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The Impact of a Record Drought in 2005
on Illinois Farmers

JEFFREY MUNIZ

Heavy rainfall with flooding rivers and streams greeted residents in Illinois with the start of 2005. This was the exact opposite of what was to come during this historic weather year. Early that Spring, the sky and soil quickly dried up over Illinois. The "Land of Lincoln" ended up experiencing its worst drought since 1988 and one of the three worst dry spells in the 112-years of official record keeping in Illinois (Angel et al. 2006).

This extreme dry spell did sneak up on farmers just as their growing season got underway. Still, some growers, especially in the southern and eastern sections of the state, were able to tap into timely rains from the remnants of a record-breaking Atlantic hurricane season. These soakings saved some crops while other fields just a few miles away were left hanging dry.

After the sixth wettest January since 1895, the drought started to take shape in March of 2005 (Angel et al. 2006). A dry planting season left many farmers with few complaints as their corn seeds were quickly sown. However, the dry conditions lingered through the entire Spring. The National Weather Service in Lincoln reports the time from March to June of 2005 as being the 2nd driest on record in the state, with the driest on record in the Peoria area.

By the dog days of summer, the drought only got worse. The U.S. Drought Monitor classified much of the state from Peoria and Northwest as experiencing a Category 3 or "Extreme Drought".

While rainfall was nearly non-existent, above normal temperatures helped the depth of this drought. Adding insult to injury, the Peoria Airport reported a 13-day stretch in July with temperatures in the 90's and two days topping 100F. Temperatures during this time typically top out at 86F. This extreme heat came at a critical time where farmers were crying for rain and cooler temperatures to hopefully keep some moisture from evaporating. Overall, the National Weather Service in Lincoln ranks 2005 as the 12th warmest year since 1895.

There were no obvious warning signs a drought was ready to grab hold of Illinois. As earlier stated, January 2005 was one of the wettest on record. Plus, 2004 reported an inch above average precipitation and temperatures slightly below normal. This produced record harvests for corn and soybean farmers according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The U.S. National Weather Service defines a drought as a period of abnormally dry weather, which persists long enough to produce a serious hydrologic imbalance.

In Climatology: An Atmospheric Science, the authors write, "droughts have different meanings depending on the users demands" (Oliver and Hidore 177). A meteorological drought is irregular as it can last from months to years and when water supplies fall "unusually far below" the climatologic norm. An agricultural drought exists when "soil moisture is so depleted as to affect plant growth" (177). The drought of 2005 could be classified under both criteria in Illinois.

One of the main difficulties in forecasting droughts is that they are long-term in nature and can take weeks to even months before being classified as such. Also, one heavy rainfall can sustain an area with soil moisture for a long time. This is what happened with hurricane remnants in 2005 for much of the Midwest excluding the Peoria area. Also, droughts can feed themselves by drying out soil moisture and thus creating even warmer temperatures in drier air. When the soil moisture is depleted, it also makes it difficult for fronts to kick off showers and storms as the air is so dry in the low levels.

The problem in getting precipitation to Illinois and much of the Midwest in 2005 was a slight shift in the global circulation. Illinois gets most of its moisture and rainfall coming up the Gulf of Mexico off the backside of the Bermuda High. First, the Bermuda High was located further east in the Atlantic Ocean than normal (Maps 1 and Angel et al. 2006). Second, the clockwise rotation around that High proved to not be as strong in 2005 with weaker low-level winds. Thus, the warm, moist air that creates many spring and summer showers and storms was weaker and farther to the east of Illinois than typical.

The drastic difference between an average wind pattern and the 2005 pattern is easily indicated on the 850 mb chart (Maps 2-3 and Angel et al. 2006). There were very few if any baroclinic surface low-pressure systems that moved through Peoria or even Illinois during the Spring and Summer of 2005 due to the wind flow. In the summer months, the bulk of the rainfall typically tracks in from the southwest and Texas area. In 2005, that track shifted further north through Minnesota and Wisconsin leaving the Peoria area very dry. The Illinois Water Survey found that the five driest springs in the last half-century had a similar atmospheric set up as that in 2005 (Angel et al. 2006).

Not all was lost for farmers as the Gulf Coast's calamity turned into the Midwest's fortune. A very active hurricane season led to four storms sweeping up the Gulf of Mexico and making their way into the southern and eastern half of Illinois and the Midwest. This was the first time the remnants of four named-storms made their way through Illinois in one year (Angel et al. 2006).

Not only were there a number of storms, but they also came at key times and spaced four to six weeks apart. The remains of Tropical Storm Arlene in the middle of June followed by Hurricane Dennis a month later, Hurricane Katrina in late August and Hurricane Rita at the end of September. The storms tracked up the Mississippi River Valley and then to the east following the Ohio River. This meant a big discrepancy across the state. Some locations in Southern Illinois, like the Carbondale area, received 8 inches of rain. Meanwhile, people just west of Peoria only received about an inch worth of rainfall (Angel et al. 2006).

These rains ultimately made this drought much less severe on a wide-scale pattern across the Corn Belt of the Midwest. Some locations in southern Illinois were not even classified in drought conditions by harvest time. The Peoria area and northwest to approximately the Mississippi River, was in a Category 2 "Severe Drought" through the beginning of 2006. Nearly all of Illinois including Peoria was free of the drought by the growing season in May of 2006.

According to the University of Illinois Farmdoc Publication (2005), this timely rainfall for other sections of the Corn Belt did not help the small segment of drought-stricken farmers, mainly the Peoria area and northwest to the Mississippi River, by raising prices. Instead, most of the state, mainly east and south of Peoria, reported average to slightly above average harvests. A solid supply, along with the help of a record 2004 crop, kept grain prices from going up like in typical drought years where less supply and more demand will drive up the market. In the hot, dry summer of 1995, the Heartland Institute reports corn prices doubled under duress (Ragir 2005).

In a decade, a lot has changed with farming in terms of the seed that is planted. Farmers are now using hybrids or what is called biotechnology-produced seeds. These seeds are specially engineered to help weather about anything from droughts to pests. Farmers that were concerned about a lingering drought into 2006 ended up purchasing drought-resistant biotech corn for the next growing season (Ragir 2005).

As one farmer stated in the Ragir article, "Weather is becoming less important, but it still is the most important." In the meantime, farmers will continue to keep a close eye on forecasters hoping they notice the subtle shifts with the atmospheric conditions like the Bermuda High. Early notification of this or any shifts may influence a farmer to use a more drought resistant seed when planting so they can have a more productive and profitable fall harvest. Since these severe droughts only occur every 20 years or so, it is good to have the average global circulation maps handy so forecasters can quickly identify situations where there are slight shifts in the wind fields. Then, forecasters can use maps from these handful of drought years and see if a similar situation is setting up for the Midwest. The 2005 drought taught forecasters that these slight shifts can make all the difference in early notification of a drought even if the area is coming off a year with plentiful rain.

Works Cited:

Angel, J.R., S.A. Changnon, R. Claybrooke, S.D. Hilberg, H.V. Knapp, K.E.
Kunkel, R.S. Larson, M. Palecki, R.W. Scott, and D. Winstanley, 2006: The 2005 Illinois Drought.
[Available online at http://www.sws.uiuc.edu/pubdoc/IEM/ISWSIEM2006-03.pdf.]

National Weather Service in Lincoln, Illinois, 2007:
[Available online at http://www.weather.gov/climate/local_data.php?wfo=ilx.]

Oliver, J.E., J.H. Hidore, 2002: Climatology: An Atmospheric Science, 2nd.
Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Inc.

Ragir, A.V., 01 Dec 2005: Biotechnology Beat Drought in 2005. The Heartland Institute.
[Available online at http://www.heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=18123.]

University of Illinois, 30 Aug 2005: 2005 and 2006 Crop Budgets: Implications for
Cash Rents and Production Decisions. Farmdoc.
[Available online at http://www.farmdoc.uiuc.edu/manage/newsletters/fefo05_16/fefo05_16.html.]