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Storms Chip Away at Drought in Northern U.S.

Two weeks of storms and a slowly melting snowpack in the northern U.S. continued to chip away at the drought gripping the center of the country. But even as the drought has contracted nationwide, parts of the Texas and the Southwest have seen conditions deteriorate, and are likely to face another tough summer of drought.

The northern part of the U.S. saw the biggest gains, which was welcome news for a region hit hard by drought for the past year. Drought contracted significantly across Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, the Dakotas, and Wyoming, as two spring storms dropped heavy precipitation on the region, and the winter’s snowpack began to infiltrate the soil.

Drought Monitor update as of April 16, 2013.
Click image to enlarge. Credit: USDA, NOAA

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor released Thursday, each of those states saw drastic single-category improvements over the past week. Areas of South Dakota and Wyoming that were previously under “extreme” drought were reclassified as “severe.” Areas of Minnesota and Wisconsin that had been under “moderate” drought were downgraded to “abnormally dry.”

In the Rocky Mountains, light-to-moderate precipitation fell over an area from Idaho and Montana, south over Wyoming, Colorado, and northern New Mexico. Precipitation totals were enough to bring snow cover totals up to near-normal levels, which bodes well for improving ground-water conditions this spring. As one person in central Colorado told the Drought Monitor, the snow was enough to buy another four-to-six weeks for their water supply.

For the first time since June 2012, less than half of the land area in the continental U.S. was under some form of drought conditions. As of this week, 47.82 percent of the lower 48 was under “moderate drought,” or worse. That’s down from 50.82 percent last week, and 65.45 percent in September, when the drought’s footprint was the largest.

The news wasn’t all good, however, as little precipitation fell across Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, or most of the Southwest. As a result, drought conditions have stagnated across much of the region, and expanded in parts of south and central Texas, and Arizona.   

The latest Seasonal Drought Outlook, also released Thursday, predicts that conditions will continue to deteriorate across the Texas and Southwest during the next two months, even as they improve in the Northern Plains and Midwest.   

As of now, forecasters are not anticipating another rapidly expanding “flash drought,” to consume most of the Corn Belt in early summer as it did last year. Drought impacts are expected to be concentrated in the western third of the country. However, flash droughts  can be notoriously difficult to predict, so there is a chance that the improvements made in the past month may be short-lived.

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