The U.S. Drought Monitor report issued Thursday confirms what most have suspected: the drought, now covering up to half the nation, is expanding and intensifying.

The percent of contiguous U.S. land area experiencing exceptional drought in July reached the highest levels in the history of the U.S. Drought Monitor, said an official at the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Nearly 12 percent of the contiguous United States fell into the "exceptional" classification, according to the report. “That level of exceptional drought had never before been seen in the monitor's 12-year history,” said Brian Fuchs, University of Nebraska assistant geoscientist. Eighteen percent of the country is classified as under either extreme or exceptional drought, Fuchs said.

The extreme dry, hot conditions in the nation’s mid-section are driving up corn and soybean prices to record or near-record levels. The July CME soybean contract was trading at record highs hitting $16.28 per bushel Thursday at 2 CDT. Corn was at $7.75 per bushel.

U.S. drought expands, intensifiesThe latest drought report featured the expansion and intensification of dryness in large sections of the country, with only southern Texas reporting some improvement. Light precipitation (0.5 inch or less) fell on most areas of dryness and drought, with only scattered areas reporting more than an inch, according to the report.

Unfortunately, where rain did fall, it was largely insufficient  to make up for blistering heat that covered the nation’s midsection, reaching the central and southern Atlantic Coast by the end of the workweek.

Both the number of record highs in the past week, and the areas with record and near-record dryness over the last 1 to 3 months, are numerous. Daily high temperatures averaged above 100 degrees in the central and upper southern Plains, extending eastward into parts of Missouri and Arkansas, and average temperatures for the week were 8 degrees to 15 degrees above normal from the Ohio Valley and upper Southeast westward through most of the High Plains.

The dryness is beginning to take a significant toll on some of the nation’s crops, pastures, and rangelands. In the primary growing states for corn and soybeans (18 each), 22 percent of the crop is in poor or very poor condition, as are 43 percent of the pastures and rangelands and 24 percent of the sorghum crop.

In addition, the area scorched by wildfires expanded significantly. More than 1.9 million acres have been engulfed since the start of the year, and increase of 38 percent in just the past week.

Chances of drought relief do not look good, at least for the short term, according to the report. “In general, July 4 – 8 doesn’t look promising in terms of relief, though the intense heat should subside somewhat.

Read the full report.