peak hurricane season, but the nation’s worst weather disaster
right now is raging on the High Plains.
intense drought has
quickly gripped much
of the Dakotas and parts of Montana this summer, catching farmers and
ranchers off-guard. The multi-agency U.S. Drought Monitor recently
drought to “exceptional,” its highest severity level, matching
the intensity of the California drought at its peak.
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
damage and the destruction is just unimaginable,” Montana resident
Sarah Swanson told Grist. “It’s unlike anything we’ve seen in
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
growing season in recorded history for
devastating,” says Tanja Fransen, a meteorologist at the National
Weather Service’s office in Glasgow, Montana. Just six years
removed from 2011, one of the region’s wettest years on record,
eastern Montana is now enduring one of its driest.
at the bottom of the barrel,” Fransen says. “For many areas, it’s
the worst we’ve seen in 100 years.”
matter of weeks, the area of Montana in drought conditions has
expanded eightfold. U.S.
drought already has far-reaching effects. In eastern Montana,
America’s current-largest wildfire continues to smolder;
Lodgepole complex fire
is one-third the size of Rhode Island. It’s Montana’s largest
the state, 17
other large fires are
also spreading. “We haven’t even hit our normal peak fire season
yet,” Fransen says.
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.
According to recent
more than half of this year’s harvest may already be lost.
economic impact of the drought and related fires may exceed $1
billion across the multi-state region by the time the rains
of hay for
beleaguered farmers and ranchers have come in from as
far away as West Virginia.
in the region are also worried because the Trump administration has
targeted a key federal crop insurance program for
The governors of North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana have all
declared states of emergency to speed aid and open
some normally protected areas for
are often thought of as creeping, slow-motion disasters. They usually
don’t grab headlines like hurricane landfalls, even though they
represent the costliest weather-related catastrophe worldwide.
this drought is an anomaly, a
“flash drought.” It
essentially came from nowhere. It didn’t exist just three months
frequency of these rapid-onset droughts is
expected to increase as
the planet warms. A recent
on China found that flash droughts more than doubled in frequency
there between 1979 and 2010.
like these are closely
linked to climate change.
As temperatures rise, abnormally dry conditions across the western
United States are already becoming more common and more intense. And
as evaporation rates speed up, rainfall becomes more erratic, and
spring snowmelt dries up earlier each year.
Whitney Klasna’s ranch in Lambert, Montana, the spring rains “just
didn’t come this year.” Klasna has already seen 60 to 80 percent
crop losses in her fields, and now she’s making calculations about
which of her cattle she can afford to save. She and her crew are
working to drill an additional water well and install a pipeline to
keep as many alive as possible.
they’re worried that, if the rains do come, they’ll lead to flash
flooding; the ground has essentially been transformed into concrete.
calls the drought a “perfect storm of bad luck” and expects its
impacts to last for years.
drought in western North Dakota is now just as severe as California’s
was at its peak. U.S.
west, near where the Lodgepole complex is burning, Sarah Swanson runs
a John Deere dealership, one of the biggest businesses in her
community. She hears heartbreaking stories from across the region,
with many farmers and ranchers working together to fight the fire
with their own Бequipment.
now, I don’t think anybody has time to feel scared,” Swanson
says. “I think the emotions will probably start once they have time
to get the fire out in a week or two.”
week, Swanson wrote a personal letter to Interior Secretary Ryan
Zinke, a Montana native, asking him to ease grazing restrictions on a
nearby wildlife refuge. Two days later, he
be able to continue on,” Swanson says. “I wish I could say that
for all the Main Street businesses in eastern Montana, but I don’t
think I can. The effects are already being felt by restaurants and
retail shops and gas stations, and there will be some that can’t