U.S. Drought Monitor as of July 26. (National Drought Mitigation Center)

Far from receding during this sizzling, humid summer, the intense drought that has ensnared much of the southern tier of the nation during the past several months has only intensified, reaching a record extent during July.

The National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) announced yesterday that the proportion of the Lower-48 states experiencing “exceptional” drought conditions - the most severe of five categories on the U.S. Drought Monitor - during July was the largest ever measured since such monitoring began 12 years ago. Other drought records extend further back in time, but the Drought Monitor, which is a joint project between federal agencies and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is a newer product. Nearly 12 percent of the contiguous U.S. was in the exceptional classification during the month, according to Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the NDMC.

Right now, 18 percent of the country is experiencing either extreme or exceptional drought, with Texas taking it on the chin, proving that Mother Nature can, in fact, “mess with Texas.” The entire state is experiencing drought conditions, with about three-fourths of the state classified under the exceptional drought category.

Many Texans’ hopes for much-needed rains were dashed last week, when Tropical Storm Don fizzled faster than a sparkler at a 4th of July BBQ. The storm dropped barely an inch of rain in southern Texas, where the drought isn’t quite as bad to begin with. Much of the state needs upward of 15 inches of rain just to make a meaningful dent in the drought conditions.

New Mexico is another state suffering through punishing drought conditions, although there has been some recent improvement thanks to the annual Southwest monsoon season. Nevertheless, 100 percent of the state is experiencing drought conditions, and 48 percent of the state is classified as being in an exceptional drought.

In Oklahoma, record heat has only exacerbated the drought concerns, and a little more than half the state finds itself in the exceptional drought category.

Other states where the drought is especially prevalent include Louisiana, Georgia and Kansas.

Percent of normal precipitation during the past 60 days, as of Aug. 1. (NOAA/NWS)

From 1995-2010, the coverage of Texas rangeland and pastures in very poor to poor condition peaked at 81% in August 1998 and 2006; on July 24, 2011, coverage stood at 91%. The rangeland and pasture situation was nearly as bad in Oklahoma (84% very poor to poor) and Kansas (52%). One of the region’s hardest-hit row crops was cotton, with 79% rated very poor to poor in Oklahoma and 59% in Texas. Spotty showers dotted western and southern Texas, as well as the central and southern High Plains, but in many cases temporary drought relief was more than offset by the relentless heat.

For information on the contributing factors that led to the drought, see this post from last month.

Near-term climate outlooks offer little optimism for many parts of the drought region, as generally warm and dry conditions are projected to continue across the South and South Central states through the end of August. Of course, land-falling tropical storms or hurricanes could help significantly, particularly in areas that are not in the exceptional drought category.