The Ongoing Drought and Soil Moisture

By Kolby Hoagland | December 13, 2012

The majority of the U.S. is in the worst drought that the country has experienced since the 1950’s. Even after the heat of this last summer subsided, the dryness continued and is now pushing into winter. The same concern that languished on corn crops over the summer now dwells on winter wheat, which in many areas is whither in the fields. In the West, forest fires are not of immediate concern because winter temperatures do not create the ideal conditions for a wildfire. However, the dryness that prevails from the Mississippi River to California affects the ever important moisture level that forests maintain for the upcoming fire season. During these times of drought, sub-soil moisture can be utilized by crops and forest to sustain and grow when the lack of rain dries the upper layers of the soil column. With historically low soil moisture levels and continued drought in the West and Midwest, the deeper reserves of soil moisture that plants tap into during arid times are literally drying up. NOAA’s Calculated Soil Moisture Anomaly map (below) for November illustrates this lack of soil moisture across the continental US. The shading of the map indicates a comparison of current soil moisture holding capacity (mm) to the historic averages. The broad areas of dark red in central and western Nebraska along with the orange that spreads from Utah to the Lake Michigan shows that soil moisture is significantly below historic levels for this time of year. Soil moisture and the ongoing drought is not only a valid concern for the bioenergy industry in the production of feedstock, but also for power production in general and the transportation of goods on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. More information on current drought conditions and forecasts can be found at US Drought Monitor.