Southeast drought going into record books

Most farmers in the Southeast will tell you they’ve never seen a drier year than the one they experienced in 2007, and the record books are proof of that.

Preliminary rankings issued by the National Climatic Data Center show that this past year, North Carolina experienced its driest year in 113 years of record keeping. Tennessee had its second driest year, Alabama its third, and Georgia its fourth.

After the devastation caused by drought in 2007, some say there’s no way to go but up in 2008, but that’s not necessarily true, says Georgia State Climatologist David Stooksbury.

If Georgia doesn't receive adequate rainfall over the winter months, drought conditions in summer and fall will likely be worse than those in 2007, says Stooksbury.

“Drought conditions will persist across regions of the state currently in drought and likely expand statewide by spring,” he says. “Half of the state is in extreme drought conditions now. The worst conditions are across the mountains and piedmont regions west of Interstate 75.”

The extreme- to exceptional-drought regions of the state probably will “muddle” through the winter and early spring, he adds. “But without a significant recharge of the soil moisture, groundwater, streams and reservoirs, conditions next summer could become catastrophic in these regions.”

While winter rains will lead to short-term improvement in soil moisture, says Stooksbury, stream flows, groundwater levels and reservoir levels, it is imperative that Georgians do not assume that the drought is breaking.

Currently, he emphasizes, there is no relief in sight.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center predicts a moderate to strong La Niña pattern to persist through spring. With this pattern, a warm, dry winter and spring are highly probable across middle and south Georgia, says Stooksbury.

Across north Georgia, there is high probability that all except the extreme northwest corner will be warm and dry through spring. “Extreme northwest Georgia will be near the transition from dry weather to the south and wet weather across the Tennessee and Ohio River valleys. This means that northwest Georgia could be wetter or drier than normal through the winter and spring,” he says.

With the moderate to strong La Niña pattern in place, there is a high likelihood that north and west Georgia won’t be able to recover from the drought this winter, notes Stooksbury.

And conditions in some areas of the state could become worse, he adds. “The current La Niña pattern also means that areas of southeast Georgia that aren’t classified as being in drought could be experiencing drought conditions by spring.”

Only northern Alabama and extreme northern Georgia have much of a chance of bucking the warm and dry trend, says Stooksbury.

“As we move into late spring and early summer, indications are that the La Niña pattern will slowly weaken with neutral conditions expected for the summer,” he says.

NOAA forecasts a chance of some improvement across extreme northwest and north-central Georgia but with drought likely to develop across southeast and coastal Georgia.

The Southeast Climate Consortium (SECC) also says drought is likely to continue in Georgia and Alabama and may worsen in Florida. “With much colder than normal ocean waters now in place in the tropical Pacific Ocean, it is nearly certain that La Niña will persist and possibly strengthen during the remainder of the winter and well into the spring season,” according to the SECC latest update.

La Niña conditions usually bring warmer weather to the entire region, with temperatures generally averaging 2 to 4 degrees F higher than normal from November through March.

As the cold season progresses into the heart of the winter, the dry pattern actually pushes southward and intensifies over the peninsula of Florida and the immediate coasts of Alabama and Georgia, where average La Niña rainfall is 30 percent to 60 percent less than normal, states the SECC. Central Alabama, central Georgia, and northern Georgia tend to return to near normal rainfall during this time, while northwest Alabama actually tends to be wetter than normal.

As for the implications for the Southeast, the SECC says warmer temperatures will impact winter crops and fruit production, resulting in less chill accumulation over the course of the winter season. Warmer temperatures will also mean greater evaporation rates.

“Due to the jet stream configuration, severe or damaging freezes are less likely during La Niña than in neutral years. However, the risk of early or late season freezes (like in April of 2007) does not seem to be affected by the Pacific Ocean,” says the SECC.

Even with near normal rainfall, says the Consortium, drought conditions are likely to persist in north Georgia and Alabama, but some lessening of the severity is possible with the winter rainfall.

“Keep in mind that winter rainfall is vital to the recharge of surface and groundwater in Georgia and Alabama, where summer evapo-transpiration rates are greater than normal rainfall, usually resulting in falling water levels. In Florida and southeast Georgia, there is a strong possibility that drought will intensify this winter and spring. Wildfires will also be a concern, where studies show that La Niña normally leads to an active wildfire season in Florida and south Georgia,” says the SECC.

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