In addition to less than optimistic news on grain and cotton price outlooks, folks attending the recent Red River Crops Conference in Altus, Okla., heard that the drought that has gripped southwest Oklahoma and the Texas Rolling Plains for the last three plus years is likely to persist in 2014.
As if that’s not ominous enough, long-term forecasts suggest the region will continue to struggle with climate extremes.
The “Texoma” area, as meteorologist Bryan Rupp dubs it, has borne the brunt of the long-term drought that has gripped most of the Southwest for four or five years. Rupp, also an on-air meteorologist for KFDX television station in Wichita Falls and a confessed storm chaser, says 2014 likely will see temperatures above normal and precipitation below normal. “The outlook is not the most optimistic,” he said.
Predictions do not include either a La Niña or an El Niño effect — weather phenomena that affect global weather patterns — “but drought continues.” He said rainfall total for the Wichita Falls, Texas, area for January is zero.
He said the continuing drought, accompanied by abnormally high summer temperatures, creates a cycle of hot, dry conditions. “The drought feeds on itself,” he said.
He also noted that a recent La Niña lasted three years, beginning in 2007 and 2008. “We thought then it was a one-year La Niña, then it was two and then it was three.” The last time La Niña persisted for three straight years was 1973 through 1976. The last before that was in the 1950s and resulted in long-term drought, the benchmark for Texas droughts, some say.
In the worst La Niñas, expectations include drought, record heat — up to 110 degrees — wildfires and dust storms. “Temperatures of 110 are not normal for West Texas,” he said, “but we are seeing them every year.”
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Deficits add up
He said the current drought began in 2010 and 2011. Conditions deteriorate every year, even with some improvement in precipitation. In 2011, Texas rainfall accumulation was 26 percent of normal. That’s a 74 percent deficit and much of West Texas and Northern Oklahoma received only 7 inches of annual precipitation. Conditions improved a lot in 2012. Total precipitation was 69 percent of normal, or only a 31 percent deficit. But that came on top of a 74 percent shortage. In 2013, the area received more than 70 percent of normal rainfall, about 20 inches of precipitation. “But that also came on top of two deficits, so it adds up.”
Rupp said from the beginning of the decade, 2010, through 2013, total precipitation deficit stands at 45 percent of normal. “That means we’re down 40 inches. We need that much precipitation just to get back to normal.”
Making up that much would require significantly more than a year or two of normal rainfall, which doesn’t seem likely anyway. A large snowfall event would help, but February is the last real chance for that to occur and odds are not favorable. A hurricane on the gulf coast that moves inland and sets over Texas for several days would be another opportunity to make up some of the deficit. “That would be bad for folks along the coast but good for us,” Rupp said. He also noted that rain from a hurricane is a “long shot.” Hurricane predictors say 2014 is likely to be a relatively light hurricane year.
What’s more likely is that conditions continue to deteriorate with high summer temperatures and low rainfall continuing. Also more likely will be more dust storms and more wildfires.
He also referred to the Climate Prediction Center, part of the National Weather Service, that at one time was not noted for accuracy. But in 2008 and 2009 the center began predicting higher temperatures and precipitation way below normal. And they “were right. We now see credibility and watch their predictions,” Rupp said.
Their forecasts include something close to normal precipitation for 2014, but Rupp says precipitation estimates were a bit off last year so he errs on the side of about 15 percent below normal precipitation. The center also predicts “above” to “much above” normal temperatures. Above normal would be a five-degree increase; much above normal would be 10 degrees higher. A “very much above normal” category means 15 degrees higher.
The Climate Prediction Center calls for 2014 temperatures to range from above normal to much above normal. An average July temperature of about 97 degrees would mean an increase to 103 degrees at above normal, 107 at much above.
“So, we’re looking at 2014 to be five to 10 degrees warmer and below average precipitation — hot and dry.”
Low lake levels
Rupp also commented on lake levels, which in the Rolling Plains of Texas and Southwest Oklahoma are at historical lows. The lake at Altus, from which much of the area gets irrigation water, is at 11 percent of normal. Lake Steed is at 28 percent and Kemp is at 24 percent. Some lakes in West Texas are at zero, he said.
East of the Altus, Okla., and Vernon, Texas, area, lake levels are much better. Arbuckle is at 99.7 percent full and Thunderbird is at 100 percent capacity. Conditions on the caprock in the Texas High Plains are also better than in the Rolling Plains.
Rupp said Eastern Oklahoma and Texas are virtually drought-free. Drought may intensify in West Texas.
The climate future for the Southwest, Rupp said, “based on science and some opinion,” indicates a possibility of continued drought and high temperatures. “It’s not the end of the world,” Rupp said. “But it is not good. That’s the honest truth.”
By 2040, some predictions indicate significant areas of Texas under desertification and semi-arid or arid. “For 2040, we have one word — extremes. Extremes will be the new normal. Brief extreme weather events will be more rare and frequent and long heat waves, wildfires, dense dust storms and long-term drought will be common. If precipitation average in 2014 is 28 inches per year, it could drop to 25 inches by 2026 and to 22 inches by 2040. “We’re getting dangerously close to arid conditions at that point,” Rupp said. Summertime temperatures also could rise to 120 degrees. “People can live at 120 degrees,” he said, “but they must adapt. And ranchers will have to determine what to do with cattle in 120-degree heat.”
Climate change, Rupp said, is real. Whether it’s manmade or natural makes no difference. “I don’t care either way. If it’s manmade, companies are not going to change and if it’s natural there is nothing we can do about it. So, you have to adapt. Look at what you did differently in 2011 to survive and apply that to management.”
The financial impact of climate change could be significant, Rupp said. The cost of insurance will increase but land values may decrease. “Rivers will periodically go dry, as the Red River did in 2011. Lake levels will be permanently low and water use restrictions will be in place. Some small towns will go dry.”
He said extremes have already occurred, including the Wichita River flood, Christmas blizzards in 2009 and 2012, long-term drought, and regional wildfires.
“It’s happening. Climate change is undeniable and it’s in our own backyard. And we can’t change it.”