The prolonged heat across the Midwest has not only set temperature records, it is also expanding and intensifying drought conditions -- and relief isn't on the horizon for most areas, the National Weather Service reported Thursday.
Drought conditions are present in 56 percent of the continental U.S., according to the weekly Drought Monitor.
That's the most in the 12 years that the data have been compiled, topping the previous record of 55 percent set on Aug. 26, 2003. It's also up five percentage points from the previous week.
An Arkansas auction house has seen a jump in the number of cattle put up for sale as many ranchers are unable to afford to feed the animals due to an ongoing drought.
The drought hasn't been long enough to rank up there with the 1930s Dust Bowl or a bad stretch in the 1950s, David Miskus, a meteorologist at the weather service's Climate Prediction Center, told msnbc.com.
"We don't have that here yet," he said. "This has really only started this year."
But for a single year it's still pretty significant, not far behind an extremely dry 1988.
While 1988 saw much drier conditions and an earlier start to the drought than this year, said Brad Rippey, a meteorologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2012 has its own interesting qualities.
"This year the high temperatures have certainly played into this drought," he told msnbc.com. "There's a lot more evaporation ... and crop demands for water."
The Drought Monitor noted that the drought is starting to "take a significant toll" on food supplies. "In the primary growing states for corn and soybeans, 22 percent of the crop is in poor or very poor condition, as are 43 percent of the nation’s pastures and rangelands and 24 percent of the sorghum crop."
More than half the nation is caught in an intensifying drought, with record-high temperatures and thousands still without power. The deadly heat has taken an especially big toll on corn crops, sending prices skyward. NBC's John Yang reports.
"July 4–8, 2012, doesn’t look promising in terms of relief," it added. "Modest improvement is forecast for most areas that have endured the recent heat wave, but most locations from the Plains eastward are still expected to be warmer than normal."
Rain and cooler temps are forecast for many areas in mid-July but over the summer "drought is likely to develop, persist or intensify" across much of the Ohio and Tennessee valleys, the Corn Belt region, the Mississippi Valley and much of the Great Plains, the weather service said Thursday in its latest Seasonal Drought Outlook.
In Tennessee, the severity of the drought has been reported by county farm agents sending comments to the National Agricultural Statistics Service office in Nashville, the Associated Press reported.
"Crops have really begun to suffer and go backwards this week. Rain is needed yesterday," wrote agent Richard Buntin in Crockett County.
Crops and pastureland are "burnt to a crispy crunch," wrote Kim Frady of Bradley County.
"Need rain," in Loudon County, added John Goddard. "Saw a farmer digging a waterline about 4-5' deep. Nothing but powder!"
The weather service on Thursday did say there's a better chance that the El Nino weather system would return by winter.
If it's a typical El Nino, that would mean better than average rainfall for the southern tier of the U.S., Miskus noted.
"Maybe there's some hope," said Rippey, "but that's way on out in the future. That's not a short term relief."
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