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Uncertain Bounty - 2017 Drought By The Numbers

University of Nebraska Drought Mitigation Center

South Dakota residents are no stranger to drought.  The state’s position in the U-S and many unique landforms impact our weather—and in some years, keep the moisture away.  This year has brought extremely dry weather over most of South Dakota—with agriculture, tourism and nearly every other segment of life affected.  

South Dakota’s weather to this point in 20-17 has been very consistent in its inconsistency.  Residents and visitors were treated to weeks of heat, then weeks of deep cool.  In some parts of the state, rain came for days, then stopped for days.  Most of the state, though, has dealt with a serious drought.  To kick off our “Uncertain Bounty” program today, here are some numbers that correspond with the situation.  What’s the first number, Steve?


That’s the number of miles between Sioux Falls and Albany, New York.  This is going to take a minute, but that distance will demonstrate some drought history in South Dakota.  On November 11th, 19-33, the state went through a major dust storm.  The soil on the Plains was loosened by dry weather and, to some extent, questionable farming practices—more on that in a bit—and two days after the major dust storm picked up South Dakota’s topsoil, it plopped the dirt down in Albany.  Some historians tie that issue in with our next number—


The Stock Market Crash in October of 19-29 is the event that many associate with the Great Depression—but farmers in the U-S were struggling four years earlier, in 19-25.  Prices weren’t good for crops in that year; producers grew more crops to sell—and when everyone did that, the practice flooded the market, supply seriously outpaced demand, and farmers had a four-year head start on the rest of the U-S in the nation’s economic nightmare.  Add several years of extremely dry weather, windy conditions and the loss of topsoil, and the largest farm crisis of the 20th Century was underway.

Another number, please—


You’ve just heard the normal July temperature for South Dakota.  The normal temperature in January is 12.  Those extremes come from the state’s place in the Northern Hemisphere, which brings about what’s known as an interior continental climate.  The summers in South Dakota are hot, winters are extremely cold, winds are high (well—duh), and, because of the state’s relative land-locked position—occasional droughts happen.  But even then, The Land of Infinite Variety can’t be satisfied with just one climate descriptor—here’s our next number.


Climatologists actually break down South Dakota’s Interior Continental Climate into separate sub-climates; and like most other situations in South Dakota, the Missouri River is the dividing line.  In the eastern half of the state, people live in what’s called a humid continental climate (and again, it’s a sub-group of our main weather culture).  Under this pattern, humidity and precipitation are pretty moderate, with the occasional anomaly thrown in.  Conditions are typically consistent through out the year.  In the west, they deal with a semi-arid steppe climate.  That means a lot of sunshine, and not a whole lot of rain.  That would explain the tendency toward ranching in West River, since it’s a bit easier to tend to cattle rather than corn when not much rain is going to fall anyway.


This reflects the percentage drop of pheasants in this year’s bird count.  The Game Fish and Parks Department conducts this survey each year so hunters know what to expect when they go out to hunt.  Travis Runia with Game Fish and Parks says the number of pheasants per mile is cut roughly in half over the survey of 20-16.  That doesn’t mean hunting will prove impossible when the season starts this weekend—it just means hunters will have to work harder to find the birds.  And part of the blame lies with long-term drought.   A successful nesting period for pheasants depends on grass cover, which can only come from having enough rain to grow the grass.  If that doesn’t happen—and this year, it didn’t—pheasant eggs and chicks are more easily spotted by predators, who then beat the hunters to the bounty.  One state hunting lodge that normally hosts 300 hunters during the season is expecting a 10 percent loss of business because of the lower bird population.  Pheasant hunters, by the way, spent a quarter billion dollars in South Dakota last year.

And then, there’s—


South Dakota is the nation’s second-leading sunflower producer, behind only North Dakota.  But—because of the drought, the Department of Agriculture predicts a 17 percent decline in sunflower production.  Of course, that’s not the only yield suffering from dryness—soybeans, sorghum, corn and alfalfa hay are all forecast to drop in average yields in 20-17. 

While the drought is a long way from over in much of South Dakota, the most recent Drought Monitor Map from the University of Nebraska Drought Mitigation Center shows conditions improving in many locations.  The severe drought region in west central South Dakota is shrinking, and conditions are near normal in roughly the eastern third of the state.  For Steve Zwemke, and for South Dakota Public Broadcasting, I’m Gary Ellenbolt.