COLLEGE STATION – Texas' historic and lingering drought has already worn out its welcome, but it could easily stay around for years and there is a chance it might last another five years or even until 2020, says a Texas A&M University weather expert.
John Nielsen-Gammon, who serves as Texas State Climatologist and professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M, says the culprit is the likely establishment of a new La Niña in the central Pacific Ocean. A La Niña is formed when colder than usual ocean temperatures form in the central Pacific, and these tend to create wetter than normal conditions in the Pacific Northwest but also drier than normal conditions in the Southwest. A La Niña has been blamed for starting the current drought but the new one, which began developing several weeks ago, is likely to extend drought conditions for Texas and much of the Southwest.
Currently, about 95 percent of Texas is in either a severe or exceptional drought status and the past year has been the worst one-year drought in the state's history, Nielsen-Gammon adds.
"This is looking more and more like a multi-year drought," explains the Texas A&M professor.
"September is already proving to be an exceptionally dry month and overall, little more than an inch of rain on average has occurred over Texas, compared to about three inches in a normal year. So a very dry state has become even drier."
Many parts of Texas are from 10 to 20 inches behind in rainfall.
"We know that Texas has experienced droughts that lasted several years," adds Nielsen-Gammon. "Many residents remember the drought of the 1950s, and tree ring records show that drought conditions occasionally last for a decade or even longer. I'm concerned because the same ocean conditions that seem to have contributed to the 1950s drought have been back for several years now and may last another five to 15 years."
The drought has devastated farmers and ranchers, and officials have estimated agriculture losses at more than $5.2 billion. This summer, hundreds of wildfires erupted in Texas and burned more than 127,000 acres, the most ever, and lake levels are down as much as 50 feet in some lakes while several West Texas lakes have completely dried up.
Numerous Texas cities set heat records this summer, such as Wichita Falls, which recorded 100 days of 100-degree heat, the most ever for that city. Dallas also set a record with 70 days of 100-degree heat, and the city had to close down 25 sports fields because large cracks in the ground were deemed unsafe for athletic competition.
"Our best chance to weaken the drought would have been a tropical system coming in from the gulf, but that never happened and hurricane season is just about over for us," Nielsen-Gammon reports. "There's still hope for significant rain through the end of October while tropical moisture is still hanging around, but that's all it is - a hope."
"In the next few months, the outlook is not all that promising for rain. Parts of Texas, such as the Panhandle and far Northeast Texas, have a better chance than the rest of the state," he adds.
"Because Texas needs substantially above-normal rain to recover, and it's not likely to get it, I expect that most of the state will still be in major drought through next summer."