Drought conditions persist and worsen in Great Plains and beyond

Dust driven by wind storms across the Dakotas is eerily reminiscent of the Dust Bowl years nearly a century ago; current drought conditions give farmers and ranchers cause for concern about the upcoming growing season. Photo by Ruth Wiechmann

Dust driven by wind storms across the Dakotas is eerily reminiscent of the Dust Bowl years nearly a century ago; current drought conditions give farmers and ranchers cause for concern about the upcoming growing season.

While the warmer than average winter has had its benefits, it has also set the area up for a precarious situation going into the spring and summer. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem have both recently declared a State of Emergency due to the dry conditions and high fire danger in their states.

The United States Drought Monitor continues to indicate a critical lack of moisture for much of the Great Plains. March snowstorms brought a bit of relief to some areas but forecasted warmer and drier than normal conditions for the foreseeable future stand poised to suck the soil dry again.

Adnan Akyuz, North Dakota state climatologist at North Dakota State University, says that it is unusual for North Dakota to be so dry this time of year.

“This extreme level of drought is unusual,” he said. “Our Drought Severity and Coverage Index is sitting at 331 right now, the highest on record since 2000. This does make it look like we are in the worst drought, but we are just looking at one facet of the data in the DSCI. We also need to consider the accumulated impact of drought over time. Based on the accumulated DSCI the current conditions follow the drought of 2002-05, 2017-18, 2008-09, 2012-13, and 2006-07. However, we have to keep in mind that the growing season has just started and the impact will accumulate.”

Akyuz is concerned for the long term, with 47 percent of the state experiencing Extreme Drought (D3) and 100 percent of North Dakota in Moderate Drought (D1) or higher according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. He said that the lack of the usual snow cover through the past winter is significant.


“Last winter played a very different role,” he said. “Usually, precipitation in the form of snow comes in October and stays through March or April. Last winter, instead of the sun reflecting off the snow, the sun heated the soil since there was no snow on the ground. As the sun got higher in the sky the dry soil warmed up faster. This was a factor in our warmer than normal winter. It was so warm that evaporation of soil moisture was not negligible. This is the first time since 2017 that we’ve seen severe drought conditions in December.”

It’s hard not to enjoy unseasonably warm temperatures, but it doesn’t bode well for diminishing the drought.

“We recently set a record high in Fargo of 77 degrees,” Akyuz said. “While we were enjoying the temperature 30 degrees above our normal high of 46 for this time of year, we could feel the wind picking up. It was like a sandblast on our faces, and I made a joke to my wife that this might be dust from Golden Valley and Billings counties on the western side of the state. But it’s no joke. Normally we experience blizzards this time of year with winds like we had last week. A blizzard is tough, but it’s temporary; this drought looks like it will have a long-term impact.”

It’s a perfect storm, and it’s turning into dust storms across the area. Akyuz said that extension agents across North Dakota sent him photos following recent wind storms clocking gusts up to 79 miles per hour that are reminiscent of the photos of dirt drifts from the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had a drought that compares with the ‘Dirty Thirties,'” he said. “There was no significant precipitation to mitigate that drought for a decade. The 1930 drought was finally over in 1941 with precipitation that year adding up to the wettest growing season on record for North Dakota. We’re not there yet but I don’t see a significant change in weather patterns coming soon.”

Akyuz said that in spite of their severity, current conditions do not match the intensity of Exceptional Drought (D4) conditions seen in 2006 and 2017, nor the extended periods of drought seen in the 1950s and in the six-year drought spanning 1987-1992.

Cows try to eat their hay before it blows away while a dust storm obscures the horizon. North and South Dakota, are experiencing severe drought conditions, along with many surrounding states.Photo by Ruth Wiechmann

“When you look at the accumulated impact of those years, we are not anywhere near those memorable drought periods yet,” he said. “But the only reason for that may be that we’re not in our growing season yet so we don’t have the effects on crops and pastureland in our data, and we do not know how long the drought will last.”

Akyuz explained that the drought feeds on itself as dry conditions breed continued dry weather.

“Drier weather causes warmer weather, and warmer weather exacerbates the dry conditions,” he said. “When air warms it becomes positively buoyant, and the warming air creates high pressure systems that discourage oncoming weather patterns from forming. The term for this is ‘positive feedback’ although there’s nothing positive about it. The extended forecast predictions indicate that we’re likely to stay locking into this pattern for a while.”


A mid-March snowstorm brought some relief to areas of southern South Dakota, much of Wyoming and Nebraska, but Tony Bergantino, climatologist at the University of Wyoming, is concerned that the benefit could be short lived.

“It gave us a shot in the arm,” he said. “It was pretty bad before the event, and the snowfall really helped. But we’ve already lost a lot on the plains where it has melted off and is beginning to evaporate. We’ve seen some of the moisture from the melt go into the soil but the winds are really bad for sucking the beneficial moisture out of the ground. In the short term we are seeing some improvements, but we still have long term concerns.”

While Wyoming tends to be on the dry side, and Bergantino says that drought is certainly not unprecedented, he sees current conditions and predictions for the coming months pointing to below normal precipitation and above normal temperatures.

“I’m hoping for more moisture,” he said, “But it looks like we could see something similar to the 2012 drought or the dry years in the early 2000s. One thing that helped us in 2012 early on was that we were coming off a year of really good snowpack which helped fill the reservoirs. So we were in better shape going into 2012. 2020 was not good at all so we have a double whammy going into 2021.”

“We are still not fully realizing the accumulated impact of this drought,” said Akyuz. “It is significant because we are really not even to the beginning of our growing season yet. Technically that starts April 1, although planting dates across North Dakota typically start around April 15 depending on the crop, and the grazing season starts in mid-May. Once we see how the dry weather impacts our crops and forages we will have a more complete picture of the impact of this drought.”

Laura Edwards, South Dakota State University’s Extension state climatologist in Aberdeen, said that parts of the northern tier of South Dakota counties have seen no measurable precipitation in March, when moisture amounts normally start to increase in the state.

“Harding County through Edmunds and McPherson counties had little to no moisture in March,” she said. “We are seeing conditions close to what we had in 2012 and early 2013. Western South Dakota experienced some serious drought conditions in 2016-17, but this drought is concerning because of how much area it covers. Typically, April, May and June are some of our wettest months, but the long-range forecast is indicating that we are likely to experience continued above-average temperatures and below-normal precipitation through the spring and through June, July and August. We’ve just had the 22nd warmest and 21st driest winter (December through February) on record since 1895 and the drought concerns are increased by the indications that we are headed into a warmer and drier than normal summer.”

Edwards is hopeful that the area could see some precipitation in April but said that the state has a long way to go to alleviate the extent of this drought.

“Producers are really going to rely on timely rainfall this growing season,” she said. “We always have some hot and dry weeks in the summer, but this year could see a longer period of hot, dry weather. Water sources for livestock will be an additional concern, and producers should contact their local extension agents for help with water testing and drought contingency planning.”

SDSU Extension is starting a webinar series for drought in April. Producers can follow this link for more information: Further webinars will likely be scheduled for upcoming months.


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