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Hydrologist Says It's Tough to Know if Drought Will be Broken this Year

Fri, 15 Mar 2013 16:16:22 CDT

Hydrologist Says It's Tough to Know if Drought Will be Broken this Year
As the recent drought developed and has persisted across the Southern Plains, one of the people studying it closely has been climatological hydrologist John Feldt. He is a former Hydrologist-in-Charge at the National Weather Service and is the founder and president of Blue Water Outlook, which provides information on water resources and water management.


Feldt spoke at the recent Texoma Cattlemen's Conference in Ardmore. He spoke with Radio Oklahoma Network's Ron Hays about the factors that influenced the drought's development and what he sees on the horizon.


"There are a number of climate factors that influence drought. A simple answer is a La Nina pattern of abnormally cold Pacific temperatures most likely contributed to it. I think having said that, though, what really still amazes me is how much of a flash drought it was. It came on with record high temperatures and record low precipitation. In my experience, droughts are usually more nuanced than that. They come on starting with either hot temperatures or low precipitation. It's not just right on you to such an extreme.


The speed of the drought's onset and its severity don't fit a typical pattern, Feldt says. That being the case, he said it makes it even harder to predict when it will eventually end.   


"This winter, we're looking for signs for helping get out of this drought, but we have to keep in mind that there are many different ways to get out of a drought. And people think a lot of times there's an extreme event, the hurricane that moves over the area or the 20 inches of rain. In my book, it's more important to look at getting back to a normal pattern of precipitation. That's what we want to do. And we really haven't seen it this winter, so far. But, on the other hand, we have seen some favorable signs with snow bands over western parts of the state that have been favorable. And that's helping moderate, but we need more to alleviate not just the upper soil moisture but the lower soil moisture and that plays a very critical role as well.


He said there's an ebb and flow to droughts, with some improvements and setbacks along the way. He said that what will ultimately determine when the drought is broken is the replenishment of subsoil moisture.


"It's very typical for an extreme drought to be improved upon throughout the year, and that's what we saw in the winter months. That's what we saw last winter. That's what we've seen this winter. It's tempered because you're seeing improvement of the overall drought to think that you are actually improving that drought. Just as likely that could be your normal winter pattern where you would always see some improvement. And I often describe this as you have a bonfire and you're putting some water on it, but you're always are putting water on it at a certain time of year.   If you don't really put that fire out, when summer comes it's just going to build up again."


He said current forecast models are neutral on whether the drought will continue this year or if it will be broken.


"Right now I'm expecting it to be not as bad as we saw last year, but I still have concerns on a continuing drought. I do think there will be some areas that will be seeing improvement, but I think, really, the next six to eight weeks is going to be highly critical because it looked for a while like we couldn't get any more activity from rain or snow, and that looks like it might not be continuing. If it would continue, I would be a little more optimistic that we could work our way out a little bit more before summer comes. On the other hand, if it just stops at this point, I'm more pessimistic that we would be going back into a more severe drought."


   


   

Ron Hays talks with hydrologist John Feldt about drought forecasts for the Southern Plains.
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