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State climatologist, soil scientist survey intensifying drought conditions

Unless you’re living in a cave, you know that June weather conditions have been hot and dry in many areas, especially in far western Kentucky.

State climatologist Stuart Foster photographs a cornfield in far western Kentucky. Foster visited the region in late May and returned on June 25 to compare how dry conditions have impacted crops. He expects to make another visit to the area in late July. (WKU photo by Tommy Newton)

In an effort to track extreme drought conditions, state climatologist Stuart Foster and soil scientist Darwin Newton visited the Jackson Purchase area earlier this week for a first-hand look at how dry conditions are impacting farmers and communities.

“With the dry weather pattern and the hot weather we’ve had lately, the drought has been intensifying and expanding rather quickly,” said Dr. Foster, who is director of the Kentucky Mesonet and the Kentucky Climate Center at WKU.

Dr. Foster and Newton, who works for WKU’s Ogden College of Science and Engineering, traveled west from Bowling Green on Monday and made stops in Logan, Todd, Christian, Trigg, Calloway, Graves, Fulton, Hickman and Carlisle counties to view corn and soybean crops and visit with farmers and U.S. Department of Agriculture offices. (More: State declares Level 2 drought in 24 western Kentucky counties.)

Precipitation data from the Mesonet and other sources “just tells part of the story,” Dr. Foster said. “We really need to get out and see things and talk to people to get the rest of the story.”

Near a cornfield in Calloway County, soil scientist Darwin Newton (left) shows state climatologist Stuart Foster an example of a soil that has a restrictive layer below the surface that reduces the amount of water available for plant uptake. (WKU photo by Tommy Newton)

The rest of the story includes how the type of soil can impact crops and pastures, especially during a drought, Newton said. “Soil is the variable that people don’t think about,” he said.

Most of the areas west of the Land Between the Lakes have soils with a restrictive layer below the surface that reduces the amount of available water for plant uptake, he said. As a result, those crops show more stress than crops in deeper, well-drained soil.

“If we drove from Fulton to Ashland right now, we would see a difference in potential crop yields based on soil types, but you don’t see that as much in years with normal rainfall,” Newton said. “I’ve seen conditions like this twice in 25 years – 2007 and 1988 – where soil issues and drought were clearly aligned.”

During Monday’s trip, some corn and soybean fields along U.S. 68 between Bowling Green and Cadiz were showing some stress from the dry conditions but extremely dry conditions were already having an impact on crops and pastures in the Purchase counties.

Soil scientist Darwin Newton and state climatologist traveled from the WKU campus to far western Kentucky on June 25 to survey drought conditions. At a field off Kentucky 80 in Calloway County (top photo), Newton estimates what the normal height of soybeans would be there. Meanwhile, near Arlington in Carlisle County, a soybean field (above left) and corn (above right) are showing the impact of extreme drought conditions. (WKU photos by Tommy Newton)

At a soybean field near Arlington in Carlisle County, Newton could see that 2012 is already bearing similarities to 2007. “The same thing happened in 2007,” he said, looking at 2-inch tall soybean plants. “The soybean germinated and came up, but it never got above wheat stubble.”

Getting a first-hand look at the drought conditions and visiting with those impacted by hot and dry weather was important as Dr. Foster prepared for a statewide conference call Tuesday morning about the drought.

“Impacts of hazards as different as tornadoes and ice storms are comparatively easy to document,” Dr. Foster said. “The beginning and end, as well as the swath of damage of such disasters, are usually well identified. Drought is quite different. It develops and spreads gradually as dry conditions persist. It is difficult to say when a drought began, and it is difficult to draw a line on a map that defines where the impacts of a drought stopped. The severity of a drought arguably has more to do with the impacts it produces than the magnitude of the precipitation deficit. As such, it is important to visit drought areas to document impacts.”

Dr. Foster also visited the area in late May and expects to make another trip in late July.

While farmers and others are already speculating on the drought’s impact on crop yields, Dr. Foster said it may be a too early to determine specific losses or make comparisons to historic drought years. But, he added, precipitation totals in some areas in western Kentucky are already in record territory.

For example, year-to-date precipitation for Paducah is 11.59 inches, according to the station at the Barkley Regional Airport, making this the driest first half of a year on record. Paducah has received a mere 1.85 inches of rain over the past three months, barely 13 percent of normal precipitation for April through June, which is 13.76 inches. Paducah’s previous record for dry weather in the April through June period was 4.41 inches in 1914.

For precipitation and weather data from more than 60 sites across the state, visit the Kentucky Mesonet website at http://www.kymesonet.org/

Contact: Stuart Foster, (270) 745-5983.

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