Drought in the Great Plains and Midwest is getting more intense, federal report shows

A drought in the Great Plains and the Midwest has quickly grown in its size and severity in the last month, according to an update released Wednesday by the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS). Currently, 60% of the North Central U.S. is in “moderate to exceptional drought” with 30% in “severe drought or worse” according to NIDIS, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The worst-hit areas include Kansas, where 30% of the state is in exceptional drought, and Nebraska, which is 12% in exceptional drought. Smaller parts of Colorado, Missouri and South Dakota are as badly affected.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife ordered an emergency public fish salvage for Queens Reservoir in Kiowa County due to declining water levels related to drought conditions on July 21, 2022 in Eads, Colorado. (RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Drought conditions in July forced the state of Colorado to order an emergency public fish salvage for Queens Reservoir. (RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/Denver Post via Getty Images)

While the entire Midwest has been in a worsening drought for months, the western portions of the region — the Missouri River Basin and the Great Plains — have been hit the hardest. Water has dropped to “record low levels” on the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio rivers, NIDIS reported, which has impeded boats and shipping. In total, 86% of the North Central U.S. is “abnormally dry” or worse.

“Over the last four weeks, many areas, particularly across the Midwest, have worsened by at least one drought category on the U.S. Drought Monitor and in some areas by two to three categories,” NIDIS reported in its update. “Drought has intensified most rapidly across southern Missouri, Kentucky, southern Illinois, southern Indiana, and northern Iowa.”

The water scarcity is causing dried-out soil — a major problem for the famously agricultural region, sometimes called “America’s breadbasket.” Last Saturday, Agence-France Presse reported that farmers in Kansas and Nebraska are “seeing crop yields in freefall, with some fields too damaged to harvest.” The Department of Agriculture recently lowered its projected yields of wheat, corn and soybeans.

"[Farmers] who are in their 70s and 80s are saying, you know, they haven’t even experienced anything like this in their lifetime,” Marc Ramsey, whose family has farmed in western Kansas for a century, told AFP. “So it's pretty bad."

A farmer harvests soybeans near Wyatt, Mo.
A farmer harvests soybeans near Wyatt, Mo. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Droughts are increasingly common and more severe because of climate change, as warmer air causes greater evaporation and precipitation is affected by extremes of drought and heavy rain. The Midwestern drought has become worse in the last month due to light rainfall. Most of the region has received only between 5% and 50% of its normal precipitation.

“While the recent rapid intensification of drought has been most prominent across the Midwest, severe drought has persisted for up to two years across portions of the Missouri River Basin/Great Plains,” NIDIS noted.

The Midwest is not the only region in the country experiencing long-running drought. Much of the West is in the grip of a 22-year drought that is causing water levels in reservoirs on the Colorado River to drop to what the United Nations Environment Programme described in August as “dangerously low levels.”

Even typically wet regions such as the Northeast experienced drought this summer, which featured record-breaking heat waves, wildfires and droughts across the Northern Hemisphere. Dropping water levels in lakes and rivers due to droughts have also exposed long-buried secrets from bodies in Lake Mead in Nevada to dinosaur prints in Texas, Nazi warships in Serbia and ancient Buddhist statues in China.