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Great Plains could see its most significant drought in a decade

Seventy percent of the Southern Plains is experiencing a severe drought or worse

Crop scouts survey drought-stressed spring wheat near Grandin, N.D., last July. (Karl Plume/Reuters)
4 min

Ten years ago, just before the start of summer, conditions were not looking good across the Plains. Winter had been dry, which wasn’t too worrying as winter is normally pretty dry. Except in this year, the Southern Plains had just endured an extremely dry summer in 2011, and the ground was parched. By the end of summer 2012, drought was significant and widespread from the northern Central Plains down to the Southern Plains.

The impacts of the drought were devastating for crops and pastures across the region — not to mention low rainfall, brutal heat, dry soils and wildfires that inflicted the area. The effects of the drought lasted well into 2013, and for some areas, into 2014.

The Plains are no stranger to drought, with severe drought occurring around seven times in the last 20 years. But the 2012 drought period represents the worst drought for many who have lived in the area for their entire lifetimes.

Now they may face another one like that.

This summer, the region could be at risk for another extreme drought. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 70 percent of the Southern Plains region is currently in a severe drought or worse (D2+). This is up from just 7 percent six months ago.

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Precipitation deficits tell one part of the story. The Southern Plains area has received between 2 and 8 inches less than average for the last six months. Evaporative demand, or the potential loss of water from the surface, has increased stress on the vegetation, which can dry them out more quickly.

As a result, farmers have abandoned a large amount of winter wheat, affecting both supplies in the country as well as potential exports. Winter wheat conditions for the country are the poorest they have been in the last 20 years for the beginning of April.

In the Plains, the amount of winter wheat in good to excellent condition is a mere 30 percent (down from 53 percent last year), and the amount in poor to very poor conditions is 36 percent, up 20 percentage points from last year.

The combination of dry air, below average precipitation and dry vegetation is also increasing the risk of wildfire. Several fire indicators — those that assess the fuels available, the amount of energy from fuels and the potential difficulty of fire containment — are very high across the region.

The National Interagency Fire Center is forecasting above normal risk for significant wildfires for April. A higher risk for significant wildfires continues across the Southern Plains and spreads into the Northern Plains throughout the spring and summer.

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Conditions are likely to worsen before they get better, according to the Climate Prediction Center’s seasonal outlook for April, May and June. In the Texas panhandle, there’s a 56 percent chance that the season will be drier than average, and only an 11 percent chance of wetter-than-average conditions.

Even more noteworthy is the temperature outlook. A wide region, extending from the Four Corners and the desert Southwest, and across most of Oklahoma and Texas, there is a 60 to 75 percent chance of above average temperatures (and virtually no chance of below average temperatures).

What does this outlook mean as we get to summer?

Dry conditions will further increase precipitation deficits and extend the length of time it will take to recover. Warm conditions will increase evaporative losses to the atmosphere, continue to dry out soils and exacerbate the severity of the drought. Those dry soils will feed into the dry atmosphere in the summer, inhibit the development of beneficial storms and also increase the frequency of brutally hot days.

Unfortunately, there is nothing to be done to stop the onset of drought. But now is the time for those living in these drought stricken areas to prepare a plan.

If you are a farmer or rancher, learn about what resources may be available to you to help you through this time. If you live in an area where wildfire may be a risk, have a grab bag ready and communicate with your family what you may do during an emergency.

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If you are vulnerable to extreme heat, plan where you may go when those hot days arrive. Help reduce impacts by conserving water, don’t light fires on high risk days and stay weather aware.

And as always, there’s hope for the next fall and winter to bring about a change in pattern.

Becky Bolinger is the assistant state climatologist for Colorado and a research scientist at Colorado State University.