GALLAGHER: Flash drought? Not just dust blowin' in the wind

2013-07-21T05:30:00Z 2013-10-10T17:11:19Z GALLAGHER: Flash drought? Not just dust blowin' in the windTIM GALLAGHER Sioux City Journal

SIOUX CITY | The 2011-2012 drought finally washed downstream in April and May (2013), successive record-setting months for moisture in Iowa.

Seems like more than a couple of months ago, according to Iowa State Climatologist Harry Hillaker.

"Flash drought is the popular term now," says Hillaker, who assured me in early June the drought had ended. "This is what you'd call a drought in a hurry."

Hillaker believes the term originated in Texas or Oklahoma, states accustomed to feast or famine when it comes to heat and rain.

In Siouxland and across western Iowa, the sky was falling throughout the spring, replenishing aquifers and subsoil when not closing roads and damaging bridges.

The rains abated not long after. Been more than three weeks since rain graced Siouxland lawns and crops.

It has Hillaker talking about a flash drought. It has Paul Kassel, field agronomist for Iowa State University Extension, worrying about the 2013 corn crop, Iowa's major revenue source.

"Pollination will begin soon," says Kassel. "As we enter tasseling and pollination, we don't want any moisture stress in that time, or in the two weeks after pollination. That's such an important time in grain-filling."

Temperatures in the mid- and upper-90s increase a plant's thirst. Stress on this crop is heightened as much of it was planted in wet soil that became packed.

"We don't notice the shortcomings if it keeps raining," Kassel says.

That's the problem: It hasn't.

Kassel feared a 1993 flood repeat several weeks ago. Since then, the dry weather has him envisioning a 1983 repeat when a cold, wet spring gave way to a hot, dry August.

Hillaker agrees, noting 1983 was, in fact, a wet year. However, a 7-week stretch of dry weather came at the most inopportune time for corn. The statewide average corn yield came to 87 bushels per acre two decades ago, down from 120 bushels in 1982 and 112 bushels in 1984.

How far have genetics and farming practices come? In last year's drought, Iowa's statewide corn yield came to 137 bushels per acre.

Hillaker also mentions 1947 as a parallel to 2013. Some 10 inches of snow shocked residents of Le Mars, Iowa, on May 28, 1947, setting a record for daily snow in May that stood until this year when Osage residents dug from 13 inches of snow on May 2.

That storm 66 years ago in Le Mars was the exclamation point on a cool, wet spring that segued to a heated, dusty, cracked catastrophe come August.

"In 1947, July was fairly hot and dry and August that year was the hottest August in Iowa history," Hillaker says. "It finished off the crops big-time. It was one of our worst crop years ever in the state as things were planted late in wet soils and then got baked."

The statewide corn yield came to a bleak 31 bushels per acre in 1947, barely half a crop for that era.

Today's equivalent? According to Hillaker, think 80 to 85 bushels.

While Hillaker admits the 2013 crop hasn't yet failed, he'd like to see something fall from the sky to keep the figurative sky from falling. A 50-percent chance of rain Saturday night preceded 20 percent chances today (Sunday) and Tuesday.

"We definitely need it," Hillaker says, finding agreement with Kassel.

His chagrin shows in a recap of thunderstorm activity that sprang up around Des Moines on Wednesday. Hillaker checked Thursday and found that only 2 percent of the state got rain and the largest amount came to four-tenths of an inch.

"It was amazingly isolated," he says. "Whoever got the rain was pretty happy with it. The other three million Iowans were not."

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