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Still more drought may be coming

Just what you wanted to hear, right? There is at least the chance of some good news, however.

The drought that has plagued Texas is virtually certain to continue at least until early summer, climate experts said on Tuesday at a conference in Fort Worth. But what happens after that is anyone’s guess.

The main cause of the drought, the most intense in recorded Texas history, is back-to-back episodes of La Niña, a Pacific Ocean phenomenon that almost always brings dry conditions to the state. The bad news is that, based on the historical record, there is a 40 percent chance of La Niña returning for a third consecutive year, according to Klaus Wolter, a research associate with the Earth Research Laboratory at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

That record consists of 10 instances over the past century in which La Niña has appeared for two years in a row (normally it does not recur). However, Wolter emphasized, 10 episodes is a fairly limited data set. And — here’s the good news — the other six times, an El Niño has followed the two La Niñas, bringing unusually wet weather.

“If we were to switch to El Niño next summer, the record of the last decade would indeed favor an end of the 2010-2012 drought,” according to Wolter.

That would be nice if it happened, because the aquifers really need the rain.

NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, or GRACE, satellites are unique because rather than measuring light on wavelengths, they measure gravity based on mass variations, making them sensitive to changes in water on or below the Earth’s surface, no matter how deep, NASA hydrologist Matthew Rodell explained.

Scientists took that data and combined it with other information to create a numerical model that simulates the water redistribution after it rains. They then were able to conclude that the aquifers are at lows seen only 2 percent of the time since 1948, when mapping began.

“People rely on groundwater, especially in times like this when it’s dry, because groundwater provides a reserve of water when it doesn’t rain,” Rodell said. “But we’re in a deficit now. We’re drawing down our bank account.”

It doesn’t look like those supplies will be replenished by rain in the coming months, Fuchs said. The La Nina weather pattern currently cooling the Pacific Ocean typically causes warmer, drier weather in Texas and other parts of the South. The best hope for rain, he believes, will be in the spring.

“The likelihood of recovery or any substantial improvements is probably not going to be there,” Fuchs said.

That Trib story above says that the city of Odessa has received about three-quarters of a inch of rain all year. You can see why they might be a little desperate. Better root for El Niño to pay us a visit, and the sooner the better.

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