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Stubborn US drought could be costlier than hurricane Sandy

As drought conditions persist across the South, hitting farmers and ranchers, parts of the Mississippi River are on the verge of becoming unnavigable. The potential costs are large. 

By / December 7, 2012

Months of drought have exposed man-made dikes and large sandbars along the shoreline of the Mississippi River south of St. Louis.

Colby Buchanan/United States Coast Guard/AP

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Less than 18 months after the US Army Corps of Engineers blasted gaps in a levee on the Mississippi River to cope with a record flood, it's getting ready to detonate explosives for the opposite reason – to clear rock outcroppings on the bottom of the drought-depleted waterway so cargo can keep moving.

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"From one extreme to another in just the space of 12, 15, 16 months? It's just incredible," says Richard Heim, a drought specialist at the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C.

The time last year, the drought in the continental US was largely confined to the its southern tier. Since mid-July, however, between 60 and 65 percent of the continental US has been experiencing moderate-to-exceptional drought (though the figure slipped below 60 percent for two weeks in November), according to the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center in College Park, Md.

While forecasters expect some easing of drought conditions during the next three months in patches around perimeter the drought's vast core, drought is expected to persist or intensify from the Southwest up into the Rocky Mountain states.

Even in a year that saw hurricane Sandy, the drought could be the headline severe-weather event of 2012.

Initial estimates range from $60 billion to $100 billion, with a first official estimate from the US Department of Agriculture expected in February, says Steven Cain, a specialist with Purdue University's Agriculture Communications Service in West Lafayette, Ind.

By some estimates, Sandy inflicted at least $75 billion in damage.

So far, hurricane Katrina in 2005 tops the costly-weather-event list at about $108 billion. Still, Mr. Cain says, the country faces the prospect of dealing with what are likely to be two of the three most expensive weather-related disasters on record – in the same year.

"That's going to be an amazing recovery situation," Cain says.

In 2010 and 2011, the southern tier bore the brunt of drought conditions, thanks to back-to-back winters where La Niña held sway in the tropical Pacific. Over North America, a La Niña pattern tends to shove average storm tracks farther north than usual. Coming out of the winter of 2011-12, much of the US heartland saw virtually no snow cover – 14 percent of the continental US was covered in snow, compared with 56 percent in January 2010.

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