Weather Updates

Good heavens! We’re officially in a drought

Updated: August 12, 2012 6:15AM

I’m not in the habit of writing a monthly column about the weather. Seriously.

I have to admit, however, I’ve become obsessed with the heat and lack of rainfall that’s defined the summer of 2012.

It probably has a lot to do with my rural Kansas upbringing. Mom made it a regular habit of ordering her brood to pray the rosary in search of intervention from our heavenly matriarch when the wheat crops started to wither. When the rain didn’t come, we dropped to our knees. When the storm clouds did roll in and threatened hail, back down we went, beads in hand.

So both my heart and soul go out to local farmers as this nasty weather continues. Gilbert Sebenste, a meteorologist from Northern Illinois University, told me after last week’s scorcher, we’ve officially moved from “abnormally dry” to a full fledged “drought.” Which is why I get irritated when I listen to those smiling TV weathermen each morning chirping on and on about “another beautiful day in the Chicago area” — with balmy skies and little chance of precipitation,

Do these well-coiffed weather watchers ever step outside their high-rise studios to see what the rest of us see? It’s not a beautiful day in the neighborhood when everywhere you look is nothing but parched white lawns, wilted flowers, browning trees and drying riverbeds littered with dead fish.

And it’s certainly not a beautiful day in western Kane County, where farmers are watching bumper crops turn into bummer crops.

While corn and soybean plants are at least still providing fields of green for us to gaze upon, Sebenste reminds us that “looks can be deceiving.” The corn pollinated more than a week ago; and any rain that follows will do little good. What we can expect from here on out is “stunted growth and poor quality,” he added. “This is very serious.”

All you have to do is check out the Illinois Department of Agriculture Weather and Crop Report that came out Monday afternoon to see how serous. More than half the corn crops — 51 percent — are listed in poor or very poor condition right now; and soybeans aren’t doing all that hot either, with 42 percent struggling mightily.

Two-a-day rosaries instilled in me from an early age that it’s tough being a farmer. And Sebenste reminds me it’s no piece of cake being a meteorologist this summer either. Turns out he and his colleagues are having a heckuva time trying to make the daily forecast when it’s this hot and dry.

That’s because both of these conditions feed off each other. The heat creates little disturbances in the jetstream that can produce unexpected rain, even thunderstorms. Which sounds great; after all, we need the precipitation. But usually the rain that does manage to fall is doing little good because the moisture tends to be either so spotty and light that it’s irrelevant; or it comes down so heavy, it washes right off the hard thirsty earth instead of soaking in.

Plus, the dryness is creating erratic swings in temperature. Our current parched lawns, for example, are not only ugly to look at and walk on, they contribute to the problem. Green grass retains heat, Sebenste noted, but the dormant colorless stuff we’ve got now is only shooting that heat right back into the atmosphere.

That helps explain why the thermometer has been getting down to a pleasant 60 degrees at night, then rockets back up during the day. On Monday, for example, he predicted low to mid 80s for most of Northern Illinois, only to watch Rockford hit 90 degrees by 11 a.m.

“We are just throwing up our hands,” said Sebenste. “It’s just too hard to call anything right now.”

Which might be a positive thing since he’s not seeing any rain in the forecast for the next 10 days ... and the long range forecast predicts things will be just as bad as we head into August.

Talk about losing faith.

The good news that’s coming out of this dry summer — other than the fact water parks and air conditioning folks are doing brisk business — is we’ve had less than half the usual tornado warnings. And despite the mild winter and hot dry summer, Sebenste says we can’t put the blame on global warming.

“If we had 10 to 20 years of these hot dry summers, “ he said, “then we’d have some real issues.”

Here’s praying that doesn’t happen.

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