Last year was the year of the natural disaster, but when it comes to droughts, 2012 could outdo 2011.
With 14 separate weather events causing more than $1 billion in damage each, 2011 saw more disasters than any year since at least 1980, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. There were hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods, but the widespread drought in Texas last summer was the most costly of them all, amounting to $12 billion in damages. And while the cost of this year's even-larger drought has yet to be tallied, it is shaping up to be no less kind to the land or economy.
Last month was the third-driest June in NOAA's 118-year record, according to its June State of the Climate. And it was among the top 10 driest Junes in 11 states from the West to Ohio Valley.
The impact of severe weather is widespread, from farm losses to prices at the grocery store. Here's a visual tour of the drought's impact across the country:
For 10 consecutive weeks, drought conditions across the country have worsened, as documented in the video above. The redder the area, the worse the drought. (For a more detailed analysis, and state-by-state breakdown, see the U.S. Drought Monitor.)
"The primary corn and soybean agricultural belt has been especially hard hit by drought the last three months," the NOAA report found. "Topsoil has dried out and crops, pastures, and rangeland have deteriorated at a rate rarely seen in the last 18 years."
The extreme dryness is beginning to hit corn markets. In its weekly crop survey, the Agriculture Department reported the share of corn in "good to excellent" condition was 31 percent, less than half the amount in that condition at this time last year. The price of corn rose to an all-time high of $8.07 a bushel.
The U.S. produces more than half of the world's supply of corn. When its price spiked in 2007-2008, food riots erupted in more than 30 countries, and the number of chronically hungry people around the world surpassed 1 billion. Likewise, this summer's drought is stirring fears of a food crisis.
Agriculture.com reports "average [corn] yields are dropping daily and production estimates are quickly approaching levels that require serious rationing."
Facing higher prices for hay, ranchers are now selling off livestock to reduce herd sizes. This might decrease beef prices in the short run, since it will create a greater supply, but will increase them later as cattle herds shrink.
"We’re obviously going to need some help working with Congress to revive the disaster programs that were allowed to expire last year," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters on Wednesday.
So far, USDA's Farm Service Agency reports it has made 279 emergency disaster-relief loans, for a total of $28 million. The agency expects to make additional loans in the coming weeks.
The demand for water is increasing across the heartland, inciting municipalities to take action.
"All of Indiana is under a water-shortage warning, and many communities there have implemented mandatory restrictions," USA Today reports. "A water-shortage watch is in place for more than two dozen Kentucky counties, and Nebraska farmers have been ordered to stop using rivers and streams to irrigate their crops because of dropping water levels."
This satellite image of the heartland clearly shows the impact the weather has had on vegetation. Using 2002 data as a baseline, it marks what areas of the county now have ailing plant life. Browner areas had less vegetation than usual. Greener areas had more. White areas had an average amount.
It's not just corn and beef that are stressed due to drought. Grain prices are also rising, Agriculture.com reported.
This map shows the more than 1,000 counties that have been declared federal disaster areas, representing almost a third of all the counties in the U.S. and making it the largest disaster ever declared.
While the 2012 drought is the largest in 50 years, its consequences will be nowhere near as far-reaching as those of the 1940s' dust bowl. Agricultural practices have improved greatly since then, and we won't be seeing the massive roaming dust clouds that battered the Midwest and forced people from their homes.