OTTUMWA — The drought situation didn't improve in southeast Iowa in the past week, but it didn't get much worse, either. The way things are going this year, that's a step in the right direction.
What the heck happened? The state saw the wettest spring in history this year and southeast Iowa residents needed to consider whether building an ark might be an option. But in June, the rain left and it hasn't come back except for brief visits.
The result is that more than a third of the state has slipped back into moderate drought, while more than 80 percent is abnormally dry, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Less than an inch of rain has fallen in Ottumwa this August. Nearly all of that fell on August 6-7.
Has this kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde weather ever happened before?
“It's not a real common thing to have a reversal this time of year,” said State Climatologist Harry Hillaker. “But there have been worse examples.”
Two years in particular come to mind. The spring of 1983 was cool and wet, much like this year. Then summer arrived.
“It was like someone flipped a switch and it went hot and dry,” Hillaker said. “Just the worst timing.”
Planting that year was delayed by the wet spring, so the crops didn't have the strong root systems they usually establish before the summer months arrive. That makes a big difference when dry weather arrives.
It's common sense, really. Topsoil dries out faster than soil a few inches down. It's closer to the hot, dry air. Think of what happens to the edges of brownies in the oven. Contact with the hot metal of the pan dries the edges much more than the rest of the treat.
Officially, there was no drought that year. Yields were still clobbered by the weather.