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Follow along as state climatologist visits drought-stricken western Kentucky

Today (July 27), state climatologist Stuart Foster, director of the Kentucky Climate Center and the Kentucky Mesonet at WKU, is making his third trip of the summer to drought-stricken areas of western Kentucky.

According to this week’s update from the U.S. Drought Monitor, counties in the Jackson Purchase and along the Ohio River in western Kentucky remain in exceptional drought conditions with other areas in severe and extreme drought. Dr. Foster visited the area in late May and again in late June to get a first-hand look at how dry conditions are impacting farmers and communities.

Longtime soil scientist Darwin Newton, who works in WKU’s Ogden College of Science and Engineering, is accompanying Dr. Foster on the July 27 trip. Tommy Newton, assistant director of Media Relations, is traveling with them and will be providing updates along the route.

7:20 a.m. WKU campus: Leaving campus and traveling along US 68 toward Russellville, Elkton, Hopkinsville and Cadiz. We plan to travel to Ballard County then toward Paducah and Henderson.

8:10 a.m., west of Russellville near Todd County line: Dr. Foster checks a cornfield he has visited on all three trips. Darwin Newton says the field is an example of how the lack of moisture and pollination is impacting corn crops. Some ears may be three-quarters filled out while others have a few kernels. Recent rains have helped improve the look of soybeans and pastures.

9:20 a.m., entering Land Between the Lakes:Traveling through Trigg County we saw evidence of Thursday night’s rainfall as water still standing in puddles. Crops and fields look better than on the June trip.  However, Darwin Newton notes looks may be deceiving for corn as yields are likely to be lower; soybeans look good along the route.

Darwin Newton found these two ears of corn in a field in Calloway County.

9:40 a.m.,  east of Murray in Calloway County: Along the road we see no evidence of rain overnight. We stop at a cornfield where many stalks have few or no ears. Five miles west we stop at another that looks better from the road but upon further inspection Darwin Newton finds similar results — small ears or no ears. “I’m really surprised,” he says. “I thought that second field would be better.

10:35 am., Mayfield: After stopping at the USDA NRCS office, we stop at a late-planted cornfield with stalks about 2 feet tall. Some farmers in this area have been irrigating their corn to improve yields. Now heading toward Fulton for another look at crops there; from there we will be making our way to Paducah then toward the Henderson area.

11:15 a.m., west of Fulton:We stop along Ky. 166 at a soybean field that had plants about 2-3 inches tall last month. Today the plants are 8-10 inches tall. Even though conditions  in hayfields, pastures and yards appear to look better, the region remains in exceptional drought.   Now heading north on Ky. 239 toward Hickman County. Dr. Foster stops for photo of full-season soybeans that look better than many others we’ve seen.

A barge made its way down the Mississippi River near Columbus-Belmont State Park. The river’s depth is much lower because of this year’s drought.

11:55 a.m., Columbus-Belmont State Park:  Overlooking the Mississippi River, we get a look at drought’s impact on the river level.  A barge loaded with coal makes its way south while upriver barges are lined up in a narrowing channel.

12:35 p.m., Fort Jefferson Memorial Cross: We’ve made our way through Bardwell toward Wickliffe and stop for another view near where the Mississippi and Ohio rivers meet. River channel still appears narrow. This area has been in the worst drought levels all summer. “Everything certainly looks greener than I anticipated, but for the corn crop the damage is done,” Dr. Foster says.

1:15 p.m., LaCenter: Finally we break for lunch as we make our way through Ballard County toward McCracken County. The fields of corn and double-cropped soybeans are showing impact of hot and dry summer.

Jennifer Rukavina (center), chief meteorologist at WPSD-TV in Paducah, interviewed Dr. Stuart Foster about the drought’s impact on the Jackson Purchase region.

3 p.m., Paducah: We stop at WPSD-TV where Dr. Foster is interviewed by chief meteorologist Jennifer Rukavina about the drought’s impact on the Purchase area.

4 p.m., just west of Smithland: The drought’s impact on crops and farmland is still apparent in Livingston County.

4:45 p.m., just east of Marion: Dr. Foster and Darwin Newton say the stretch through Livingston and Crittenden counties is the driest we’ve seen today. Pastures are very dry.

5:30 p.m., Morganfield: A quick stop for gas. Corn in Union County looks better than most of what we’ve seen since this morning in the Hopkinsville/Cadiz area. Heading toward Dixon now to drop by Darwin Newton’s family farm at Onton in Webster County.

Darwin Newton told Dr. Stuart Foster about another field on his family farm in Webster County. Even though yields will likely be lower, Newton was pleased with his corn and soybean fields after seeing other crops on a tour of western Kentucky.

6:30 p.m., Onton: We stop at Darwin’s family farm. He is pleased with how his corn and soybean crops are looking. From the Webster County farm we can see McLean, Henderson and Hopkins counties.

7:15 p.m., near Hartford: We’ve come across parts of Hopkins, McLean and Ohio counties. Soybean fields look good, but as we’ve seen all day there is variability in areas that have gotten rain  and other areas that haven’t. We passed one large cornfield in Ohio County that has been cut for sileage.

7:45 p.m., south of Morgantown: As we travel down the Natcher Parkway toward Bowling Green here are some impressions from our trip: The drought’s impact is going to reduce corn yields across the region but full-season soybeans still have a chance with average or above average rain over the next  month; with a little more rain, pastures and hay fields can improve; this year’s drought may increase farmers’ interest in irrigation systems and grain storage facilities; and it’s still too early to know when the drought will end.

8:10 p.m., WKU campus: Back on the Hill. Our 450-mile journey ends after nearly 13 hours.

More: Check out a WKU News report on Dr. Foster’s June 25 trip; drought/precipitation maps from the Kentucky Mesonet; a precipitation chart from Kentucky Mesonet sites; current data from the Kentucky Mesonet; latest update from the U.S. Drought Monitor

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