Climatologist: Oklahoma is Burning. USDA Issues Dust Bowl Alert

Early May heat dome. A four word combination that may as well be a curse. And not something we would typically expect well before the height of summer. But that’s exactly what’s happened to the US from the southwest and on to its Heartland under a merciless regime of heat and drought fed by human-caused climate change.

As of Sunday, a high amplitude Jet Stream wave had formed over the Central US. The brief up-slope was enhanced by a number of unstable and powerful atmospheric dynamics. To the southwest, a warming Eastern Pacific lent energy from a growing pool of heat. To the north, from Arizona, to New Mexico, to Texas, to Oklahoma, lands baked by more than a decade of chronic drought provided almost no evaporative cooling as the atmospheric heat lens came into dangerous, greenhouse gas enhanced focus far overhead.

pressure anomaly

(ECMWF pressure anomaly graphic from Weatherbell Analytics showing a strong heat dome in place on Monday May 5, 2014.)

By Sunday and Monday, the heat dome was heavily entrenched and the result was a record flash heatwave for large swaths of Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado. In Oklahoma alone, temperatures rocketed to above 100 degrees Fahrenheit at over 17 separate locations. One location experienced a 103 degree F reading, also the highest ever recorded for the date.

To the North, Wichita Kansas shattered its all-time record high temperature by a whopping 8 degrees spiking to an extreme of 102 F. Not only was the heat far stronger than normal. It came far earlier. For Wichita, the earliest 101 F or greater reading came on June 4 of 1933 with most years waiting until late June or early July for 100 F + readings.

For the Heartland, this flash heatwave was very much like the heat of July coming far too early. Across Oklahoma, multiple wildfires erupted from lands ravaged by the most recent event in a long spate of ever-increasing heat and dryness. The rapid rash of burning occurred in regions near homes and businesses forcing more than a thousand to flee.

This sudden, extreme and profound heat prompted Gary McManus, Oklahoma’s state climatologist to write: “Oklahoma is burning, both literally and figuratively, as a combination of drought, record heat, high winds and low relative humidity created the perfect wildfire conditions yesterday,” in the Oklahoma Climatological Survey’s online Ticker.

By early Tuesday, more than 30 structures were destroyed, one soul was lost, and over 6,000 acres had been consumed throughout the state. Though the fires of Sunday and Monday were mostly contained, conditions throughout the state remained hot, dry and dangerous with many more high temperature records expected to fall by late Tuesday afternoon. Mid-morning temperatures in many locations had already risen to the mid to upper 80s and more daily highs in the 90s and 100s were expected throughout the region.

NASA Oklahoma fires

(NASA shot of Oklahoma fires on May 4 and 5. Image source: GCarbin. Note that though highly anomalous, these fires are nowhere near as extreme as the powerful early season blazes affecting large swaths of Siberia this spring.)

Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin issued burn bans for almost half the state as firefighters predicted continued extreme fire potentials for the state throughout the week.

USDA issues Dust Bowl Warning

Meanwhile, US Department of Agriculture officials issued a warning Tuesday that conditions in the US Heartland were rapidly deteriorating along lines last seen during the infamous 1930s Dust Bowl as expectations for the US domestic winter wheat crop again fell after the USDA’s most recent agricultural tour.

Even prior to the extreme early May heatwave emerging over the Central US Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, the percent of the US wheat crop in either good or excellent condition had fallen another 2% to 31% late last week. Meanwhile, crops listed as ‘very poor’ rocketed from an already abysmal 34% to 39% over the same period. The net result is that the US wheat crop is in its worst condition since at least 1996, according to findings by Commerzbank analysts.

For Oklahoma, at the epicenter of current agricultural harm and flash heatwaves, only 6% of the state’s entire wheat crop was listed as in either good or excellent condition.

Department of Agriculture crop scouts described the Oklahoma situation in, perhaps, the starkest possible terms during their most recent report stating:

“Producers in the Panhandle continued to experience high winds … and low moisture conditions similar to the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.”

Overall, analysts now expect a US wheat crop of just 762 million bushels, the third lowest in 15 years despite record areas planted.

Conditions in Context

For the US, weather patterns continue to put the entire southwest and central regions under the gun for severe-to-extreme drought throughout much of the summer. The West Coast blocking pattern is now again firmly entrenched resulting in a deepening of already record drought conditions for California. Sierra Nevada snow packs have now fallen to less than 18% of typical early May values resulting in severe hazard for farmers and communities relying on this dwindling water supply. Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico are also likely to suffer from an extension of this severe and extraordinarily long-lived drought pattern.

Record low sierra nevada snowpack

(Greatly diminished Sierra Nevada snow pack as seen from satellite on May 4, 2014. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

In addition, a developing El Nino in the Eastern Pacific is likely to enhance already dry conditions over the US Heartland through the summer months. Together with the firmly re-entrenched west coast blocking pattern, conditions associated with El Nino set in place an extreme risk for a highly damaging return to drought for large sections of the United States this summer.

Globally, droughts continue to impact a number of the world’s previously most productive agricultural regions. In particular, both Brazil and India are currently suffering from extreme heat and/or drought. Argentina, one of the world’s top wheat producers is also hard-hit. Another one of the world’s largest grain exporters — the Ukraine — has recently been destabilized by a series of ills including east-west geopolitical tensions, internal division, and by Russian invasion. In this context, it is also worth noting that drought, fire, and flood have reduced Russian wheat production from 61 million tons in 2009 along a declining scale to 38 million tons in 2012.

Damages and risks to US crops are, therefore, not simply a national phenomena, but part of a much larger global context of ongoing and increasing crop damage due to extreme weather set off by human-caused climate change.


Oklahoma is Burning

Oklahoma Climatological Survey’s online Ticker

USDA Warns of Dust Bowl

Sierra Nevada Snow Pack Falls to 18% of Typical Values



Weatherbell Analytics

Hat tip to:

Colorado Bob


Jay M.





Leave a comment


  1. Andy (in San Diego)

     /  May 6, 2014

    Corn and wheat up 22% so far this year.

    CBOT corn 517.25 9.25 1.8% 22.6%
    CBOT soy 1457.00 -6.25 -0.4% 11.0%
    CBOT meal 475.90 -2.70 -0.6% 8.7%
    CBOT soyoil 41.23 0.06 0.2% 6.2%
    CBOT wheat 742.25 13.25 1.8% 22.6%
    CBOT rice 1558.00 6.50 0.4% 0.5%
    EU wheat 215.50 -1.25 -0.6% 3.1%

    Normally 25% of Wisconsin corn is in the ground. Only 2% in the ground so far.

    • Thanks for this, Andy. These are some pretty wretched numbers.

      Looks like we’re at the beginning of a global perfect storm for food crisis. FAO report comes out on the 8th. I’m not looking forward to it.

  2. National Climate Assessment: Southwest chapter

  3. Dry and drier in West Texas

  4. A Colorado fire chief faces more wildfires

  5. Gerald Spezio

     /  May 6, 2014

    We may have to rewrite the lyrics, especially;
    “And the land we belong to is grand,”

    We know we belong to the land
    And the land we belong to is grand!
    And when we say
    Yeeow! Ayipioeeay!
    We’re only sayin’
    You’re doin’ fine, Oklahoma!
    Oklahoma O.K.

    “Yeeow,” and then some.

  6. Thanks for the crucial updates, Robert.
    I have a little anecdotal info from here in Portland, Oregon:
    On my last few trips to the grocery store I noticed some staple food had price increases (I don’t remember which food but the price did stand out). In the future I will note these.
    Though the official air temperature is only at 58 degrees — the ozone reading is 31 ppb.I can feel it in my eyes and lungs.
    As the climate warms, ozone pollution dramatically increases.
    Besides the weather patterns etc that you document so well, I add that the chemistry of the atmosphere itself is rapidly growing dangerously toxic. The sheer density likely has its effects on the weather patterns etc.

    • It’s amazing to me that air quality in Portland is so poor with an entire ocean between you and all those emissions sources.

  7. Colorado Bob

     /  May 6, 2014

    The home of the Koch Brothers –
    On Sunday, May 4th, the temperature peaked at 102° at Wichita’s official NWS site Mid-Continent International Airport. Not only was this the hottest temperature ever measured during the month of May (previous record was 100° set on four different occasions) but was the earliest 100° reading on record (previous was May 9, 2011) and hottest reading so early in the season by a whole month: since June 4, 1933 when 102° was also observed. The city is off to its 2nd driest start of the year on record as well. Temperature and precipitation records for Wichita date back to 1888.

  8. Mark from New England

     /  May 6, 2014

    “Oklahoma is burning, both literally and figuratively, as a combination of drought, record heat, high winds and low relative humidity created the perfect wildfire conditions yesterday,”

    I wonder if Oklahoma’s Senator Inofe believes these temperature records, or perhaps he thinks it’s just the devil running a fever. I’d have more faith in humanity if the citizens of that state voted this dangerous and influential climate change denier out of office.

    • Senator Inhofe’s climate change denial seems primarily based on the flawed notion that responding to climate change is too expensive. Recent events show failure to respond is increasingly catastrophic and costly. I’m thinking his assessment is one seen through fossil fuel colored glasses?

  9. Colorado Bob

     /  May 6, 2014

    With the soggy start to May on the heels of a record wet March and much-wetter-than-normal February and March, Seattle has already collected over 25 inches of rainfall this year.

    In a typical year, Seattle doesn’t reach 25 inches of annual rain until October 28! Normal rainfall through May 2 is 15.70″.


    • Didn’t take us long to get back to heat domes and rivers of moisture, did it?

    • JPL

       /  May 7, 2014

      I like rain as much as the next guy, much prefer it to a dust bowl, but I think we in Seattle are all about ready for a break. I realize that in the grand scheme of things 25 inches isn’t some mind-boggling amount – its just that it rains here almost every freakin’ day this time of year.
      I always laugh when folks from out of town hear our tv weather forecasters calling for ‘sun-breaks’. What the hell is a sun break, they ask? Oh, that’s when the clouds miraculously‎ part for 90 seconds and everyone stops and basks in the warm embrace of our giant solar heater.

      Portlandia totally nails this, if you’re in the market for two minutes of comedy:

      dtlange – you know what I’m talking about!


  10. Colorado Bob

     /  May 6, 2014

    Forest Service extends fire warning to all of Southeast

    A fire warning issued last week for parts of northern Southeast Alaska has been expanded to the whole region.

    Tongass National Forest Fire Management Officer Seth Ross says continued warm, dry weather is affecting more areas.

    • Time to watch both Alaska and Canada…

    • Colorado Bob

       /  May 6, 2014

      NOVOSIBIRSK, May 06. /ITAR-TASS/. About 160 forest fires on a total area of 37,700 hectares were put out in Siberia over the last 24 hours. Now, more than 122,000 hectares are raging in seven regions of the Federal District, of them 116,300 hectares in the Trans-Baikal territory, the press service of the Siberian Federal District’s Forestry Department said on Tuesday.

      • Been watching it on MODIS all week. The fires are cropping up everywhere. We’ve probably already seen nearly a half million acres burn in Russia and we’re barely into May.

  11. Andy (in San Diego)

     /  May 7, 2014

    “Kansas – Just one year – 1936 – has had a drier opening four months since such record keeping began in 1889.” The picture of the stranded cars on the closed highway buried in dust is like an updated version to the 1930’s pictures in color.

    If you search for comparisons, you’ll see dust bowl -vs- 2014. In some areas the dust bowl climatic conditions were surpassed. The difference being aquifers being pumped to grow something, no matter how poor quality.

    By pumping ground water out, we are continuing to keep the blinders in place. It allows us to say “yup it hot, but it’s not the dust bowl. My crops are still growing”.

    But as the aquifer depletes, this happens…..
    NOTE: this article is from one year ago, it is much worse now

    An interesting paper on the southwest.

    • Andy (in San Diego)

       /  May 7, 2014

      “If you search for comparisons, you’ll see dust bowl -vs- 2014.”

      That should be

      “If you search for comparisons, you’ll see dust bowl -vs- 2012.”

      My apologies for typo’ing that year.

  12. Interesting – Guy McPherson talks about the “dustbowl that never ends”making the SW uninhabitable. Maybe not so far-fetched?

    “The Ukraine — has recently been destabilized by a series of ills including east-west geopolitical tensions, internal division, and by Russian invasion.” All correct except for the last phrase – no invasion – not yet!

    • My assessment of Crimea is that it was invaded. Numerous valid sources show active special forces operations in addition to active orchestration of the annexation referendum by Russian personnel.

      In addition, we have the 18th Motor Rifle Brigade from Russia marching right in to consolidate gains/ control. Classic destabilization/invasion.

      • We could well argue about this – I have a different perception. But quite what that has to do with a dustbowl in Oklahoma and climatic conditions in Ukraine is beyond me. Comments on geopolitics in your excellent articles can well detract from your core message and act as a distraction (my comments being a case in point!!)

        • Climate change has a deleterious impact on geopolitics and this negative effect should not be ignored. In any case, one cannot help stepping on toes when covering the issue as major political interests have attempted to blot it out entirely.

          The East-West power struggle in Ukraine and various related bad actions (probably seen as survival impulses on the part of the powers involved), in my view, are exaggerated by the current crop/climate picture. Ukraine would always have been contentious due to its strategic and economic importance to Europe, the West, the expression of a large portion of its population for independence and self determination, and its traditional ethnic,strategic and economic ties to Russia.

          Now add the layer that Ukraine is one of the world’s largest grain exporters and grain crops around the world are currently under severe weather related stress. In this way, a potential emerging dust bowl in the US, crop damage in Brazil, Russia and Argentina, and the political crisis in major grain producer Ukraine are related.

          I know the issue is touchy because various peoples do not wish to appear vulnerable during trying times. But if we are to confront the issue of potentially escalating resource crisis as a result of climate change, we need to be open and honest about causes.

          Finally, it is important to show that conflict over resources in this context is not at all helpful. If the East and West become embroiled in an escalating power struggle over Ukraine, the damage and disruption to crops and food exports are likely to further unhinge a global food system that is already in crisis.

          The conflict is therefore linked to global food security. And, in my view, this is of key importance when looking at both ongoing global climate change and at the Ukraine crisis in context.

  13. Colorado Bob

     /  May 7, 2014

    Compared to seasonal norms, the warmest departure from average in April was in southeastern Russia near the town of Chita. Temperatures there were as much as 5.69 C (about 10.3 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than seasonal norms.

  14. Colorado Bob

     /  May 8, 2014

    seemorerocks / May 7, 2014 –

    ” But quite what that has to do with a dustbowl in Oklahoma and climatic conditions in Ukraine is beyond me.”

    In his interview with Light, Femia explains the role of drought in the conflict:
    From 2006 to 2011, 60 percent of Syria’s land experienced, in the words of one expert, the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago. That, on top of natural resource mismanagement by the Assad regime — subsidizing water-intensive wheat and cotton farming and unsustainable irrigation techniques — led to a large amount of devastation.
    There are some quite frightening numbers. Herders and farmers in the north and south had to pick up and move. Nearly 75 percent of farmers in the northeast suffered total crop failure. Herders in the northeast lost around 85 percent of their livestock, which affected about 1.3 million people. That was happening before the civil war in Syria broke out.
    Many international security analysts were saying, right up to the day before protest broke out in the small rural town of Daraa, that Syria was immune to the Arab Spring and to the grievances that other Arab publics had brought to bear on their leaders. And that clearly wasn’t the case.
    There was quite a bit of displacement happening; millions were trekking into urban areas. Those urban areas were experiencing quite a bit of economic insecurity. Some of that was also coming from poverty and competition from other influxes of people — for example, Iraqi refugees who had been flowing into Syria since 2003, and also Palestinian refugees. These were cities that were already hard-pressed economically…. Under the surface of what seemed to be a stable country, there was a large-scale environmental and human disaster happening.

    • This is an excellent reference to how drought and crop destruction related to climate change can result in geopolitical destabilization.

  15. corey todnem

     /  May 8, 2014

    I am so grateful to stumble upon your blog. Wonderful content, and I have yet to run into any contrarian silliness in the comments section.

  16. rayduray

     /  May 12, 2014

    Big wildfire reported in the Texas Panhandle:

  1. Climate Change - Page 72

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