The Heat Is Online

Southwestern Drought Spreads Across U.S.

Drought expands throughout USA

USA Today, April 13, 2012

Still reeling from devastating drought that led to at least $10 billion in agricultural losses across Texas and the South in 2011, the nation is enduring more unusually parched weather.

A mostly dry, mild winter has put nearly 61% of the lower 48 states in "abnormally dry" or drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a weekly federal tracking of drought. That's the highest percentage of dry or drought conditions since September 2007, when 61.5% of the country was listed in those categories.

Only two states — Ohio and Alaska — are entirely free of abnormally dry or drought conditions, according to the Drought Monitor.
The drought is expanding into some areas where dryness is rare, such as New England.

 "Conditions are starting to worry us now," said Keith Eggleston , a climatologist with the Northeast Regional Climate Center in Ithaca, N.Y.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, stream flow levels are at record or near-record lows in much of New England. The Drought Monitor lists all of Vermont as "abnormally dry," just six months after the state's wettest August on record that stemmed mainly from disastrous flooding by the remnants of Hurricane Irene.

So far this year, Connecticut has endured its driest January-March period ever, Weather Channel meteorologist Jonathan Erdman reports. This followed the state's wettest year on record.

The drought is mainly an agricultural concern in the Northeast at this point, says Eggleston. While agricultural conditions in the Northeast could be perilous if the dry weather continues as the growing season kicks off, water shortages for the public shouldn't be an issue, as most reservoirs were near or at capacity due to the early-season snowmelt and thaw, and to wetter conditions in the past, the Drought Monitor reported.

The rest of the East is also very dry. "We expanded the drought intensity and coverage in the Southeast and up and down the East Coast," said meteorologist David Miskus of the Climate Prediction Center in Camp Springs, Md., who prepared this week's update of the Monitor. "Georgia is one area we'll really have to watch," says Miskus. More than 63% of the state is now in the worst two levels of drought, the highest percentage of any state.

Wildfires and brush fires have been common along the East Coast from New England to Florida in recent weeks because of wind and the dryness and windy conditions.

As water levels continue to decline in bone-dry southern Florida, the South Florida Water Management District has issued a water shortage warning from Key West to Orlando.

One of the causes of the winter dryness was a weak La Niña, a climate pattern in the Pacific that affects weather in the USA and around the world, Miskus reports. La Niña tends to bring dry conditions to the southern tier of the nation.

The Southwest and Southeast had a very dry winter, but the southern Plains had a much wetter winter than expected, Miskus says. The rain eased drought conditions in eastern Texas. The state dropped from 100% in the four categories of drought in late September to 64% this week. Much of western Texas remains in extreme to exceptional drought.

Trouble also looms for water-dependent California. The state Department of Water Resources said last week that water content in California's mountain snowpack is 45% below normal.

"An unusually wet March improved conditions, but did not make up for the previous dry months," said DWR Director Mark Cowin. "The take-home message is that we've had a dry winter and although good reservoir storage will lessen impacts this summer, we need to be prepared for a potentially dry 2013."

California has above-average reservoir storage as the summer approaches, thanks to runoff from last winter's storms, the DWR reports.

Lastly, other areas that bear watching, according to Miskus, are the northern Plains and upper Midwest, due to the lack of snow this past winter. He says that while farmers there are welcoming the dry conditions to aid in spring planting, they will be hoping for rain later on in spring and summer.