While the current drought has been brutal, it has been short from a historical perspective, says Brian Fuchs, also a monitor author and center climatologist. But unique conditions earlier in 2012 set the stage for the unusually intense and widespread drought.

"It was almost the perfect storm in 2012: a mild winter without much precipitation and with early green-up, so plants were using moisture a month or more earlier than usual," Fuchs says. "Then we had the heat of the summer, plus the fact that it was dry from mid-May onward.

"Earlier in 2012, forecasters expected an El Niño weather pattern would be in place, bringing rain to the southern United States. But the pattern fizzled, leaving North America with neutral – neither El Niño nor La Niña – conditions, making it difficult to anticipate a single large-scale weather pattern for this winter.

Neutral conditions indicate a lack of an established weather pattern, likely meaning big swings in temperature and precipitation across the country through the winter, Fuchs says. Many parts of the country would need a tremendous amount of snow and a very long winter to start putting a dent in this year's moisture deficits. The odds for that type of winter to occur are roughly two in 10 at best, according to Al Dutcher, Nebraska state climatologist.