The Oklahoma panhandle has been drier this year than it was during the many of the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s, which spawned one of the most severe economic crises ever precipitated by a natural disaster. The resulting mass migration and defaults on abandoned land contributed to the Great Depression's banking crisis.
Despite farmers' efforts to conserve soil with "no-till" plowing and other methods, "there are places where the ground is starting to blow, just like it did back then," according to a report by the NASA Earth Observatory.
The region goes through cyclic droughts, and has been experiencing one for most of this decade. Soil is so dry much of the rain that falls evaporates before it soaks crops; irrigation has become impotent. The region's winter wheat crops and rangeland are suffering, and that could lead to a run-up in yet another food staple at a time when energy costs, demand for corn-based ethanol, and weather disasters elsewhere in the world have contributed to rampant food price inflation.
The good news is that farmers in the region today are more careful about erosion than they were 75 years ago, and more conscious of both the limitations of the land and the vagaries of the climate. But the government is also permitting them to graze and hay land that had been set aside for conservation, which could destabilize additional swaths of land.
The region around the panhandle is one of four areas of the country experiencing "extreme" or "exceptional" drought, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor report. Southern Texas, the High Plains and parts of the Southeast are also deeply entrenched. North Carolina's drought is even worse this year than last, according to some measures.
Wildfire season has been intense across much of the West, though to date, the acreage burned and number of fires is running short of both the 5- and 10-year averages.
Still, 56,751 fires had burned 4 million acres as of Monday, and more than 30 large wildfires were burning more than a half a million acres in nine states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Most fires, 10 as of Monday, were burning in California, as depicted in the image at left.
Across the country, drought is affecting agriculture, water supplies, electric power generation and wildlife like trout (which require cold water and swiftly running streams to survive).
Thirty-five states are currently affected by drought.
About 45% of the country's land area is currently experiencing drought.
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