The Drought of 2012 Just Getting Started, Explained With Empathy

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I have tremendous empathy for the drought-stricken residents of the Midwest and Mississippi River Valley regions. It was only last year that so much of Texas, including my part of Texas (Houston), was experiencing the exact same thing: temperatures so hot it was literally dangerous to spend more then just a few minutes outside, air so dry there were few clouds in the sky for weeks on end, land so dry it actually furthered and exacerbated the drought itself, while all around the deadly effects of the lack of water were plainly evident. At the same time, we shared the same thoughts now going through the minds of those living through the drought (or dry-out as my European colleagues call it): when will the drought end? How much worse will it get before it ends? How much will it cost — not only to me personally, but how much will it cost my community and even my country?

Last year all of Texas was ravaged by exceptional drought and many regions of Texas were consumed by wildfire. Image: U.S. Drought Monitor

I remember worrying about my foundation (slab foundations, common in this region, are tremendously susceptible to cracking when the earth below dries and compacts). My summertime thrill of walking barefoot across a rich, green lawn had been replaced (forever?) with fears of pricked and bloody feet as my lawn became crisp, sharp and a desert-like shade of greenish-brown which was actually more brown than green. Area lakes dried or fell to record low levels — boats remained on trailers or literally grounded in slips while the Texas vacation industry came close to drying up itself. Due to severe water restrictions, there were extended periods when watering a lawn was strictly forbidden and I was no longer able to wash my car (car washing could only be done at a professional car washing business as they captured and recycled their water). Even today, with plenty of water in the bank, I’ve not returned to my enjoyable Saturday morning routine of washing my car, but my lawn is looking pretty good.

One year later: Though many areas of Texas have made a remarkable recovery, a developing band of drought is easily seen from Arkansas northeastward to Indiana. Image: U.S. Drought Monitor

Presently in the Midwest, the commodity that’s taking the brunt of the drought and gaining a lot of media attention is the corn. Last year, it was the cattle. Like the Midwest, with farmers and the corn, it’s difficult to think of Texas without thinking about cowboys and their livestock. The damage to both industries is the stuff of legend. As if that’s not bad enough, wildfires are now becoming a serious concern from Indiana to Arkansas. It was the same thing last year in Texas. There were times when we thought the whole state was on fire.

Unfortunately, the outlook for the 2012 Midwest drought is not a good one. In fact, at least for the short term, the best possibility of easing current conditions is a massive water conservation effort on a multi-state level. Of course the best form of relief will come from a significant rain event — one that, on a state-wide level, would require days and days of rain totaling at least 10 inches.

In Texas, last year's drought left boats on dry ground and boat owners wondering what to do. Photo: R. Lauer/

At this time of year, a significant rain event of the sort needed in Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas would have to be tropical in nature. What’s needed is a tropical storm or hurricane that would blow in from the Gulf of Mexico with enough strength to carry the needed rain some 700 miles inland from the coast. Ironically, that’s exactly what Texas needed this time last year, but it never came. Today, looking into the Atlantic Basin, there’s no sign of any tropical system or even pattern that could deliver such a storm.

What’s the outlook? Without the tropical rains, things are likely to get worse before they get better. Our seasonal forecast suggests normal rainfall over the coming 90 days or so. Summer rainfall in the heartland of the U.S. is known for passing showers and fast-moving thunderstorms — not nearly enough rainfall to end or shorten the drought. And in a cruel twist of fate, the dry soil actually encourages the continuing drought. By being so dry and without much cloud-cover to block the sun, a warm column of air forms over the affected area. Pressure trends within these air columns are higher which brings about sinking, or subsiding air. This then prohibits the development of the clouds that would, in turn, bring rainfall.

A broad area of above-normal temperatures are expected from northern Mexico and Texas to the northern Great Lakes and Canada, as well as the areas presently affected by the 2012 drought. Image: ImpactWeather

High pressure and drier air also allow warmer temperatures, which further dries the soil and allows the drought to almost feed upon itself. And it doesn’t take a meteorologist to know that more high pressure and continuing warmer-than-normal temperatures aren’t good for anybody or anything. Crops, livestock, business, infrastructure and people are all in the crosshairs of this drought.

There’s one more effect of the high pressure system now locked in to the American Midwest and, as odd as it sounds, it’s tropical in nature. Tropical in the sense that it will prohibit tropical storms from pushing northward from the Gulf to drought-stricken regions. The strong clockwise flow and the stationary nature of the high will effectively block entry to any storm attempting an inland trajectory, deflecting them instead to western regions of the Gulf where residents of south Texas will be appreciative, or to Florida and the U.S. Southeast where the states of Georgia and South Carolina will also be quite appreciative — as long as it’s not too huge of a system.

ImpactWeather's August 2012 precipitation outlook indicates below normal rainfall for drought-stricken areas. Image: ImpactWeather

In Texas, we had to wait for the winter rains and then the springtime storms to bring a near end to our drought, though many areas of central and western Texas remain well below normal rainfall averages. Even now,  in areas such as Houston where recent heavy and extended rainfall has brought unwelcome flooding, signs of last year’s drought are readily evident in the millions of dead or dying trees that have been removed, the cracked slab foundations, dangerous sinkholes, broken water mains (many have yet to be repaired) and even buckled or heaved roadways. Those of us who have lived through droughts know very well that even when the rains finally come — and they will — the effects of the drought are far from over.

ImpactWeather has written several times about last year’s drought. You can read some of those postings here, here and here.

Likely storm tracks (in yellow) with strong high pressure in place over the central U.S. Image: ImpactWeather

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