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Drought widens over past week, unlikely to yield through October

The National Weather Service issued this map along with its Seasonal Drought Outlook on Thursday.

A double-barreled dose of bad news came out Thursday: Not only did the drought worsen over the last week, but it's likely to widen and intensify through the end of October, according to the seasonal outlook prepared by government forecasters.

"Unfortunately, all indicators (short and medium-term, August, and August-October) favor above normal temperatures," the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center said in its Seasonal Drought Outlook released Thursday

"We don't see a reason to say it will improve," Kelly Helm Smith, a specialist at the National Drought Mitigation Center, told reporters. "I'm in the Midwest," she said, referring to her office at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, "it's really unpleasant."

The outlook noted that "a dramatic shift in the weather pattern" would be required "to provide significant relief to this drought, and most tools and models do not forecast this."

Drought could take hold in the northern plains by October, the Climate Prediction Center added.

Moreover, last week saw a continued "downward spiral of drought conditions," according to the weekly Drought Monitor issued Thursday.

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Nearly 81 percent of the contiguous U.S. was "abnormally dry" or in drought, weather.com reported in analyzing the data, while 64 percent was in some degree of drought, up 3 percentage points from the previous week. About 42 percent was "severe" or worse.

The Weather Channel's Carl Parker reports on the worst drought in years, and the state of agriculture in the Midwest.

The monitor also noted these dire indicators for food production:

  • 38 percent of the U.S. corn crop was in "poor to very poor condition" -- up from 30 percent a week ago;
  • 30 percent of soybeans were in poor to very poor condition -- up from 27 percent. 
  • 54 percent of pastures and rangelands were in poor to very poor condition -- up from 50 percent and an all-time high since that measure began in 1995.  
  • Stream flows were at or near  record low values across much of the Midwest and parts of the central Plains, West, Southeast, and even parts of New England. 

Forecasters have called the drought the most widespread since 1956, though 1988 was worse in terms of crop losses due to an extremely dry year for the Midwest.

Experts said that could still change.

"It's too soon to know how much this one will cost" since farmers are still harvesting, Helm Smith told NBC News. 

"There's a possibility that this could get worse," added Jake Crouch, an expert at the National Climatic Data Center.

"It's something to keep an eye on in the next couple of weeks," he told NBC News.

The federal government on Wednesday added 39 more counties to its drought disaster list, speeding up low-cost loans for farmers and ranchers. That's now 1,297 counties across 29 states with access to those loans.

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The head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, said it was particularly painful for farmers because they planted for bumper crops, with many now instead potentially facing bankruptcy.

"Part of the problem we're facing is that weather conditions were so good at the beginning of the season that farmers got in the field early, and as a result this drought comes at a very difficult and painful time in their ability to have their crops have good yield," Vilsack told reporters Wednesday after briefing President Barack Obama on the drought. 

"I get on my knees everyday and I'm saying an extra prayer right now," he added. "If I had a rain prayer or a rain dance I could do, I would do it." 

R.J. Matson / Roll Call, Politicalcartoons.com

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