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After a Brief Respite, Climate Change Enhanced Drought is Returning to the U.S.

Unseasonable warmth across the American West and overall dry conditions across the South is causing drought to expand throughout many parts of the United States.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, most of the southern half of the United States is presently experiencing abnormally dry or drought conditions. Meanwhile, an intense drought that has remained in place over the Dakotas and Montana for multiple months continues to persist.

Severe drought conditions are now present in the south-central U.S. with exceptional and extreme drought expanding through Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana and Missouri. Deepening drought in California and Texas are notable due to the fact that Southeast Texas recently experienced record rainfall due to Hurricane Harvey and California experienced a very wet winter and spring period from 2016 to 2017. Somewhat milder drought is also spreading through the Southeast.

Re-expanding Southern California drought is also enhancing record wildfire activity in that state.

Much Warmer than Normal Temperatures

A strengthening La Nina in the Equatorial Pacific is helping to generate a drought tendency for the Southern U.S. However, various climate change related features including above normal temperatures and a persistent high pressure ridge in the West are lending intensity to the rising drought regime.

(U.S. 30 day average shows much warmer than normal conditions for the lower 48 with extreme warmth prevalent over the American West. Image source: Global and Regional Climate Anomalies.)

Over the past 30 days, temperatures for the U.S. as a whole have been 1.52 C above average (see image above). Much of this excess heat has been concentrated over the West, with mountain and Pacific regions seeing between 4 and 5 C above average temperatures.

Excess heat of this kind helps to speed the drying of soils and vegetation by increasing the rate of evaporation. A condition that can lead to flash drought — whose incidence has been expanding in lock-step with the human-forced warming of the globe.

A Ridiculous Ridge

Linked to the western heat and drought is a strong and persistent high pressure ridge. One that has hit a very intense 1041 hPa pressure as of Monday afternoon over the U.S. Mountain West.

(Very intense high pressure ridge over the U.S. west is presently locking in both warmer than normal and drier than normal conditions. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

Persistent ridging of this kind was a key feature of the recent 2012 through 2017 California drought. Some climate studies have identified a tendency of these kinds of strong western ridges to form as Arctic sea ice recedes. And during the past decade, strong high pressure ridges have been a rather consistent and significant climate feature for the U.S. West. It is also notable that formation of more powerful ridging features during the fall and winter help to strengthen the Santa Ana winds — which fan California wildfires.

Present drought is nowhere near as intense as it has been during recent years. Especially in California which during 2017 has experienced a bit of a respite. However, with La Nina gaining traction in the Pacific, with global temperatures now in a range between 1.1 and 1.2 C above 1880s averages, and with persistent ridging again taking hold over the U.S. West, the risk of a return to intense drought — especially for the Southwest — is increasing.

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66 Comments

  1. wili

     /  December 11, 2017

    I’m surprised more of Minnesota isn’t yellow, at least. The last few weeks have been quite dry, though we did have a nice snowfall this morning.

    Reply
  2. coloradobob

     /  December 11, 2017

    OT –
    Just got my ISP bill , it went up 25% / Thursday we do away with “net neutrality” /
    Everyone make a note of where you go on the inter tubes now, because the toll booths are coming.

    Reply
    • More monopolistic harm coming from republican policy…

      Reply
    • eleggua

       /  December 12, 2017

      Bob, call the customer service number and ask for a “retention specialist”. Complain about the rate hike, tell them you cannot afford it, and ask if they have a plan that doens’t raise your bill that they can put you on. That usually works.

      Reply
  3. coloradobob

     /  December 11, 2017

    Another cracker jack post from Bob Henson –
    The Still-Raging Thomas Fire Torches Its Way into California Wildfire History
    More than 6000 firefighters were engaged in a furious effort on Monday to contain the Thomas Fire, the largest of the multiple wildfires that have pummeled Southern California over the past week. The Thomas Fire made an enormous westward surge on Sunday, consuming tens of thousands of acres in Santa Barbara County and reducing the fire’s total containment level from 15% to 10%. Incredibly, the 57,000 acres burned between Sunday and Monday morning far exceeded the entire coverage of October’s catastrophic Tubbs Fire in the Santa Rosa area (36,807 acres).­

    https://www.wunderground.com/cat6/still-raging-thomas-fire-torches-its-way-california-wildfire-history

    Reply
  4. coloradobob

     /  December 11, 2017

    Wolf Creek Pass
    Monday 2:00 PM
    Sunny
    40F degrees.

    Reply
    • Damn the Continental Divide is 40 F today? That’s nuts.

      Reply
      • coloradobob

         /  December 11, 2017

        !3 inches of snow at the top . 12 inches midway .
        Excellent rock sking.

        Reply
      • coloradobob

         /  December 11, 2017

        ” Damn the Continental Divide is 40 F today? That’s nuts.”
        Context –
        Wolf Creek Pass (el. 10,857 ft.) is a high mountain pass on the Continental Divide, in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. The highest year round pass. And the snowiest .

        Reply
  5. Looks like La Nina is almost at full strength now, and that sure is a Big Hot Blob off the west coast of Mexico:
    https://earth.nullschool.net/#current/ocean/surface/currents/overlay=sea_surface_temp_anomaly/orthographic=-133.41,22.68,568/loc=-123.399,19.472

    Reply
  6. coloradobob

     /  December 11, 2017

    “Snow Bird in Utah ”

    Currently 50F degrees

    Year to date 60 inches

    Current depth 26 inches.

    https://www.snowbird.com/

    Reply
    • coloradobob

       /  December 11, 2017

      Top elevation 11,000 ft (3,353 m)
      Base elevation 7,760 ft (2,365 m)
      lowest chairlift
      8,100 feet (2,469 m)
      main base area

      Reply
  7. coloradobob

     /  December 11, 2017

    Sun Valley , Idaho –

    48°
    4-5 Mph
    Humidity: 24% · Barometer: 1031.5mb

    https://www.sunvalley.com/mountain-snow-report

    Reply
    • coloradobob

       /  December 11, 2017

      Sun Valley is at an elevation of 5,945 feet (1,812 m) above sea level.

      Reply
  8. coloradobob

     /  December 11, 2017

    So let’s review .

    Giant high over the Rockies, producing insane temps at 11,000 feet. Deep low off Mexico producing insane rain . Currently 50F degrees at Snow Bird in Utah. And in California, 57,000 acres burned between Sunday and Monday .

    Yep everything is “oakly dokly”.

    Reply
    • coloradobob

       /  December 11, 2017

      The cutoff low is stronger in this run, parts of Mexican coast are projected to see more than six times their typical December precip

      Reply
    • Location of enhanced low jibes with recent study predictions for changed climatology due to loss of sea ice over 20-50 year horizon. This pattern is happening now, though.

      Reply
  9. coloradobob

     /  December 11, 2017

    Reply
  10. coloradobob

     /  December 12, 2017

    Reply
  11. Erik Frederiksen

     /  December 12, 2017

    IPCC Western US precipitation and drought 1900-2100. Perhaps the most forboding graph I’ve seen. http://icons.wxug.com/hurricane/2013/drought-western-us-1900-2100.png

    Reply
    • Thanks for this, Erik. Continued fossil fuel burning is not a happy future for the U.S. West. Similar story with varying themes pretty much everywhere.

      Reply
  12. Mark in OZ

     /  December 12, 2017

    The Ogallala aquifer, that large inland sea of fresh water below America’s breadbasket stretches from So Dakota to Texas, is under serious threat. The fresh water sourced from rain and snow is now 60% less than it was just 5 decades ago as the ‘draw’ rate exceeds the ‘replenishment’ rate.

    Parts of it are already dry and it will be entirely depleted-just a matter of time now. Elevated temps will just accelerate the inevitable.It’s a similar story across the globe and what once drove enormous agricultural output from the pumped water to the surface will surely decline when the water is exhausted.

    https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2016/08/vanishing-midwest-ogallala-aquifer-drought/

    Reply
    • coloradobob

       /  December 12, 2017

      Mark in OZ

      My family is founded on this . Many thanks for this catch . I know this story well. When we developed center pivot , and said it would save water. But in the sand hills of Nebraska it just was more straws in the glass.
      As child I remember the wells running flat out at night. No muffler , no EPA . A 10 inch pipe running full out. We chilled our water melons in flow for the 4th of July.

      Reply
      • coloradobob

         /  December 12, 2017

        Mark in OZ

        The first town NW of me is called Shallow Water.

        Reply
      • Mark in OZ

         /  December 12, 2017

        No problem CB and thanks back!
        I only ‘know’ three people from Lubbock and two of them are Buddy and Mac. Can’t read about Lubbock without thinking of y’all!
        Re those pumps, the bigger the motor , the bigger the GPH.

        Reply
    • Abel Adamski

       /  December 12, 2017

      Good article on just that.
      Roosevelts great wall of trees was a major factor in rescuing the farmland and farmers from the dustbowl. Now being removed to increase cropping land and also to allow center pivot irrigation
      Too long to post from, but the info is there as well as info on the aquifer
      http://www.circleofblue.org/2017/world/uprooting-fdrs-great-wall-trees/

      Reply
    • If they don’t get a handle on this, the water will have to come from elsewhere. Otherwise, those communities get hit hard.

      Reply
  13. Mark in OZ

     /  December 12, 2017

    Tearing out the shelterbelts. Uprooting FDR’s great wall of trees.

    The dustbowl of the 1930’s was so severe and so protracted, initiatives to help prevent this terrible situation from occurring again were adopted.

    Called the Prairie States Forestry Project, F D Roosevelt and the CCC and WPA and USFS planted > 220 million trees to help mitigate one of the largest (then) man-made eco-disasters.

    Most of the farms are above the Ogallala aquifer but now the shelterbelts are being torn out to enable the planting of revenue producing crops. Many believe that we’ll see another Dust Bowl and the removal of these windbreaks is a very bad idea.

    http://www.circleofblue.org/2017/world/uprooting-fdrs-great-wall-trees/

    Reply
  14. coloradobob

     /  December 12, 2017

    Big Salad Bar

    Reply
  15. coloradobob

     /  December 12, 2017

    Planting – 2010

    Reply
  16. Andy_in_SD

     /  December 12, 2017

    What CB noted above for snow pack will become an issue come summertime when run off is depleted.

    Reply
  17. coloradobob

     /  December 12, 2017

    AGU’s Fall Meeting started today.

    Buckle your chin straps

    Reply
  18. Andy_in_SD

     /  December 12, 2017

    Eighteen climate scientists, 13 of them based in the United States, were on Monday named the first beneficiaries of the research grants linked to French President Macron’s “Make Our Planet Great Again” project, which will see them relocate to France.

    http://www.france24.com/en/20171211-climate-france-macron-paris-accord-planet-great-again-us-researchers-grants-trump

    Reply
    • More good news out of France. Looks like the French federal government is doing more for U.S. climate scientists than the current Trump government (or lack thereof).

      Reply
  19. coloradobob

     /  December 12, 2017

    Oh yes our water towers have holes in them.

    NEIL YOUNG – Mr. Soul (Video)

    Reply
  20. coloradobob

     /  December 12, 2017

    I stood next to this song in 1967 , The Seeds were the headliners. Much later Waylon wrote ,

    10 years on the road , singing my life away.

    Reply
  21. coloradobob

     /  December 12, 2017

    Waylon Jennings – Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way

    Reply
  22. coloradobob

     /  December 12, 2017

    Johnny Cash – Big river with lyrics

    Reply
  23. coloradobob

     /  December 12, 2017

    Leroy Van Dyke – The Auctioneer

    Reply
  24. coloradobob

     /  December 12, 2017

    The Russians are eating our ass.

    Reply
  25. Shawn Redmond

     /  December 12, 2017

    By the middle of this century there will be two or three billion more people on Earth. Any one of the issues I am about to list could help precipitate mass starvation. And this is before you consider how they might interact.

    The trouble begins where everything begins: with soil. The UN’s famous projection that, at current rates of soil loss, the world has 60 years of harvests left, appears to be supported by a new set of figures. Partly as a result of soil degradation, yields are already declining on 20% of the world’s croplands.

    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/dec/11/mass-starvation-humanity-flogging-land-death-earth-food

    Reply
  26. paul

     /  December 12, 2017

    The green revolution simply kicked the can down the road a bit whilst ensuring a greater final die off. A better way would have been to find a way of feeding a given human population, sustainably and without overshoot, and achieving population equilibrium with that food output. Surplus leads to increase and inevitable catastrophe.
    As hunter gatherers we understood this but agriculture changed all that.

    Reply
      • wili

         /  December 12, 2017

        Domestication of large animals in particular seems to have been a crucial turning point:

        Kohler et al have a paper out linking rise in inequality to domestication of large mammals enabling more extensive agriculture and mounted warrior elites who could extend their sway over larger areas. They analyzed settlements using house size as proxy for wealth over a period beginning 11,000 years ago. I attach fig 1a) showing disparity in Gini coefficient between eurasia and americas. This disparity is attributed to lack of domesticable large mammals in the americas until european colonization. The last sentence of the article is:

        “Even given the possibility that the Gini coefficients constructed here may underestimate true household wealth disparities, it is safe to say that the degree of wealth inequality experienced by many households today is considerably higher than has been the norm over the last ten millennia.”

        doi: 10.1038/nature24646

        Reply
        • Dobby

           /  December 12, 2017

          Interesting how they say “… mounted warrior elites who could extend their sway over larger areas.”

          The word “could” there implies people always wanted to do this, to be empire builders instinctively. However, another theory might show that they only just needed to implement this approach… in order to procure ever more agricultural land to satisfy the needs of an ever expanding population that was being generated by the new lifestyle (anthropology shows the agricultural revolution did cause our population to explode exponentially.)

          The author Daniel Quinn put together quite an interesting view of the agricultural revolution vs. the previously and possibly more stable lifestyle of the hunter gatherer cultures that had existed at the time and had succeeded through evolution for millions of years before agricultural society came along and displaced them.

          He’s worth the read if the changes wrought by the agricultural revolution interest you, it’s quite a pertinent insight into civilization.

        • I´m a couple of articles late for this discussion, but as far as linking the domestication of animals and the uprise of elites (specially violent elites) go, this instantly reminded me of this article (in Portuguese, might require translation tools): http://www.oeco.org.br/blogs/olhar-naturalista/imperio-dos-ruminantes-a-conquista-do-mundo-pelo-boi/?utm_source=wysija&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Newsletter+Diaria

          It´s an analysis of bovine domestication and its effects on the environment (both wyld environment and human culture). Somewhat brasilian centered, but completly.

    • Noble savage worldview can’t entirely save us now. Although we can and certainly should learn from the past to help us through the present can’t crisis. We have to innovate ourselves out of this dead end created by fossil fuel use. And we’ve got a shot or two at it. Population isn’t the primary driver of the crisis though. It’s consumption and destruction of natural resources. Renewable energy, permaculture, indoor vertical farming, and a good number of other new farming techniques would be very helpful right about now.

      Reply
      • Dobby

         /  December 12, 2017

        Agreed Robert. I don’t recommend the Quinn literature in contemplation of turning back history, which wouldn’t even be possible, only just as a tool for providing insights and reflection, which can sometimes give people new ideas. One of Quinn’s most valuable messages actually was about how our cultural stories are often responsible for driving our behaviors. I think an author like that can sometimes set us to thinking about things in different ways as we move forward in our quest to adjust how it is that we live within our world.

        Reply
      • T-rev

         /  December 15, 2017

        >We have to innovate ourselves out of this

        I don’t agree that offers any solutions. We are hundred of times more innovative and thousands of times more efficient then we were 100 or 1000 years ago and the problem is worse.. much worse. If you are in a hole and need to get out, stop digging. More innovating and greater efficiencies will make it worse.

        Answers ?. I dob’t think there are any. We can mange the decline, or we have the decline mange us. We seem to have choose the latter.

        If course I could be wrong and Dues ex machina will save us but history seems to show nothing but can kicking down the road for 100’s of years, if not millennia.

        As a final reminder 50% of all GHGs come from 10% of the wokds populatuon, 80% of GHGs from 20%. We not all making this mess…

        Reply
        • Replacing fossil fuel emitting vehicles is not Dues Ex. It’s a real change that’s happening now. There’s a difference between pretending God can come down in some contraption to save us and actually building the tools ourselves. In other words, T-rev innovation does not equal dues ex. And yes, it’s already helping. We just need to reinforce that trend with a fury.

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