Extreme drought could mean return to "normal" pattern

As we review the past year in agriculture, the dominant story, at least in the lower Southeast, would have to be the severe drought. Sure, there have been other droughts, but nothing in recent history compares to the drought of 2000.

The drought was made more severe by its longevity. In many areas of the lower Southeast, the drought entered its third year in 2000. Growers in parts of Alabama, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina first watched the complete devastation of the dryland corn crop. Then, the planting of peanuts and cotton had to be delayed until the last possible dates.

In some cases, cotton finally was dusted into powder-dry soils. And those lucky enough to have irrigation watered before and after planting peanuts. As the drought stretched into early summer, ponds, creeks and streams turned dry, and record-low levels and stream flows were recorded in several rivers.

The bleak conditions seen this past summer prompted one respected Extension entomologist - Auburn University's Ron Smith - to advise against planting dryland cotton in Alabama in the future. Many cotton and peanut crops in the lower Southeast literally were "made" with irrigation in 2000.

But as unusual as the current drought may seem, one expert contends that it is part of a historically more normal climate pattern. Georgia's State Climatologist David Stooksbury, who also is a professor of engineering in the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, doesn't see drought as strange or even unusual.

"The state of Georgia now has returned to a more normal climate pattern, with greater year-to-year variability," says Stooksbury. "Drought is part of the overall history of the Southeast. But the history also contains long periods of wetter weather.

"We will have more years that are extremely wet and more years that are extremely dry, which historically is the more common pattern."

Farmers who were around during the 1960s and 1970s can recall extended times of wet, mild weather, says Stooksbury, and that weather makes the current drought seem that much more unusual. But those weather patterns could not be characterized as "normal," says the climatologist.

"If you look back at droughts, the 1960s and 1970s were the abnormal years. There was very little variation," he continues.

In the 1960s, central Georgia experienced only one month of drought, says Stooksbury. And throughout the 1970s, the same area saw only 13 months of moderate, extreme or severe drought.

Though rains brought relief to parts of the parched Southeast in September and November, many areas remain under drought conditions. In Georgia, state water restrictions remain in effect.

And while a drought gets most of its press during the spring and summer months, fall and winter also are critical to making or breaking a drought.

Winter rains usually replenish soil moisture and groundwater supplies lost during the year, says Stooksbury. However, the past two winters haven't brought needed rain to the lower Southeast.

"With the dissipation of the Nino family - for now - Georgia probably will return to near-normal rainfall this winter. The global ocean temperature pattern is close to neutral, which means we don't have the more robust, forcing pattern for the weather."

The state is less likely to have the wet winter of El Nino, but it's also less likely to have the dry winter of La Nina, he says. "We don't have a well-defined guide for this winter. But we'll tend toward a more normal winter."

Stooksbury says another El Nino event is possible for the 2001-2001 winter. "It would take several months of above-normal rainfall to pull out of the drought. Even normal rainfall through winter will not solve the problem."

Going into the next growing season, Stooksbury believes Georgia will have adequate soil moisture to germinate seeds. But groundwater and deep-soil moisture levels will remain low.

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