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Summer's over, but drought persists; two-thirds of contiguous US affected

You'd think the end of summer would mean the end — or at least beginning of the end — of this year's drought, but the nation's official stat keepers on Thursday revealed otherwise.

With the Midwest corn harvest in full swing, the worst U.S. drought in decades actually worsened: 65.45 percent of the lower 48 states was in some form of drought on Tuesday, up from 64.82 percent a week earlier, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor

The 65.45 percent is a new record in the 12-year index tracked by the monitor, and it could get worse before getting better.

"I would not be too surprised to see conditions continue to worsen if we do not see widespread rain/snow events" soon, Brian Fuchs, a climatologist who compiles the stats for the Drought Monitor, told NBC News. "The forecast does not bode well for any type of widespread improvements any time soon outside of the central and eastern Corn Belt and maybe into portions of Arkansas and Texas."

"The western and northern Great Plains have indeed continued to worsen and this has spread into the central and northern Rocky Mountains as well," he added.

Brad Rippey, a meteorologist for the Department of Agriculture, noted that the Seasonal Drought Outlook indicates any improvements are likely to "be at least partially offset by worsening conditions from the Pacific Northwest to the upper Midwest." 

Other stats from the latest Drought Monitor were not encouraging:

  • Areas in extreme or exceptional drought, the two worst categories, were at 21.5 percent, up from 20.7 percent a week earlier.
  • The worst drought conditions remain in the heart of the U.S. breadbasket, reported: Nebraska at 73 percent, Kansas at 51 percent and Oklahoma at 42 percent.
  • Iowa: 100 percent of the nation's biggest corn producer is in some form of drought. That's the same as the previous week.
  • Minnesota: 77 percent is now in drought, up from 64 percent, with extreme conditions in the northwest and spreading into southern areas, noted.
  • North Dakota: 95 percent is in drought, up from 88 percent the week before.
  • South Dakota: The entire state is in some form of drought, up from 96 percent.

As bad as it's been, some farmers are feeling lucky they got as much out of their harvests as they have.

"Technology and farm practices have helped compared to the last significant drought in the Corn Belt back in 1988," said Fuchs.

That technology includes seed hybrids engineered to be drought tolerant. While environmentalists are concerned genetically engineered plants will alter ecosystems, farmers are quick adopters.

Related: Drought-resistant corn seen as minimizing crop loss this year
Related: Drought-induced 'bacon shortage' not quite what it seems
Related: Time-lapse photos show drought's impact on corn field

Another factor has been Mother Nature.

"Some soybeans in the mid-South and lower Midwest were helped by late-summer rainfall, which included the remnants of Hurricane Isaac," said Rippey.

In the case of corn, "perhaps one of the biggest wild cards ... was the timing of reproduction," he added. A June/July heat wave "hammered corn in the lower Midwest," he said, while the western Corn Belt was hit by a separate heat wave in July. 

"Fields that managed to pollinate either before or after these two heat waves fared better," he said.

"Still, we lost more than one-quarter (28 percent) of the U.S. corn production from pre-drought estimates — a total of nearly 4.1 billion bushels," he said. "Nearly one-fifth (18 percent) of the U.S. soybean production, or 575 million bushels, was lost."

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