The Texas drought continues to set records and is officially the third worst in history for this time of year, according to figures from the office of the state climatologist at Texas A&M University.
John Nielsen-Gammon, professor of atmospheric sciences who also serves as state climatologist, says that at least 50 percent of the state is designated as being in an “exceptional drought,” the highest level, and many parts of Texas are anywhere from 10 to 20 inches behind in rainfall. Some parts of the state have received less than six inches of rain since last summer and some of the state’s lakes are 30 to 40 feet below normal lake levels.
Using a measure of drought called the Palmer Drought Severity Index based on rainfall and temperature, Nielsen-Gammon says May conditions have been worse in only two previous years: 1918 and 1956.
“People keep asking if this is the worst drought in the history of Texas, and the answer is not yet,” Nielsen-Gammon explains. “The years 1918 and 1956 were worse, but of the 20 worst May droughts in Texas history, we currently rank third.”
Reliable record keeping began in Texas in 1895, he points out.
He adds that the National Climatic Data Center recently released its rainfall totals for the past few months, and it paints an equally depressing picture.
The period from March through May was the driest ever, as were the periods from December through May and February through May. The period of October through May was also the driest ever and also the driest eight consecutive months on record.
“We rank behind 1918 and 1956 because they were preceded by other dry years, making the water shortages that much more acute,” Nielsen-Gammon says.
“We’ve already seen August-like heat in May and June, and that doesn’t happen often. We’ve also seen crop failures and extremely low amounts of forage for cattle, forcing some ranchers to go ahead and sell off parts of their herds. May rains have produced some new pasture growth, but without more rain, it won’t last.”
He notes that dry ground heats up more easily than moist ground, so the lack of rainfall statewide is one reason why such cities as Houston, which has reported 100-plus temperatures the past few days, are heating up earlier than ever.
The prospects for rain?
“Not that good,” Nielsen-Gammon adds. “Both the short-range and medium-range forecasts show most of Texas continuing to be dry. In the past, when Texas has been in widespread drought this time of year, conditions have improved by August in only one in five cases. The other 80 percent stayed in drought or got even drier.”