Flash Drought In US High Plains May Have Already Destroyed Half Of This Year’s Wheat Crop

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The “flash drought” that came out of nowhere this summer in the US High Plains, afflicting Montana and the Dakotas the worst, has already destroyed more than half of this year’s wheat crop, going by some recent field surveys. Considering that the region is now one of the top wheat-growing regions in the world, the damage is very notable.

North Dakota drought. Image by U.S. Drought Monitor

What’s particularly “interesting” about the situation is how quickly the drought developed. It arose over just the last ~3 months — hence the phrase “flash drought” — and it quickly worsened. The US Drought Monitor recently upgraded the drought to “exceptional” — matching the intensity of the relatively recent drought in California, but developing over a shorter period of time.

These so-called flash droughts are expected to become considerably more common over the coming decades as the climate continues warming and weather patterns continue changing.

The area now being affected (the High Plains), it should be remembered, are expected to essentially turn to desert over the coming decades and centuries — as the region has before, at various points in the past. So, this is just a sign of things to come. The fact that groundwater levels are rapidly falling as well in many places, due to overuse for irrigation, is something that also needs to be taken into account.

“The damage and the destruction is just unimaginable,” noted Montana resident Sarah Swanson in an interview with Grist. “It’s unlike anything we’ve seen in decades.”

Heat is rising. Image via WeatherBell

Here’s more from the Grist coverage: “The Associated Press says the dry conditions are ‘laying waste to crops and searing pasture and hay land’ in America’s new wheat belt, with some longtime farmers and ranchers calling it the worst of their lifetimes. Unfortunately, this kind of came-out-of-nowhere drought could become a lot less rare in the future.

“Rainfall across the affected region has been less than half of normal since late April, when this year’s growing season began. In parts of Montana’s Missouri River basin, which is the drought’s epicenter, rainfall has been less than a quarter of normal — which equals the driest growing season in recorded history for some communities.”

A meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s office in Glasgow, Montana, by the name of Tanja Fransen commented on this: “It’s devastating…We’re at the bottom of the barrel. For many areas, it’s the worst we’ve seen in 100 years.”

Something that’s interesting to note here is that 2011, only 6 years back, was actually one of the wettest years on record in eastern Montana. Those sorts of rapid swings between extreme precipitation and flooding on the one hand, and extreme flash droughts on the other, are only going to become more common from here on out. Eventually, most of the agriculture in the region will have to cease. Though, there are probably a couple of decades left before that happens.

Here’s more from Grist: “The drought already has far-reaching effects. In eastern Montana, America’s current-largest wildfire continues to smolder; the 422-square-mile Lodgepole complex fire is one-third the size of Rhode Island. It’s Montana’s largest fire since 1910. Across the state, 17 other large fires are also spreading. ‘We haven’t even hit our normal peak fire season yet,’ Fransen says.

“Recently, as the climate has warmed and crop suitability has shifted, the Dakotas and Montana have surpassed Kansas as the most important wheat-growing region in the country. The High Plains is now a supplier of staple grain for the entire world…The economic impact of the drought and related fires may exceed $1 billion across the multi-state region by the time the rains return. Donations of hay for beleaguered farmers and ranchers have come in from as far away as West Virginia.”

Taking a broad view here, the reality is that the US Great Plains — along with the southwest and mountain states — will become less and less habitable as the coming decades arrive. Mass migrations out of the regions in question, and into parts of the country that are already overcrowded in many ways, are pretty much a given at this point. Plans for the future should be made with that reality in mind.

Governments and people being what they are, though, this isn’t likely to happen. Rather, it’s very likely that things stand to become very messy and bloody as the century grinds on. Obviously, this is already the case in many parts of the world, but it’s been a while since Europe has had to deal with that sort of reality, and a long while since the US has.

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James Ayre

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.

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