'Not all that unusual' but quick drought for suburbs: What you should do with fire, your lawn

An exceptionally dry May has led to an official drought throughout much of Illinois, with the central and northeastern regions of the state being hit hardest.

Though a moderate drought is not uncommon for the suburbs, the extent of the dry weather conditions this year is.

Last month was the Chicago area's fourth-driest May on record. Impacts have been limited so far, but experts say the weather could be further cause for agricultural and ecological concern if we don't see enough rain in the coming months.

Because drought is a complex phenomenon, the conditions that cause an official drought are not always black and white. But the source that many climatologists and meteorologists most agree on to determine drought is the U.S. Drought Monitor, which can be found at

The website uses six levels to describe drought conditions: zero or D0, abnormally dry, moderate drought, severe drought, extreme drought and exceptional drought.

"It's not all that unusual to have some abnormally dry conditions which we consider D0 or moderate drought in the region. I think the difference here is that we are experiencing this kind of dryness fairly early in the growing season, and we've seen conditions deteriorate pretty quickly," state climatologist Trent Ford said.

For instance, just two weeks ago, none of the Chicago area was in a moderate drought. As recently as April 25, none of the area was even abnormally dry.

"In a period of about five weeks, we've gone from everything looks perfectly fine to 30% of the area's in drought," Ford said.

When in drought, effects include low water levels in lakes and streams, water shortages and crop losses. Currently, the impacts have been limited to declining landscape conditions, such as lowering tributaries, drooping gardens and browning lawns.

While crops are beginning to show some stress, Ford said, signs of yield damage have yet to emerge. If the drought continues for a number of weeks, larger agricultural effects could come into play.

Moderate drought also could bring a higher fire risk. In Aurora, for instance, the current conditions are deemed to be a contributing factor in a recent structure fire in which the exterior of a garage attached to a two-story home caught fire.

Though the Saturday afternoon fire is still under investigation, dry conditions are believed to have played a part, Aurora Fire Department officials said in a statement.

In general, Ford encouraged people handling fire to be aware of the heightened risk.

"Even if there's not a burn ban in your county or municipality, just be aware of the conditions. There is this concern," he said. "Because conditions are dry, dormant grass can light up really quickly. With dry trees, shrubs and things like that, fire can spread really quickly."

Ford added that drought demise is even more complicated than the onset, meaning that even if a larger rain system ran through the region and delivered an inch of rain, it likely wouldn't significantly replenish soil moisture.

"What we really need to get out of drought from an agriculture standpoint or from an ecology standpoint is a prolonged period of near to wetter than normal conditions," Ford said. "Because of how dry May was, even if we got our normal rainfall for June, we'd still be quite a ways behind.

"I would say if we get near normal rainfall for the rest of the summer - the rest of June, July and August - then I think we'll be in fine shape."

Though no municipalities in the Chicago region have imposed a water restriction - such a mandate would typically occur at a severe drought designation or higher - Ford said residents should implement as much water conservation as possible by prioritizing trees and considering letting your lawn go dormant.

People can also contribute to drought monitoring by submitting their experience to the National Drought Mediation Center, found at

Looking further ahead, while Ford said it remains to be seen exactly what the state's climate prognosis is for drought, he wouldn't expect this type of year to become more frequent in the coming decades.

"With that being said, when we're thinking about what Chicagoland looks like when it comes to weather hazards in 2050 or 2100, drought still needs to be part of that conversation," he said.

• Jenny Whidden is a climate change and environment writer working with the Daily Herald through a partnership with Report For America supported by The Nature Conservancy. To help support her work with a tax-deductible donation, see

  The lawns appear dry in Crystal Lake on Tuesday. John Starks/
  Crews cut the increasingly dry grass Tuesday at Poynor Park in St. Charles. Brian Hill/
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