Dust Bowls and Hurricanes

By: Mike Shedlock | Wed, Mar 8, 2006
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Accu-Weather meteorologists are asking Is America facing yet another dust bowl?

Accu-Weather.com meteorologists have warned oceanic conditions similar to those that triggered the ruinous "Dust Bowl" drought again appear to be in place. Conditions similar to those that led to 1930s drought.

The exceptionally warm Atlantic waters that played a major role in the record-breaking 2005 hurricane season, coupled with cooler-than-normal Pacific waters, are weakening and changing the course of a low-level jet stream that normally channels moisture into the Great Plains.

Effects are starting to be felt in "America's breadbasket," as the southern Great Plains region is already suffering from higher temperatures and a prolonged lack of precipitation.

Why could a new Dust Bowl drought occur?

The low-level jet stream -- a fast-moving current of winds close to the Earth's surface -- travels from east to west across the Atlantic, then typically curves northward as it crosses the Gulf of Mexico, bringing moisture to the Great Plains.

Abnormal sea-surface temperatures have caused this low-level jet stream to continue westward and to weaken, which is preventing much-needed moisture from reaching the agriculturally critical region.

The shift in the jet stream is also allowing a southerly flow from Mexico to bring much drier air northward into the Plains.

Besides dramatically reducing precipitation for the region, the changes brought about by the abnormal sea-surface temperatures will also result in higher surface temperatures in the Plains.

"When surfaces are wet, energy from solar radiation both evaporates moisture and heats the ground," said AccuWeather.com Chief Meteorologist Elliot Abrams. "When no moisture is present, all that energy is channeled toward heating the ground, and the warm-er ground heats the lower atmosphere.

"The combination of low moisture and higher temperatures would be a crippling one-two punch for the Great Plains should these conditions persist, much like what occurred during the Dust Bowl drought."

The Dust Bowl drought

The Dust Bowl, which lasted from 1931-1939, was a severe drought that struck a wide swath of the Great Plains.

It was a catastrophic blow to the U.S. economy, which was already staggering under the weight of the Great Depression.

The Dust Bowl was the worst drought in U.S. history, eventually covering more than 75 percent of the country.

Solar radiation heating the parch-ed and blighted land caused temperatures in the region to rise to record-breaking levels.

"1936 was the hottest summer ever recorded across much of the Midwest and East," said Abrams. "Many of the single-day and monthly record-high temperatures across the eastern two-thirds of the country are from that year."

The Dust Bowl was also noted for the huge dust storms that billowed across the Great Plains and swallowed millions of acres of farmland at a time. While a Dust Bowl-level drought could occur again, it is highly unlikely that the nation will see a return of the dust storms.

"The dust storms fed off the over-plowed and over-grazed lands of the Great Plains," said Dale Mohler, AccuWeather.com expert senior meteorologist and a forecaster for the agricultural industry.

"The agricultural practices at the time, combined with a long period of drought, caused severe damage to farmland in the region. Eventually the topsoil dried up to the point where it was swept away as great clouds of choking dust that stretched for miles."

Continued Mohler, "Today's agricultural practices, such as crop rotation and improved irrigation, as well as drought-resistant hybrid crops, would likely prevent the landscape from being as ruined as it was during the 1930s.

For example, Illinois endured a terrible drought in 2005, but the state's corn yield was close to normal. However, a multiyear drought in the Great Plains would still be devastating for the nation."

The hurricane connection

"It is not a coincidence that the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s were marked by years of tremendous hurricane activity," said AccuWeather.com Hur-ricane Center Chief Forecaster Joe Bastardi.

"For example, the record-shattering 2005 hurricane season was the first to eclipse 1933 in number of tropical cyclones, and that may only have been because we didn't have satellites in the 1930s to identify the major storms that failed to reach the U.S. coast."

Hurricanes are fed by warm waters. This year's warm Atlantic waters -- which are now setting up a possible major drought in the U.S. -- played a major role in the 2005 season's numerous and powerful storms.

Conversely, because the Pacific has been relatively cool -- another prerequisite for the return of a Dust Bowl-like drought -- this year's Pacific hurricane season was tame from historical perspective.

Added Bastardi, "While we cannot yet tell how long this current pattern will last, if you trust history, then the 2005 hurricane season just may portend the return of a major drought to the Great Plains."

Drought Resistant Corn

Today's corn and soybean crops however, are far more drought resistant than varieties even as recent as 10 years ago. Currently corn inventories are near record levels even in the face of last years' mild drought.

An October 30th 2005 article in the DesMoines Register called Corn crop liked it hot states high yields prove today's seeds tolerate drought far better than farmers ever expected.

Across the Corn Belt, farmers are finding that last year's exceptional yields were no fluke. As they finish the fall harvest, many are reporting high-yielding corn and soybean crops -- even in areas where excessive heat and prolonged dryness last summer diminished yield expectations.


View looking straight down on a huge corn pile in Jefferson.

Crop experts credit farm management practices, timely rains and luck for the production of what are expected to be the second-largest U.S. corn and soybean crops ever. For instance, farmers do far less tillage, which helps preserve soil moisture.

But growers, agronomists and market analysts also point to crop genetic improvements, particularly increased drought tolerance, as a key to this year's unexpected bounty.

"There is no doubt that we have to thank the corn breeders for getting the kind of corn yields we have gotten this year, despite the drought," said Palle Pedersen, an Iowa State University Extension agronomist.

Kan Wang, a plant molecular biologist at Iowa State in Ames, agreed that genetic improvements are the main contributor to increased yields. But she also said that corn's full potential is much higher than today's highest yields. One of the biggest barriers is environmental stress.

"The potential is there, but we are hampered by all of these factors we have no way to control," said Wang, whose research includes the study of abiotic stresses, such as drought, on crops.

This fall, many farmers in eastern and southeastern Iowa, areas hit hard by drought last summer, have harvested dismal yields. But many also have seen wide variation, with some reporting corn yields of more than 150 bushels per acre. In Illinois, the epicenter of this year's drought, the harvest has yielded similar reports. In addition, 2005 soybean yields surged past previous projections throughout the Midwest, especially in Iowa, where farmers have harvested their largest soybean crop ever, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Mark Carlton is an Iowa State Extension field crop specialist whose territory covers eight southeastern Iowa counties.

"I was totally surprised at the yields that were coming in, both corn and soybeans," Carlton said. "I think corn hybrids are just bred to stand more stress than they were 15, 20 years ago."

He had predicted that Henderson could expect to harvest 125 bushels per acre. But that was before early August, when rain fell on the farmer's fields -- about six inches over 10 days.

"That corn turned green after it rained," Henderson said. "I don't think I'd ever seen that -- corn turning green after it had turned brown."

Like many growers, Henderson credits genetic improvements with the crop's performance.

"I think the genetics are the main thing," he said. "If we were planting the same genetics we planted years ago, we probably wouldn't have anything."

Then again a one year drought that received some timely rain and a prolonged 5-6 drought just might be another thing altogether. If this is indeed the start of prolonged weather shift it will affect the hurricane states, gulf of Mexico gas and oil capacity, and it certainly will not help the drawdown of the water table in the central plains, Arizona, and Nevada.

Because farming practices are different, however, out and out dust bowl storms may not be likely. Nonetheless the economic consequences of a prolonged drought would no doubt increase tensions over water rights as well as call to question our practice of foolishly watering the desert to grow crops and golf courses where neither really belongs.

Hurricane Damage Predictions

MSNBC is reporting U.S. storm forecasters raise damage predictions.

Burned in 2005, modelers expect higher costs in coming years. After failing to predict how costly Hurricane Katrina would be last year, companies forecasting catastrophes are now saying U.S. damage from large storms will rise as much as 60 percent in some regions in coming years.

This boost in anticipated hurricane losses could also push the cost of insuring coastal areas much higher and have serious implications for the insurance industry.

"Some companies (buying insurance) may be stunned by how much rates will go up," said James Auden, an insurance analyst with Fitch Ratings. Insurers are also seeking to raise premiums for home owners.

Storm modeler Risk Management Solutions said hurricanes could cause 50 percent more damage in the future.

Eqecat, another catastrophe forecaster, expects the storm loss potential for the Atlantic and Gulf coasts to rise by 20 percent to 30 percent and costs in Florida could surge 50 percent to 60 percent.

As expectations for losses rise, insurers will have to retain more capital to pay for them, said industry analysts.

Higher water temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere are expected to increase the number and size of storms for the next 10 or 15 years. At the same time, increased development of coastal areas is magnifying the damage when storms hit.

"We are increasing our view of the likelihood of severe hurricanes and the severity of the loss in the event of those hurricanes," said Hemant Shah, chief executive of RMS.

Catastrophe 'twice as likely' Tom Larsen, senior vice president of Eqecat, said: "There's no guarantee of a catastrophic event, but it is twice as risky as it was a year ago," he said.

Hurricane Katrina, which caused the inundation of New Orleans, was the nation's most costly disaster ever, with more than $40 billion of insured losses.

Prepare for Hurricanes

The US hurricane center chief says Prepare now for coming storms.

Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, is warning coastal residents to prepare right now for the hurricane season that begins June 1.

The next season may be worse than the past two, which resulted in an increase in the number and intensity of hurricanes that hit U.S. shores. The reasons: a historic cycle, the advent of La Nina -- unusually cold Pacific Ocean temperatures that spawn more hurricanes in the Atlantic -- and, possibly, global warming or other environmental causes.

Mayfield's team and the National Weather Service were the only federal agencies praised by a recent congressional report on the government's response to Hurricane Katrina. "Many who escaped the storm's wrath owe their lives to these agencies' accuracy," the report said.

Mayfield, 57, discusses the tragedy of Katrina and other extreme weather that may be coming.

Question: Hurricane Katrina has been called a 100-year storm, something so rare that it would only occur once a century. But could another Katrina develop soon?

Answer: Absolutely yes. And the message from the National Hurricane Center is very consistent. We are urging every individual, every business, every community to have a hurricane plan and have it in place now before the hurricane season gets here. Everybody on the Atlantic Coast, the Gulf Coast and the Caribbean.

Q: What about La Nina?

A: We don't know yet. It's too early to tell. La Nina means that we have more and stronger hurricanes in the Atlantic. We don't know if (La Nina) is going to last into peak hurricane season yet.

Q: What happens if another hurricane hits the Gulf Coast?

A: There's special concern now with the people living in Mississippi and southeast Louisiana. Many are living in trailers and tents. They're going to need a longer lead time to evacuate. They need to know, those people who are in temporary housing, they need to know right now where they would go because another hurricane is very, very possible.

Are Hurricanes Related to Global Warming?

Environmental Magazine is asking Stormy Weather: Can We Link it to Global Warming?

E's Jennifer Vogel took on the subject of global warming and hurricanes in the May/June issue this year: "There are a number of factors that go into making hurricanes," says Ruth Curry, research specialist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Those factors include El Niño cycles, upper stratospheric circulation patterns and the amount of rainfall in the Sahel region of Africa. Sometimes they combine to create conditions ripe for hurricanes and sometimes they work against each other. The 2004 hurricane season is primarily attributed to alignment of these three critical elements.

"The general scientific consensus on climate change and hurricanes is this: Hurricanes won't necessarily become more frequent, but they will become more intense. While ocean and atmospheric circulation is the engine of a hurricane, heat is the fuel. 'In order to form, a hurricane must have ocean temperature of at least 80 degrees down to a depth of 164 feet,' says Curry. 'Sea surface temperatures all over the tropics are running 1.8 to 3.6 degrees above normal. This is due to global warming.' Thus, when other factors line up to form a storm, a warmer ocean means it will be all the more powerful and destructive."

And that is indeed what some scientists are now saying (though others remain skeptical). Katrina was one of the strongest hurricanes ever encountered in the Gulf of Mexico, and it wasn't alone. A study in the July issue of Nature reported that large tropical storms have increased by 50 percent in both the Atlantic and Pacific over the past 30 years. "These have been linked to rises in the temperatures of the ocean surfaces and warmer air temperatures," said the Times of London's online edition.

Kerry Emmanuel, an atmospheric researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the author of the Nature paper, told Scripps Howard News Service this week, "The intensity of hurricanes depends both on how much heat can be transferred from the ocean to the atmosphere--which depends on the temperature of the ocean--and on how high air rising in the eyewall can go. This depends on the temperature profile of the atmosphere." Emmanual added, "Future warming may lead to an upward trend in tropical cyclone destructive potential, and, taking into account an increasing coastal population [also] led to a substantial increase in hurricane-related losses in the 21st century."

NOAA simulations indicate that global warming over the next 80 years could increase hurricane wind speeds an average of five to 10 percent, which means a jump of half a category in hurricane-intensity measurement. According to the Los Angeles Times, "Hurricane activity in the Atlantic has been higher than normal in nine of the last 11 years, said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. [In August], the agency raised its already-high hurricane forecast for this year to 18 to 21 tropical storms, including as many as 11 that would become hurricanes and five to seven that would reach major-hurricane status. That could make 2005 one of the most violent hurricane seasons ever recorded. A typical storm year in the Atlantic results in six hurricanes."

The behavior of the jet stream is also seen as a key factor in exacerbating the effects of storms. Wayne Elliott, a forecaster in the Meteorological Office in Exeter, England, notes that the stream did not come as far south as it was expected to do last fall, resulting in drought in Iberia and an unsettled northern Europe. "Such behavior is consistent with predictions by scientists who argue the climate is changing," Elliott said. "Global warming could be the key."

There have been a series of unusual weather events in the U.S., too. In a Boston Globe op-ed piece, Boiling Point author Ross Gelbspan wrote that anomalies this year included a two-foot snowfall in Los Angeles, a severe drought in the Midwest that dropped water levels in the Missouri River to their lowest on record, and a lethal heat wave in Arizona that killed more than 20 people in one week with temperatures over 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

"The hurricane that struck Louisiana yesterday was nicknamed Katrina by the National Weather Service," Gelbspan wrote. "Its real name is global warming...Unfortunately, very few people in America know the real name of Hurricane Katrina because the coal and oil industries have spent millions of dollars to keep the public in doubt about the issue."

La Nina

Space Daily reports Envisat Detects La Nina Beginning

The Pacific as observed by ESA's satellite Envisat on 19th February 2006.

Shifts [in global atmospheric circulation patterns] will affect the position and weaken the intensity of the global jet streams and the behavior of storms occurring beyond the tropics in both hemispheres. There should be a summer decrease in hurricane activity in the eastern tropical North Pacific, and a corresponding increase in the number of hurricanes in the tropical North Atlantic.

Whether or not one chooses to believe global warming is the culprit, there is a reasonable amount of evidence to suggest that another bad hurricane season is coming up along with a summer drought in the crop belt. Insurance rates seem to be headed higher in the Florida condo belt. That will certainly not help the horrendous negative cash flows on rental properties in the hurricane zone, nor will dust bowls or drought help real estate values in the desert. Most of the public it seems does not like golfing in a continuous sand trap. How well crop yields hold up is another factor.

Weather Predictions

Then again predictions are one thing what happens is another.

I leave you with Mark Twain: On Weather and Climate.

Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens) has often been quoted as saying: "Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it." (although it appears his collaborator on The Gilded Age, Charles Dudley Warner, actually wrote the statement).


 

Mike Shedlock

Author: Mike Shedlock

Mike Shedlock / Mish
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Mike Shedlock

Michael "Mish" Shedlock is a registered investment advisor representative for SitkaPacific Capital Management. Visit http://www.sitkapacific.com/ to learn more about wealth management for investors seeking strong performance with low volatility.

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