This chapter examines the spatial and temporal variability and patterns of climate for the period 1972-1991 in the North Central Region of North America (NCR). Since the mid-1970s, climate has become more variable in the region, compared to the more benign period 1950-1970. The regional perspective presented in this chapter characterizes the general climatology of the NCR from 1972 to 1991 and compares the climate to a severe drought that occurred in 1988. This one-year drought was one of the most substantial in the region's recent history, and it had a significant impact on the region's agricultural economy and ecosystems. Petersen et al. (1995) characterize the 1988 drought with respect to solar radiation, and Zangvil et al. (2001) consider this drought from the perspective of a large-scale atmosphere moisture budget. A major reason for the seriousness of the drought in 1988 was the fact that May and June were unusually dry and hot (Kunkel and Angel 1989).

Drought is defined as a condition of moisture deficit sufficient to adversely affect vegetation, animals, and humans over a sizeable area (Warwick 1975). The condition of drought may be considered from a meteorological, agricultural, and hydro-logic perspective. Meteorological drought is a period of abnormally dry weather sufficiently prolonged to a point where the lack of water causes a serious hydrologic imbalance in the affected area (Huschke 1959). Agricultural drought is a climatic digression involving a shortage of precipitation sufficient to adversely affect crop production or the range of production (Rosenberg 1980). Hydrologic drought is a period of below-average water content in streams, reservoirs, groundwater aquifers, lakes, and soils (Yevjevich et al. 1977). All of these drought conditions are mutually linked.

The objectives of this chapter are to (1) address the issues of climatic spatial scale to quantify variability of climate in the NCR, (2) examine the characteristics of the 1988 drought as it relates to characteristics of an ecoregion, (3) illustrate a means to quantify drought through a potential plant stress index, and (4) examine the link of regional drought to ecosystem processes. This analysis will provide background and methodology for ecologists, agriculturalists, and others interested in spatial and temporal characterization of climate patterns within large geographic regions.

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