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Drought to Last Through April; Southwest May Improve

Large storms brought some short-term relief to drought-afflicted areas over the past week, and allowed the footprint of the national drought to shrink slightly. However, while similar rainstorms are forecast to continue during the coming weeks, there is only slight potential for drought recovery for the rest of the season.

A new seasonal drought outlook calls for the U.S. drought to persist or develop even more in the areas that have suffered the most from low precipitation over the past year – the Southwest, Texas, the Southern Rockies, and the High Plains, as well as in Southern Georgia, Alabama, and Florida – at least through the end of April. Slight improvement is expected on the northern ends of those regions, across the Northern Plains, Southern Appalachians and Mid-Atlantic states.

A new seasonal drought outlook calls for drought to persist or develop in the areas that have suffered the most from low precipitation over the past year at least through the end of April. 

The U.S. Drought Outlook, a product of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, uses a combination of short- and medium-term forecasts, long-term climate models, and several other climatological benchmarks, such as soil moisture, to predict how drought conditions will change over the coming months regionally. The outlook released Thursday replaces the forecasts made on January 17, and is valid through April 30.

The most significant change to this week’s release is reflected in the forecast for improvement in the Four Corners region of the Southwest. Since the start of the year, occasional but significant rains have eased the short-term drought in Arizona. Now, current conditions and favorable odds of above-normal precipitation in the region have increased the chance of recovery.

Across the lower 48 states, 56.84 percent of the land area is under drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a shift down from the 57.68 percent reported last week. However, the most severe impacts – the “exceptional drought” category – expanded to 6.85 percent from 6.37 percent. This expansion of drought in the hardest-hit areas of the High Plains and Central Georgia has persisted slowly all winter, as the region has seen little rainfall.  

Current conditions and favorable odds of above normal precipitation in the region have increased the chance of recovery.

The few improvements that were recorded were largely due to a strong frontal storm that blew over the Midwest, and across the East Coast between January 29-31. The storm system led to tornado outbreaks across the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast. But it also brought heavy precipitation to those regions, and to areas as far north as New York. That led to led to single-category improvements all across the South and Midwest. However, short-term rains are no guarantee of long-term drought relief.

In the next week, more heavy storms, such as the one currently barreling down on the Northeast, are expected to bring precipitation and short-term relief to the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast. But runs of climate models indicate above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation for the area through April, stunting hopes at any serious drought recovery in the coming season.

The drought is expected to persist across the central plains, where light precipitation is expected for the coming week, and there are few indicators for more precipitation for the rest of the season. Things look a little better in the Northern Plains and upper Midwest, where significant snowpack boosts the prospect of a wet spring. However, those hopes could evaporate if spring comes too early, and melts the snow too quickly at the start of the season.

Last week marked the 33rd consecutive week in which more than half the land area in the contiguous U.S. has been engulfed by drought, and the 32nd consecutive week in which more than 10 percent of that area was under “extreme drought,” or worse. As this historic drought rolls on through a dry winter, the chances of recovery rest increasingly on a wetter-than-average spring.

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