Poof! Drought, which covered almost one-third of the nation at the beginning of winter, has all but vanished.
Abundant winter and spring rains have decimated large regions of drought that afflicted the nation. On Thursday, the federal government’s U.S. Drought Monitor declared that only 6 percent of nation was affected by drought conditions, the lowest percentage since it began its assessments in 2000.
It comes as no surprise that the biggest reduction in drought has occurred over California — constantly in the news in the winter because of storminess. In October, the start of the water year, drought covered 84 percent of the Golden State. That percentage has since plunged to 8 percent.
Storm after storm crashed into the West Coast off the Pacific Ocean during the winter and spring months, unloading copious amounts of low elevation rain and high elevation snow.
The most precipitation in recorded history fell in the northern part of the Sierra Nevada from fall to spring. Some high-elevation locations received more than 750 inches of snow — so much powder that a few ski areas will remain open well into the summer.
Impressive to see the current Sierra snowpack vs. this time last year and two years ago, a world of difference pic.twitter.com/uejqQwACtE
— MDA Weather Services (@MDA_Weather) April 27, 2017
Numerous storms have also walloped previously drought-plagued areas of the East. Recall that in the fall, severe drought afflicted portions of Alabama, Georgia, the western Carolinas and Tennessee, intensifying wildfires that erupted in the region.
But just this week, a lumbering, moisture-loaded coastal storm unleashed torrential rains in the Carolinas, eastern Tennessee and southwest Virginia. The storm caused significant flooding, but drought coverage in this region is now much diminished.
A steady stream of storms relieved drought conditions in New England as well.
Only patchy areas of drought now remain in the Lower 48, most notably in Florida, Georgia and Alabama, an area from central Virginia to central Maryland, including the District, and extreme southwest Arizona and Southern California.
The drought in Florida is perhaps most serious, contributing to more than 100 wildfires burning across the state. “We’ve not seen fire conditions this bad since 2011,” wrote Adam Putnam, Florida’s commissioner of agriculture, in an op-ed for the Tallahassee Democrat.
But the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center forecasts “likely removal” of the drought in Florida in the summer because of frequent sea breeze thunderstorms that tend to form in the afternoon. Over much of its peninsula, the summer months are usually the wettest months.
However, drought conditions are forecast to persist or worsen from Alabama to South Carolina. This area may become prone to wildfires as the summer wears on — much like it was last year.
While drought is all but gone in most other parts of the United States, unusually wet conditions have replaced it.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Extremes Index, which expresses the percentage of the nation dealing with abnormal weather, ranks highest in recorded history (for the period spanning January to March). This reflects broad coverage of unusually warm and/or wet weather.
Climate change predictions into the future suggest that as temperatures rise, the nation will experience more such precipitation extremes.
Warmer temperatures speed up evaporation which makes more water available to storms — when they are present. So wet weather patterns are expected to trend even wetter, meaning the potential for more frequent and severe floods.
Conversely, the faster evaporation rates more rapidly dry out the land surface so that in the absence of storms, drought conditions develop and spread more quickly.
At the moment, the pendulum has swung to precipitation fortune in the Lower 48, but there’s no saying how long it will last. Recent history shows drought conditions can strike fast and with devastating consequences.