A Record Lack of Rain in Drought-Stricken Nebraska

The 2012 drought has already set a slew of records, and is destined to go down in history as one of the worst droughts since the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s. The drought is not having the same impacts in every state, with recent improvements taking place in the lower Mississippi River Valley, parts of the Midwest, and the East. However, in the Plains and Upper Midwest, along with the West in general, the situation looks bleak. Nebraska, for example, was experiencing “exceptional” drought conditions, which is the worst category, in 78 percent of the state as of Oct. 9.

Nebraska had its driest July-to-September period on record, during which time the state also set numerous extreme heat records. As this chart shows, it was also the driest May-to-September on record, practically falling off the chart compared to similar periods in the past.

May to September precipitation in Nebraska during the 1895-2012 period, with the arrow pointing to the 2012 record low.
Click on image to enlarge.
Credit: NOAA/NCDC.

For the past 12 months (October 2011 to September 2012), Nebraska ranked second driest, and it was not alone in setting new benchmarks for dryness.

As the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) stated in its monthly drought report, several states also blew away their previous records. “It should be noted that the dryness this year has been so extreme and persistent that, not only did several states rank driest for several time scales . . . but their records were by wide margins compared to the previous records,” the report said.

In addition to Nebraska, the report cites the example of New Mexico, which has had its driest and warmest two-year period on record since 1895. That's remarkable considering how many long-lasting droughts New Mexico has gone through. 

New Mexico precipitation during two-year periods ending in September. The circle corresponds to September 2012.
Click on image to enlarge.
Credit: NOAA/NCDC.

The most recent climate outlooks do not call for much drought relief in the High Plains or the Southwest through December.

While the drought was most likely triggered by a particular pattern of ocean temperatures in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, it was likely aggravated by extreme heat this summer. July was the warmest month of any month on record, and the summer was the third-warmest on record. Climate studies have shown that the odds of severe heat waves are increasing due to manmade climate change. Climate modeling studies indicate an increase in the frequency and severity of drought events across the U.S. (and in other parts of the globe) within the next several decades, particularly in the Southwest.

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