By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
On June 22, 11 cities broke their previous records for high temperatures. Minneapolis reached 101 degrees Fahrenheit, beating its 1993 record of 88 degrees. Extreme heat accompanies extreme drought.
Last week, the United States faced its third straight week of high temperatures, with several cities breaking all-time records. In the Great Lakes region, several areas reached daytime highs more than 20 degrees hotter than average. In the South, the Atlanta Zoo closed early on June 22 and 23. To make matters worse, there seems to be no end in sight.
Extreme heat like this is part of a chain reaction that also includes drought and potentially millions of acres of wasted crops in the United States alone. In his video series The Science of Extreme Weather, Professor Eric Snodgrass, Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, explains the immediate and far-reaching dangers of extreme heat.
The Proof Is in the Midwest
Extreme heat can cause massive problems in all 50 states. Professor Snodgrass mentioned the repercussions faced in the Midwest.
“Summer heat and precipitation must be monitored and forecast well in Illinois, Iowa, and Indiana, due to the intensive agriculture in these states,” he said. “[In July 2012,] when the rain stopped and the heat built across these states, millions of acres of corn and beans suffered. July is the most crucial month for the growth of corn; if daytime soars above 97 degrees Fahrenheit or nighttime lows stay above 75 degrees, the corn expends too much energy through respiration.”
When this happens, corn stops its reproductive efforts in order to survive. Those reproductive efforts involve filling the corn stalk’s ear with corn. Corn is so heavily traded that changes in its price are as important as changes in the price of oil.
“Heat—extreme heat—often accompanies extreme drought,” Professor Snodgrass said. “July 1995 brought record heat to the center United States. Air temperatures soared above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, while dewpoint temperatures approached record levels in the middle 80s.”
How long do droughts last? Unfortunately, there’s no clear-cut way of answering. Professor Snodgrass said that some droughts only last a few weeks—a 2015 Texas drought lasted 60 days—while others never end. The United States has suffered three droughts that changed the nation forever.
“During the drought of 1988, part of the [Yellowstone] forest caught fire and the vast majority of the forest was destroyed,” he said. “The corn belt was particularly hit hard as yields were cut in half for the United States. Barge traffic along the Mississippi River reduced dramatically as the hydrological aspect of this drought reduced the flow of the river.”
Damage from the 1988 drought cost more than $80 billion USD, after adjusting for inflation.
The second driest decade in U.S. history was the 1950s, which brought with it a terrible and long-lasting drought in Texas. According to Professor Snodgrass, persistent “ridging” of the jet stream in the central United States kept regular thunderstorm activity at bay. For a time, 244 of Texas’s 254 counties were declared federal disaster areas.
The worst drought in history, and perhaps the best-known, happened in the 1930s. The Dust Bowl was at least partially caused by humans. Poor land management, deforestation, and unwise farming techniques played a part in exacerbating a situation that already included long-lasting heat waves in 1934, 1936, and 1939. Blizzards of dirt blocked the Sun out for hours at a time and the journal Weather Wise called it the worst meteorological disaster in the 20th century.