New Program from Iowa PBS examines extreme weather events

Nov 19, 2021  | 7 min  | Ep4714

Recent rains in the Pacific Northwest have helped ease drought conditions from Idaho through Montana and on into Washington and Oregon.

 Nationally, there has been at least 50 percent of the continental U.S. in some form of drought since July 7th of 2020.

In this excerpt of John Torpy’s documentary Iowa’s Wild Weather: Drought, we see that the drier side of the ledger has a long tail. It’s the subject of our Cover Story:

The state of Iowa ranks 2nd only behind California on the list of top 10 agriculture producing states. In 2018, Iowa’s agricultural industry was valued at just over $25 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In that same year, drought conditions began to creep into the Midwest, but its impact on Iowa agriculture would not be felt for another three years. 
 
Sec. Mike Naig, Iowa Department of Agriculture: “In the last year, 99 percent of the state of Iowa was in some sort of a drought classification.”
 
The drought Iowa is experiencing in 2021 got its start in 2018. Ample subsoil moisture from the three intervening wet years kept growing conditions stable as the chances for rain began to evaporate. .
 
Dr. Justin Glisan, State Climatologist of Iowa: “Fall of 2019, seventh wettest fall on record. We start to see west-central precipitation deficits begin to appear. Very small, but that's where we started to see the drought conditions.
Dr. Justin Glisan is the State Climatologist of Iowa. Glisan’s job involves collecting climate data for both weekly weather reports and the U.S. Drought Monitor. He also advises the Iowa Secretary of Agriculture on climatological issues impacting the state’s agricultural sector. 
 
Dr. Justin Glisan, State Climatologist of Iowa: “ And it's when you look at pictures of the dry pastures and the dust and the cattle, and you hear the stories of the farmers and ranchers that, that breaks your heart and, you know, um, but I mean, yeah, when you see D4 on a map, those are historic percentiles, meaning that we haven't seen these conditions in a hundred years.”
 
According to Glisan, different types of drought impact rural communities in different ways. A Meteorological Drought is one based on rainfall deficits, and lengths of dry periods. If the dryness continues, a shift to Hydrological Drought appears. Impacts to the overall water supply become visual as the level in streams and ponds gets lower. When those sub-soil levels decrease, an Agricultural Drought can set in; farmers and ranchers will see lower groundwater levels as reservoir levels recede. At any point along the way a Socioeconomic Drought can occur. According to the National Weather Service, Socioeconomic Drought occurs when demand for moisture exceeds supply as a result of a weather-related deficit in rainfall. Glisan notes climate change could have a hand to play in the increasing length and intensity of significant weather events. 
 
Dr. Justin Glisan, State Climatologist of Iowa: “As climatologists, we use the last full three decades, um, to give us a baseline to compare weather events, climatological events, uh, was this the driest year on record? Um, how strong was this tornado outbreak versus other outbreaks that we've had in the past? Um, was this the, uh, the most destructive Derecho that we've seen across the state?”
 
One asset climatologists rely on to study drought patterns is the U.S Drought Monitor. A tool multiple federal agencies are responsible for creating, the weekly report uses data from USDA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Drought Mitigation Center. Climatological data is collected to calculate the severity of drought across the country. 
Drought monitor information is broken out into 5 different categories. Abnormally dry, which shows areas that may be going into or are coming out of drought, and four levels of drought. Moderate (D1), Severe (D2), Extreme (D3) and Exceptional (D4).
 
Dr. Justin Glisan, State Climatologist of Iowa: “All those moisture variables that we use. Subsoil precipitation, hail, humidity, outside temperature, stream flows. All those, we want all of those things to point towards one category and more often than not, they don't, that's where to get discrepancies.
 
Created in 1999 at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the U.S. Drought Monitor has many purposes. The USDA uses the drought monitor to trigger disaster declarations, the Farm Service Agency uses it to help determine eligibility for their Livestock Forage Program, and the Internal Revenue Service uses it for tax deferral on forced livestock sales when ranchers have to sell cattle due to drought. State and local officials use the drought monitor in conjunction with local data on dry conditions to trigger drought responses.
According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, drought ranks third as the most destructive natural disaster in Iowa. From 1980 to 2021, severe drought caused nearly $20 billion in damage.
Besides the direct and indirect economic impacts, drought can spur other disasters. The dry conditions can create an ideal breeding environment for invasive insects like grasshoppers and locusts. Drought can increase wildfire risks like what the Western U.S. experienced in 2020 and 2021. And extended dryness can change ecosystems, altering farm production practices. 
 
Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig acknowledges a correlation between climate change and a rise in extreme weather events.. 
 
Sec. Mike Naig, Iowa Department of Agriculture: “We know that weather's changing. Uh, we know that in a, in a state like Iowa, we're seeing me seeing, uh, an increase in temperatures. We're seeing a more frequent, higher intensity storms and weather events that are, that are more persistent when it's dry, it's dry when it's wet, it's wet. And those are things that we have to deal with on the ground. And what does that mean for a producer? Well, again, it's about how do we manage the land appropriately and do we have the right risk management risk mitigation tools in place for them from a policy standpoint?”
 
By August of 2021, 83 percent of the state was in some sort of drought, with over one-third of Iowa experiencing severe to extreme drought. Those conditions took a toll on farming and agriculture. One tool rural communities have been promoting to slow a drought's impact is conservation.
 
Sec. Mike Naig, Iowa Department of Agriculture: “The incorporation of things like cover crops and reduced tillage, no, till those are things that help with soil health and prevent soil erosion, they help with holding water in place. We've got some innovation that's coming in the conservation space around drainage, water management. How do I take some of that water? Get it off the land when I need it to dry out, but hold onto some of it and use it for irrigation when I need it. That's a piece of innovation that we're actually demonstrating and piloting in the state of Iowa today.”
 
For Market to Market, I’m John Torpy. @TVTorpy
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