This season has been the summer of frustrating forecasts stuck on a vicious repeating cycle. Wave after wave of unrelenting heat combined with few rain-making systems, causing headaches for much of the nation’s heartland. Drought has expanded now to nearly 63 percent of the continental United States, and the areas of the country in the worst categories of drought have doubled from 10 percent last month to 22 percent.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released an update to its State of the Climate report on Wednesday, and it came as no surprise that July 2012 will be one for the history books.

Data for the month shows that July was the hottest month on record for contiguous United States with an average temperature of 77.6 degrees F, which is 3.3 degrees above the 20th century average.

The previous warmest July was in 1936 when temperature averaged 77.4 degrees.

“It’s a pretty significant increase over the last record,” said climate scientist Jake Crouch of NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, told the Associated Press.

This July ranked as the hottest July on record in North Dakota and Virginia, and made it into the top 10 hottest Julys in 30 states, including Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

The record heat wasn’t just reserved for July. A warmer-than-average winter for many areas of the country helped pave the way for another record: the warmest 12-month period since recordkeeping began in 1895.

The drought also made history books.

Kevin Trenberth, climate analysis chief of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, noted that drought is a major player because in the summer “if it is wet, it tends to be cool, while if it is dry, it tends to be hot.”  

Key corn- and soybean-producing states were hit hardest by the drought. The region saw its eighth driest July, third driest June to July and sixth driest April to July in 117 years of record keeping.

On July 24, nearly 64 percent of the nation was considered in moderate to exceptional drought, the maximum value reported in July. It was also a record in the 13-year history of the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Preliminary data from NOAA show more examples of July’s extreme weather events:

  • South Dakota topped the charts as the warmest locations in the continental U.S. on July 5 (Pickston) and July 17 (Cottonwood).
  • Five locations tied for the hottest temperature on July 19: Tacna, Ariz.; Blythe, Calif.; Minneapolis, Kan.; Valley Falls, Kan.; and Lincoln, Kan.  The locations of the Kansas records were based in the north central and northeastern parts of the state.
  • Springfield, Mo., reported their driest July on record having received just 0.32 inch of rain. 
  • July was the warmest and driest July on record for Norfolk, Neb., where the average temperature was 80.8 degrees F with no measureable rainfall.

Even with the record-setting month we’ve left behind, conditions are far from the levels experienced during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

“In terms of percent area of country affected by drought (as measured by the Palmer Drought Index), the 1930's Dust Bowl decade is the worst drought on record by spatial area," Richard Heim, a meteorologist and drought expert with NOAA's National Climactic Data Center, said. Read more here.

Though August is already proving to be cooler – and wetter – for many areas in the Midwest and Great Plains, there is another glimmer of hope: the return of El Niño.  NOAA’s Dr. Klaus Wolter says that six variables – sea-level air pressure, components of the surface winds, sea-surface temperatures, surface air temperatures and cloudiness – indicates that drought-easing El Niño may soon be here. 

As Stu Ellis wrote in his FarmGate blog, “a change in the weather will soon be happening, with the announcement that El Niño meteorological conditions have been confirmed in the Equatorial Pacific. Such a climatic change will bring improvements to Corn Belt weather that will be more conducive to rebuilding soil moisture this winter and better growing season moisture in 2012.”

With just 23 percent of corn in good to excellent condition, the welcomed relief may have come too late.  Much of the nation’s corn crop pollinated during the hot and dry weather, slashing its potential yield. The USDA will release its first crop production estimated on August 10, and they will likely be aggressive in lowering the yield. Even so, there is uncertainty over harvest acreage since many corn fields have already been chopped for livestock feed.