By Carey Gillam
KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - Record-breaking triple-digit temperatures were prolonging a devastating drought that has been baking the South and the dry spell could extend into next year and beyond, climate experts said on Thursday.
"Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse... we are seeing expansion of this drought. This drought will continue to persist and likely intensify," said climatologist Mark Svoboda, with the University of Nebraska's National Drought Mitigation Center.
The drought is edging its way to the east even as it intensifies in the southern states, according to a weekly report released Thursday by a consortium of state and federal climatologists dubbed the U.S. Drought Monitor.
"We are seeing intensification in the southeast, in particular Georgia, eastern Alabama," said Svoboda.
The drought increasingly looks likely to extend into next year, he said.
Hurricane Irene offered only a little respite for some areas to the east, he said. But the rest of the nation was contending with mostly dry, warmer-than-normal weather.
A strong tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico was needed to provide enough precipitation to relieve the parched soils in the southern Plains, according to Svoboda.
Texas has been the hardest hit, and 2011 was expected to be the driest calendar year since records were first kept in the late 19th century. In that key agricultural state, levels of extreme and exceptional drought totaled 95.04 percent of area this week, up from 94.42 percent a week ago, the Drought Monitor reported.
The parched soils and rangeland and lack of rainfall have decimated crops, left livestock with little to eat or drink and sparked wildfires across thousands of acres. Texas officials peg damages at more than $5 billion.
Oklahoma was also suffering, with extreme an exceptional levels of drought now across 85.37 percent of the state. And nearly a third of Kansas is in extreme or exceptional drought, according to the Drought Monitor.
Wheat farmers are questioning whether or not to even try to plant their new crop this autumn with soils lacking moisture the plants need to grow.
The drought was starting to engulf Louisiana, where extreme and exceptional drought grew to 59.50 percent of the state, up from 55.97 percent a week earlier.
The drought grows worse with each 100 degree Fahrenheit-plus (40 degree Celsius-plus) day, breaking records and bringing more misery. Wichita, Kansas, has recorded 50 such days this year and areas in Texas have recorded more than 80.
Temperatures Thursday were again surpassing 100 degrees in many parts of the Plains.
(Reporting by Carey Gillam; Editing by Marguerita Choy)