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Drought of 2012: What you need to know

Published: Thursday, Aug. 16 2012 8:40 p.m. MDT

Joel Ferry stands on a section of his property where 300 cattle would normally be grazing but cannot due to the drought on Thursday, Aug. 16, 2012.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The unrelenting, unforgiving drought this summer is providing a flood of information about crop damage, record-breaking temperatures and huge sections of the United States withering under cloudless skies.

And a lot of it is confusing and seemingly contradictory. Headlines blaze one day that crops are decimated, but the next day the local news declares that Utah farmers' markets are enjoying a bumper crop this season.

Forecasters and water managers bemoan the dry, hot spells, and in the next instant, a sudden thunderstorm leads to flooding. Is it dry and is there too little water, and should one wish for rain or wish it away?

Here are a few key things to know about the drought of 2012:

How bad is it really?

It's bad. All of Utah's 29 counties are on the drought disaster list, with 45 percent of the state's rangeland rated as "poor" or "very poor" in terms of vegetation.

Nearly 62 percent of the contiguous United States, in fact, is drought-designated, and that is a number that has dipped since late July, thanks to some storms that moved through other parts of the country.

When more than 50 percent of the country was declared drought-stricken in July, it was the largest area in the country under siege to those conditions since 1956 — hence "the worst drought in more than 50 years," declared in headlines across the United States and elsewhere in the word.

As it stands now, 71 percent of the U.S. cattle inventory, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is in drought-impacted areas, while 72 percent of the nation's soybean production and 73 percent of its corn production are suffering the effects of drought.

See 5 areas being hit by the drought in the United States

Brian McInerney, hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City, said the dry and hot conditions are the worst since the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s, playing out in parched fields, dried-up streams and lands ravaged by wildfires throughout the West.

The National Climatic Data Center, the world's largest active record keeper of all things weather, doesn't predict that things will get better any time soon for much of the country, with warmer, drier than normal weather patterns continuing to dominate well into the fall.

How hot is it really?

That national data gathering center on weather reported that July was the hottest month on record, period, in the United States, and globally those searing temperatures were duplicated in several other countries.

But going back 12 months in the United States, it was the hottest ever, according to the record keepers, and records were shattering nonstop. In 32 states, July temperatures were among the top 10 on record.

See 5 of the worst droughts in the United States

Salt Lake City International Airport was already logging abnormally high temperatures back in late April, when a 78-year-old record was shattered with a daytime high of 88. This month, it has been about 4 degrees higher than normal, and August is already a typically hot month.

Will the drought drive up the cost of food?

Yes and no. Some early Utah-grown crops, like fruit and other produce, in areas along the Wasatch Front where there is reservoir-stored water available have been doing fine, according to the Utah Farm Bureau.

The prices of those goods should see little fluctuation. Beef may actually decrease a little bit because a record number of cattle are hitting the market due to lack of feed.

"Ranches are getting rid of the herds," said John Hilton, director of the National Agricultural Statistics Service's Utah Field Office.

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