Weather-Related Disasters on the Rise
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The Fiscal Times
May 17, 2012

If you don’t have enough to worry about with the stock market sagging and the economy in the doldrums, ponder these facts: The U.S. just experienced the hottest 12 months since the National Weather Service began keeping records in 1895; extreme weather events are on the rise around the globe; and the Midwestern grain belt is overdue for a major drought.

This isn’t a story about climate change or a subtle advertisement for hybrid vehicles. Global warming wasn’t even a concept during the 1930s dust bowl, the rain-scarce late 1950s or the major droughts that hit the U.S. plains in 1980 and 1988.

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But if you look at the pattern of those 20th century droughts, you’ll notice that they occurred with depressing regularity about two decades apart. It has been more than 20 years since America’s last unwanted dry season.

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Given the unusually warm winter and with drought already plaguing large parts of the U.S. southeast and southwest, is there a cloudless summer on the horizon? Could this be the year when the nation’s corn, wheat and soybean crops wither?

“Weather is a very fickle event,” said David Miskus, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service. “For the most part, the nation’s breadbasket is looking pretty good. The warm weather allowed farmers to get out early.”

This spring’s jumpstart is reflected in the latest crop predictions from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. U.S. corn production will increase nearly 20 percent to 14.8 billion bushels this year, according to USDA, largely because of higher yields from more acres being pressed into production.  Prices could fall as much as $1.50 to $5 a bushel.

The same situation holds for wheat, where U.S. production is expected to jump 5 percent to 2.2 billion bushels, the highest since 2008. Exports are expected to surge about 10 percent to 1.15 billion bushels or nearly half of all domestic production.

And the long-range weather forecasters at the National Climatic Data Center say shifting ocean temperature patterns in the Pacific off the coast of South America – the end of “La Nina” – portend a fairy normal season in terms of overall precipitation. “The drought forecast for states like Iowa and Illinois is improving,” said David Easterling, chief of the global applications division at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “We could see normal conditions this year if that holds.”

But there have been ominous portents from other parts of the globe in recent years where the eternal hopes of springtime turned into quite barren falls.

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For instance, the great Russian heat wave from June to August 2010 destroyed a quarter of that nation’s grain harvest, killed tens of thousands in its major cities and cost the economy an estimated $15 billion in damages.

The massive Pakistani floods from a heavier-than-normal monsoon season, which began in July of that year, covered a fifth of that country, led to 2,000 deaths and temporarily displaced 20 million people. Nearly 6 million acres of farmland were damaged, dealing a severe blow to the most important part of that country’s economy.

spent 25 years as a foreign correspondent, economics writer and investigative business reporter for the Chicago Tribune and other publications. He is the author of the 2004 book, The $800 Million Pill: The Truth Behind the Cost of New Drugs.