren't as intense as those of the 1930s, said Jake Crouch, a climatologist with the National Climatic Data Center. And farming has changed a lot since the Dust Bowl era. Better soil conservation has reduced erosion, and modern hybrids are much more resistant to drought.

But Crouch said it's important to understand that this drought is still unfolding.

"We can't say with certainty how long this might last now. Now that we're going up against the two largest droughts in history, that's something to be wary of," Crouch said. "The coming months are really going to be the determining factor of how big a drought it ends up being."

From Yahoo News:

— The dry spell is exacting its toll in plant damage, air quality concerns and wildfire concerns.

— Last week, the Michigan State University Extension (of the Department of Geology) reported that across Michigan, particularly in the southwestern part of the state, there was evidence of plant water stress.

— Rainfall shortages since May 1 have dropped to 6 inches in some areas. The average rainfall at this time of year is 8-9 inches.

— Continued dryness in Michigan is predicted for the rest of July, says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center.

— The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality reports that the Air Quality Index is showing ozone concerns due to drought conditions for areas in southwest and southeast Lower Michigan. Those with allergy, lung and breathing conditions are at greater risk during these times.

— The Michigan DEQ has issued several ozone alerts already this year. Michigan cities of Ann Arbor, Detroit, Ludington and Benton Harbor have been under air quality alert for 14-15 days since late May. Grand Rapids has been under ozone alert for 17 days.

— Because of the drought, NOAA has issued air quality warnings for West Michigan counties along the eastern Lake Michigan shoreline (including Ottawa County). Residents are urged to avoid activities that increase ozone levels, such as topping off vehicle fuel levels, using gas-powered equipment or charcoal lighter fluid or painting with anything but water-based paint.

— In June, Gov. Rick Snyder rescinded the burn ban that had been enacted due to drought-induced wildfires in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, says the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

— MSU Extension says the intense drought across Michigan's southern, central and eastern Corn Belt region has similar conditions to the great drought of 1988.

To read about the dangers of heat, click here.


Tri-cities realist

Mark Brooky, nice piece of fact based reporting, good job. I would be curious to know the other levels of drought besides the current D-1, along with what constitutes each level (think F scale for tornadoes which correspond to wind speed), and what levels were experienced in the 1930's, for a bit of historical context. Also I found the period of 18 years a bit peculiar, what is significant about the last 18 years? If we went back 19 or 20 years, would this year not rank as "drought worthy". Just my 2 cents. Thanks for educating me about the different drought indices. One other thing, I didn't see an answer to the 2nd part of Jim's question nor Kristin's, did I miss something. I guess I'll have to do my own research via NCDC and NOAA.

Mark Brooky

I tried to find out that information (their full questions) but could only come close. Much of the "Grand Haven" data out there is really Muskegon, or it is unofficial.

Anyone with any of that data is welcome to chime in here.

Tri-cities realist

Mark, thanks for the follow up. Good to see you take pride in the thoroughness of your work. Encourage your colleagues to do the same.


Well, we have to expect more rain till August. Better prepare for the rainy days because it is coming. - Missed Fortune

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