Although not the good news that many were hoping for, the drought outlook provides vital information for helping people in the region know what to expect in the days, weeks, possibly months of drought ahead. NOAA continues to monitor drought conditions and release outlooks, aiming to provide enough lead-time to people who may be vulnerable to drought impacts. This vital information can prevent the loss of life and millions of dollars in damage. (Related photo: Airplanes drop fire retardant on Texas fires.)
For example, back in November, NOAA issued a long-range outlook that forecasted drought conditions for this year. The advance notice allowed state fire managers in Texas and the surrounding states enough time to assess their fire risk, assets, and resources.
“The preparation for fire season got state agencies in the ‘ready’ mode,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “Officials were able to anticipate staffing levels needed to deal with sudden, widespread wildfire outbreaks ahead of time.”
In much of the Southeast and large parts of the West, the frequency of drought has already increased along with rising temperatures over the past 50 years. So will we see more droughts like this one—or worse—in a warmer future? In several southern locations, the answer appears to be yes, based on a comprehensive assessment conducted in 2009 by the U.S. Global Change Research Program.
If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at relatively high rates, winter and spring precipitation in the Southwest is projected to decline by as much as 40 percent. Some drying is projected for the Southern Plains, but there is less agreement among the different models used to simulate future climate. In addition, despite the current drought, observations indicate a long-term trend of increasing precipitation in Texas.
“For Texas, specifically,” Nielsen-Gammon says, “the picture is not entirely clear. But we do know that temperatures are going up and are likely to continue to go up.”
“As global temperatures increase, so too will evaporation and water supply needs during droughts. Rivers and streams will thus run hotter and drier than before, if they run at all during a drought. That’s likely to be the biggest immediate effect of global warming on droughts.”
It is obvious to Nielsen-Gammon that Texas is living through a very unusual weather event.
“I don’t consider it to be the worst drought on record, because the 1950s drought lasted for seven years, and 1956 alone gives 2011 a run for its money,” he says.
But, he continues, “combine it with July being the warmest month on record for Texas—and August maybe even hotter—and it probably becomes the most unbearable.”
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