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A Tour of Drought as it Unfolds Across the U.S.

Last year at this time, all eyes were on Texas, where drought conditions were intensifying into what became that state’s worst single year drought on record, causing nearly $8 billion in economic losses. Recently, though, Texas has gone from famine to feast in the precipitation department, and drought concerns for the upcoming summer are focused farther to the west, as drought tightens its grip across a broad swath of the interior West and Southwest

In addition to the West, drought conditions are also prevalent in the Southeast, Mid-Atlantic, and parts of the Northeast as well, along with a small pocket in the Upper Midwest. In all, 56 percent of the Lower 48 states were experiencing drought conditions as of May 8, almost twice the area compared to last year at this time, according to data from the U.S. Drought Monitor.  

U.S. Drought Monitor issued May 8, 2012. Click on image for a larger version.

Fortunately, much of the West had such bountiful winter precipitation last year that the risk of water supply disruptions are rather low in most areas, but that could change if the current weather pattern lasts much longer. Water officials in Colorado, for example, have begun urging residents to start conserving water in case the dry spell continues.

Take a look at the streamflow forecast for the West this summer compared to last year at this time. The orange and red hues this year indicate well below average streamflow conditions are likely, as unusually thin and dry snow cover yields less water than usual. Last year at this time, the same map showed above average streamflow conditions for most of the West.

Western streamflow outlook for spring/summer 2012. Credit: Natural Resources Conservation Service. Click on image for a larger version.

In addition to heightened water supply concerns, the dry conditions may provide favorable conditions for a busier wildfire season, including in California, as Climate Central reported on May 11. 

Heavy rains and severe weather have dominated weather headlines in Texas recently — a stark contrast from last spring — and the rainfall has eroded what was a widespread area of severe-to-exceptional drought conditions. As can be seen in this Drought Monitor map, the severe drought conditions are now confined to northern and western Texas, with dramatic improvement in southern and southeastern areas.

Drought monitor image and statistics showing improved conditions in Texas. Credit: NOAA/USDA. Click on image for a larger version.

Parts of Texas picked up nearly a foot of rainfall during in a seven-day period ending on May 14, eating away at the large precipitation deficit the state had been facing.

In the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic, though, meaningful drought relief has been wanting. In Georgia and South Carolina, for example, pop-up thunderstorms have provided some rainfall recently, but nowhere near the widespread rains needed to put a solid dent in the drought conditions that intensified during the winter. 

The Southeast drought is very likely related to the La Niña conditions that existed in the Pacific Ocean last winter. La Niña events, which feature cooler-than-average waters in the equatorial Tropical Pacific, tend to influence weather patterns in such a way that it leads to drier-than-average winter conditions in the southern tier of the U.S. Fortunately, La Niña has diminished, with neither La Niña or El Niño conditions likely for the next few months, according to NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center and forecasters affiliated with Columbia University (some researchers refer to the absence of La Niña and El Niño as “La Nada”).

Texas rainfall during the seven-day period ending May 14, 2012. Credit: NOAA. Click on image for a larger version.

The latest drought outlook issued by the Climate Prediction Center shows the likelihood of some improvement in drought conditions for Florida and North Carolina, but Georgia and South Carolina aren’t looking quite as good for some reason.

In the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, forecasts favor improving drought conditions. Maryland and Delaware had their driest January to April period on record.

Drought conditions are also expected to improve in parts of the Upper Midwest.

U.S. Drought Monitor issued May 8, 2012. Click on image for a larger version.

Of course, these forecasts aren't set in stone. If a tropical storm or hurricane were to make landfall in northern Florida or coastal Georgia, for example, it could end the southeastern drought. But as Texas learned last year, when Tropical Storm Don essentially evaporated as it made landfall, it's probably best not to hold your breath for such relief.