(Scott Olson/Getty Images)
By Dan Vergano, USA TODAY
(USA TODAY) - Hotter-than-normal months still await drought-ravaged states for as far as the eye can see, federal weather experts projected on Thursday.
Which may be a good long ways if a cornfield once blocked the view, suggests the National Climatic Data Center, which is predicting warmer-than-normal temperatures for much of the nation through November. The drought that now covers 61.8% of the contiguous USA, down slightly from last month. But it looks likely to "persist or intensify" from California to southeastern Illinois through November, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report.
"We are seeing a lot of (corn)fields that are a total loss, plowed under," Illinois state climatologist Jim Angel says. That's come despite "easing" of drought conditions so far this month with 100-degree days a rarity in the Midwest and some rain along the edges of the drought-afflicted Corn Belt. However, with harvests underway, the drought has already largely done its damage to the nation's corn crop, expected to be down 13% this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"Things are no longer going downhill as fast as they were," says Ed O'Lenic of NOAA's Climate Prediction Center in Camp Springs, Md. The center projects:
•Roughly 2-in-3 odds of 2012 being the warmest U.S. year on record, even if temperatures are merely average through December.
•A "weak to moderate" El Niño weather pattern developing in the Pacific this fall will likely bring a wetter winter to Southern states. Northern states "are typically on the dry side" in El Niño months, O'Lenic says.
•Wetter months ahead for Arizona and the Gulf Coast through November.
•Another month of decline in Arctic sea ice, which has melted at near-record levels.
Although drought covers slightly less of the country now, O'Lenic noted that the portion of the country enduring "exceptional" drought, the worst level, increased to 6.3% from 4.2% of the Lower 48 states this month, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Warm temperature records have been set in 33 states this year.
"It wouldn't be unexpected to have some surprises ahead," O'Lenic says, noting that a big ice melt in the Arctic Ocean or intensified El Niño conditions in the Pacific Ocean could make temperatures even hotter. "There are a lot of wild cards in the climate."