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A dry winter may make mid-Missouri’s natural areas hard to manage

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Dry leaves crunch beneath Ben Webster’s feet as he walks through the Baskett Wildlife Research and Education Center area in Ashland, Mo. Just last month, mid-Missouri faced severe drought conditions. Recent rainfall lessened the drought, but abnormally dry conditions linger.
 
Webster supervises the fire program for the Missouri Department of Conservation and said he’s concerned for what this means in the months ahead.
 
“I was looking at...the United States Drought Monitor quite a bit, just to get an overall picture,” Webster said. “Right now, it's still showing the state of Missouri any early stages of a drought.”
 
Record-breaking temperatures in February were preceded by an abnormally dry winter for mid-Missouri. These factors created the drought conditions in much of the state. Webster said he keeps a close eye on the Keetch-Byram Drought Index as a long-term indicator of drought conditions and wildfire risk. Earlier this spring, the area immediately surrounding Columbia was between 300 and 500 on the KBDI scale – numbers more typical of late spring and summer. Even with the recent rainfall in mid-Missouri, the index has barely budged.
 
If those high levels persist, Webster says Missouri will start to see the effects of the drought.
Forests will become dry and trees will fall dormant, producing less oxygen. In order for the levels to drop, Webster said a steady, soaking rainfall is needed, but that is yet to happen in mid-Missouri this spring.
 
Missouri is not the only state in danger of a drought, according to the United States Drought Monitor. Areas in Kentucky, Illinois, Kansas and Oklahoma are experiencing drought and abnormally dry conditions. Several more states nationwide are experiencing similar circumstances.
 
A drought in 2012 made it hard to maintain the Mark Twain National Forest ecosystem. Carol Trokey is the supervisory forester for the Mark Twain National Forest. She helps monitor the weather conditions and overall health of the forest, like the grazing program.
 
“We have a grazing program where cattle are on the national forest, on the open lands. It dried out so much that we have to send the cattle home early,” she said.
 
Many were hoping this recent rainfall in Missouri the past week would alleviate the risk of a drought season. Pat Guinan, the Missouri State Climatologist, explained that much of the state is in some sort of a drought stage, but it is not something that disturbs him just yet.
 
“I'm not too concerned about it, especially over the past week or so --  we've seen some much wetter conditions here toward the end of March,” Guinan said.  
 
Hank Stelzer who is the State Forestry Extension Specialist for MU Extension says he realizes that the average rainfall this year is far below the normal average, which risks keeping Missouri drought-ridden. The total rainfall for the last three weeks was 3.43 inches at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area just outside of Columbia according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
 
“In mid-Missouri, it's like, I want to say [the average is] about 35, 36 inches of rainfall. Right now, I can't really remember what we're running and how far down we are, but we are down so we need to get that up,” he said.
 
Stelzer explains that it takes more than just rain showers to bring Missouri out of a drought. In order to improve the dry conditions, the rain needs to be a long and steady shower to avoid the rain running off into nearby streams or rivers, instead of going into the ground. If the weather behaves, the water will soak deep into the soil, reducing the severity of the drought.

© 2019 by Zijian (Alex) Li