INDIANAPOLIS — Last year's relentless drought and scorching temperatures may seem like a distant nightmare to Hoosiers during these days of lots of rain and relatively low spring and summer temperatures, but the drought impact can still be seen in places like the Indiana Statehouse lawn, where four of the five towering tulip trees are coming down.
The four dead trees — including one that may be nearly a century old — are casualties of the near-record bone-dry weather that caused havoc across the Midwest last year.
But they're not the only signs of the drought's lingering impact, following a winter and spring that brought welcome wet relief.
The residual effects range from high prices for livestock feed to dwindling supplies of Christmas trees to an unwelcome boost in invasive insects such as the emerald ash borer.
“It wasn't the worst drought we've ever had,” said Al Shipe, who's spent 37 years as a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Indiana. “But it's the worst one I've ever seen.”
At a press conference with state officials early last July, Shipe compared the drought of 2012 to the Dust Bowl years of the early 1930s. Along with the state fire marshal and the head of the state's homeland security agency, he urged Hoosiers to stop worrying about the drought killing their lawns and to start worrying about wildfires breaking out in fields and forests.
The lack of rainfall in April, May and June of 2012 — resulting in a 6- to 10-inch rainfall deficit across the state — triggered burn bans in every county as communities canceled their Fourth of July fireworks displays and imposed mandatory water restrictions. By mid-July 2012, farmers in nearly half of Indiana counties were declared eligible for federal disaster relief because of the toll the drought took on crops and livestock. More would be added before the summer's end.
For the same period this year: Statewide, temperatures averaged below normal and rainfall was way up – too much in some parts of the state that suffered late spring floods. “We have farmers who lost their corn crop to the drought last year, and this year had their crop washed out,” said Katherine Dutro, of the Indiana Farm Bureau.
Last year, the mercury hit triple digits in the state's capital city on July 4. This year's forecast puts the temperatures in the mild 70s.
Another telling indicator of how different this summer is from last year: Requests to the State Fire Marshal's office from retailers to sell fireworks are up from 243 in 2012 to more than 840 this year.
Also up this year: the number of visitors to the state parks. The drought and heat took a big toll on attendance last summer at the state-owned properties that attract campers, hikers and other outdoor recreation lovers.
“When it's too hot to sleep in a tent and you can't light a campfire, it's going to have an impact,” said Phil Bloom, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
The DNR witnessed another effect of the drought: a spike in deer deaths last summer. The lack of rain resulted in stagnant, non-flowing water holes that attracted virus-carrying, biting flies that infected deer with epizootic hemorrhagic disease, known as EHD. In 2011, the EHD virus was detected in nine Indiana counties. Last summer, its presence was confirmed in 29 counties and signs of it were reported in another 36 counties.
Bloom said Mother Nature saw some upside to the drought: When a normally swampy area at Pokagon State Park dried up, park naturalists found a native species, burr marigold, start to blossom for the first time in decades. And when the pesky, invasive Asian carp got caught in some backwaters of the Wabash River, due to the drought, “it made for some good eating for the raccoons,” Bloom said.
The most lasting impact, though, may be to Indiana's trees.
“It'll be years before we see all the damage,” said Purdue University forestry expert Lindsay Purcell.
The lack of rainfall put all kinds of trees, including the state's crop of Christmas trees, under massive stress and made them more vulnerable to damaging insects and viruses, Purcell said. And that means that trees that didn't die last year are showing signs of dying off this year.
Hard hit is the state's official tree: the tulip tree, which Purcell calls “the wimp of the woods” for its inability to withstand drought.
Phil Marshall, a plant pathologist with the DNR, expects to see more dead tulip trees like the ones on the Statehouse lawn. His long-term view: “The tulip tree is dying and will continue to die over the next two to three years,” Marshall said. “Expect to see oak, hickory and maple mortality over the next two to five years.”