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NY Times Asks Why “Horrible” U.S. Drought “Has Come on Extra Hot and Extra Early.” Their Answer is … La Niña, Of Course!

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"NY Times Asks Why “Horrible” U.S. Drought “Has Come on Extra Hot and Extra Early.” Their Answer is … La Niña, Of Course!"

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UPDATE:  Some confusionists who don’t know the scientific literature are misrepresenting this post.  The key point, as I make clear, is that the NY Times focused its story specifically on why this drought is so hot — but never mentioned global warming at all.  Further, as one of the country’s leading climatological experts on Southwestern drought made clear in 2011 Senate testimony on the New Mexico drought (see below):

There is broad agreement in the climate science research community that the Southwest, including New Mexico, will very likely continue to warm. There is also a strong consensus that the same region will become drier and increasingly snow-free with time, particularly in the winter and spring. Climate science also suggests that the warmer atmosphere will lead to more frequent and more severe (drier) droughts in the future. All of the above changes have already started, in large part driven by human-caused climate change.

UPDATE 2:  Andrew Freedman of WashPost’s Capital Weather Gang, writes me “The fact that the article basically said ‘man, it’s hot too!’ and failed to at least examine the link between that, the dry ground, and climate change was rather egregious.”

Another week, another New York Times article on extreme weather that fails to connect any dots whatsoever to global warming for the public.  The NYT similarly blew the Arizona wildfire story and the Dust Bowl story.

Now readers have been sending me this double by-lined gem all day:  “Drought Spreads Its Pain Across 14 States.”  The piece does have a great chart [click to enlarge].

“Dangerously Dry:  Nearly a fifth of the contiguous United States has been faced with the worst drought in recent years.”

http://graphics8.nytimes.com/packages/images/newsgraphics/2011/0711-drought/0710-nat-webDROUGHT.png

And it starts to tell the story:

COLQUITT, Ga. — The heat and the drought are so bad in this southwest corner of Georgia that hogs can barely eat. Corn, a lucrative crop with a notorious thirst, is burning up in fields. Cotton plants are too weak to punch through soil so dry it might as well be pavement.

Farmers with the money and equipment to irrigate are running wells dry in the unseasonably early and particularly brutal national drought that some say could rival the Dust Bowl days….

In Texas, where the drought is the worst, virtually no part of the state has been untouched. City dwellers and ranchers have been tormented by excessive heat and high winds. As they have been in the southwest, wildfires are chewing through millions of acres….

Most troubling is that the drought, which could go down as one of the nation’s worst, has come on extra hot and extra early…..

Oklahoma has had only 28 percent of its normal summer rainfall and the heat has blasted past 90 degrees for a month.

The question, of course, becomes why. In a spring and summer in which weather news has been dominated by epic floods and tornadoes, it is hard to imagine that nearly a third of the country is facing an equally daunting but very different kind of natural disaster.

Why didn’t anyone warn us such stuff could happen?

If only there were some scientific theory that explained why we might see so much heat at the same time we are making dry areas drier and wet areas wetter.  If only scientists could explain why we are seeing heat waves and wildfires earlier in the year.

Nahhhh!

The NY Times has the answer:

From a meteorological standpoint, the answer is fairly simple. “A strong La Niña shut off the southern pipeline of moisture,” said David Miskus, who monitors drought for the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.

The weather pattern called La Niña is an abnormal cooling of Pacific waters. It usually follows El Niño, which is an abnormal warming of those same waters.

Although a newly released forecast from the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center suggests this dangerous weather pattern could revive in the fall, many in the parched regions find themselves in the unlikely position of hoping for a season of heavy tropical storms in the Southeast and drenching monsoons in the Southwest.

Climatologists say the great drought of 2011 is starting to look a lot like the one that hit the nation in the early to mid-1950s. That, too, dried a broad swath of the southern tier of states into leather and remains a record breaker.

Uhh, what about the record-smashing heat?  See “It’s Obscenely Hot: June 2011 Heat Records Crush Cold Records by Nearly 11 to 1.”

For the record, last month, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell testified in front of the Senate:

“Throughout the country, we’re seeing longer fire seasons, and we’re seeing snowpacks that, on average, are disappearing a little earlier every spring,” he said, as well as devastating droughts. As a result, fire seasons have lengthened by more than 30 days, on average.

Our scientists believe this is due to a change in climate,” said Tidwell.

Also for the record, recent droughts aren’t quite the same as the 1950s drought (see The “global-change-type drought” and the future of extreme weather):

This slide comes from a 2005 study, “Regional vegetation die-off in response to global-change-type drought.” I first saw it in a powerful 2005 presentation by climatologist Jonathan Overpeck, “Warm climate abrupt change–paleo-perspectives,” that concluded “climate change seldom occurs gradually.”

Overpeck noted that the 2005 study, together with the recent evidence that temperature [in red] and annual precipitation [in blue] are headed in opposite directions in the U.S. Southwest, raises the question of whether we are at the “dawn of the super-interglacial drought.”

The study, which was led by the University of Arizona, with Los Alamos National Laboratory and the U.S. Geological Survey, concluded:

Global climate change is projected to yield increases in frequency and intensity of drought occurring under warming temperatures, referred to here as global-change-type drought….

Our results are notable in documenting rapid, regional-scale mortality of a dominant tree species in response to subcontinental drought accompanied by anomalously high temperatures.

The researchers examined a huge three-million acre die-off of vegetation in 2002-2003 “in response to drought and associated bark beetle infestations” in the Four Corners area (Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah).

This drought was not quite as dry as the one in that region in the 1950s, but it was much warmer, hence it was a global-warming-type drought. The recent drought had “nearly complete tree mortality across many size and age classes” whereas “most of the patchy mortality in the 1950s was associated with trees [greater than] 100 years old.”

It should be obvious that warm-weather droughts are worse than cooler-weather droughts — but if it weren’t, this study shows they are.

The slide depicts annual precipitation and annual temperature in the Four Corners area (i.e. the heart of the U.S. Southwest). It shows that over at least the past 70 years, and presumably much longer, annual precipitation and annual temperature are not particularly correlated. You can have warm droughts and you can have cool droughts.

UPDATE:  In April 27, 2011 US Senate hearing testimony, Overpeck (2011) stated:

There is broad agreement in the climate science research community that the Southwest, including New Mexico, will very likely continue to warm. There is also a strong consensus that the same region will become drier and increasingly snow-free with time, particularly in the winter and spring. Climate science also suggests that the warmer atmosphere will lead to more frequent and more severe (drier) droughts in the future. All of the above changes have already started, in large part driven by human-caused climate change.

However, even in the absence of significant human-caused climate change, the Southwest is prone to drought and megadrought much more severe than droughts witnessed in the last 100 years. The 2000-year record of drought in the region makes it clear that droughts lasting decades are likely independent of human-caused climate change. For this reason, the “no-regrets” strategy is to plan and prepare for droughts no matter the cause – human or natural – and to do so under the assumption that droughts will very likely be hotter and thus more severe in the future than in the past 2000 years.

Scientists and water managers alike, however, should be careful not to assume the currently estimated “worst case” drought scenario will remain so for long. As climate science has advanced in the Southwest, there have been a steady progression of new results that imply that today’s “worst-case” drought scenario is tomorrow’s second-worst case scenario. Water managers should pay particular attention to the emerging science that has been highlighted in the testimony above.

The warning of the slide to humanity is clear: All future droughts are going to be warm-weather droughts — and if we don’t change course soon — they will become hot weather droughts, then hellish droughts.

Remember, on our current emissions path, the planet is poised to be F or warmer by 2100. The climate models predict that in mid-latitudes land masses (i.e. inland U.S), warming could be higher — 11°F warmer — which is way, way off that chart.

And even the Bush administration acknowledged the scientific literature says that on our current emissions path, the SW is poised to get much drier (see “US Geological Survey stunner: SW faces “permanent drying” by 2050“).  Last year, a comprehensive literature review, “Drought under global warming: a review,” by NCAR found that we risk multiple, devastating global droughts worse than the Dust Bowl even on moderate emissions path.  Another study found the U.S. southwest could see a 60-year drought this century.  And those conditions will likely last a long, long time if we don’t act soon (see NOAA stunner: Climate change “largely irreversible for 1000 years,” with permanent Dust Bowls in Southwest and around the globe).

So we have what Overpeck calls “the super-interglacial drought.”

But before you get the permanent Dust-Bowl, you get warm-weather droughts, the “global-change-type drought,” and that is the future of extreme weather this century.  If only someone at the NY Times could inform the public about this.

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