UPDATE (with Eye-Popping Videos): Record Rains Don’t Ease Texas Drought, State Braces for Multi-Year Dust Bowl

Texas finally received rain over the first weekend in October.  But as the Drought Monitor shows, while the portion of the state under exceptional drought has dropped a little, 99% of the state is still under severe drought, just as it was last week.

The L.A. Times reported:

Texas has finally received some rain, but the weekend deluge has yet to make a dent in the yearlong drought that weather experts say could last a decade.

Some cities set daily rainfall records last weekend, prompting flash-flood warnings, including Waco, which received 5.83 inches of rain Sunday. Houston, in the midst of its driest year and after enduring its hottest summer on record, received 5.11 inches of rain, another daily record. Dallas got 1.37 inches.

Deluges are not the ideal solution to a drought because of the possibility of flash floods and massive runoff.  What’s needed is slow but steady rain.  Unfortunately, global warming pushes the extremes in both drought and deluge.

UPDATE:  Coincidentally (or not), while I was writing this post, Lubbock was hit by a monster dust storm.  Here’s one amazing video (via NY Times) and another is at the end:

A fearsome dust storm whipped through the Panhandle and South Plains of Texas on Monday with wind gusts up to 75 miles an hour in some places….  the monstrous cloud wrapped the city of Lubbock in darkness shortly before 6 p.m.

Tim Oram, a meteorologist at the weather service, said that in Lubbock, the cloud of dust whisked from the ground stretched up to 8,000 feet high and caused zero visibility brown-outs in some places.

“To get to zero visibility, that’s pretty thick,” Mr. Oram said. “That’s what made this one probably a little unusual.”

For background, see USGS on Dust-Bowlification: Drier conditions projected to accelerate dust storms in the U.S. Southwest (which has stunning videos of dust storms in Australia) and NBC: “The Dust Storm that Swallowed Up an American City” (which has stunning videos of this summer’s monster dust storm in Phoenix).

I reported several weeks ago that state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon had predicted: “I’ve started telling anyone who’s interested that it’s likely that much of Texas will still be in severe drought this time next summer, with water supply implications even worse than those we are now experiencing.

More recently, he did an analysis suggesting the drought could last a decade, which made headlines, but more recently he modified that to “I’d guess the odds that this drought will last five years are only about 25%”:

Texas A&M University prepared a press release based on my discussion of the prospects of a multi-year drought.  Rather than saying that the drought could last another 5-15 years, the headline of the press release said that the drought could last until 2020.  I approved the headline; after all, 2020 is between five and fifteen years from now.

I realize now that this was a mistake.  Naming a particular year implied a certain precision which the fuzzy word “could” could not overcome.  While it was technically correct, it gave the wrong impression, and for that I apologize.

Now that the mistake has been made, I want to consider the consequences.

One consequence is that the story captured the attention of a lot of people.  The fuzzy words operate on an intellectual level, but the specific “2020″ gave the whole thing a visceral quality, making people think, “A drought until 2020? Eel!”. It made the inconceivable conceivable, which is useful since most Texans have not experienced a drought lasting more than two years.

I also suspect I’ll become known as the guy who thinks the drought will last until 2020.  I suspect this even though the story says “could”, which in normal usage does not imply odds greater than 50%.  Indeed, I’d guess the odds that this drought will last five years are only about 25%.

He then makes an interesting analogy:

I wonder if a similar transference of uncertainty (from the prediction to the person predicting) accounts for the common but unsubstantiated impression that scientists were predicting global cooling during the 1970s.  The scientific consensus at the time was that global cooling was possible but not likely.  Did that become internalized as “Scientists are predicting global cooling….  I think it’s possible but not likely?”

See “Killing the myth of the 1970s global cooling scientific consensus.”

Back to the Texas drought.  Here’s another amazing story from last week, “Texas drought leaves lake too low for cities’ use“:

FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — The devastating drought has taken its toll on a Texas Panhandle lake, now too low to keep supplying water to nearly a dozen cities.

The Canadian River Municipal Water Authority near Amarillo voted to stop using Lake Meredith, which had been a water source since the 1960s.

The water authority’s half-million customers are not likely to notice the effects of Wednesday’s vote until next summer, said Kent Satterwhite, the authority’s general manager. Although the lone remaining water supply is plentiful, the peak demand may put stress on its delivery, he said.

This year the lake’s water, for the first time, was pumped for cities’ use only from June through August instead of year-round because water levels dropped to a record low – just under 31 feet, Satterwhite said. The record high level was nearly 102 feet in 1973.

Here’s one from last month, “Farmers in the Southern Plains brace for multi-year drought

Cleavinger, who farms about 3,500 acres with his son in the Panhandle town, has been growing corn, wheat and cotton and raising cattle for 33 years. None compares to this year, when the combination of brutal heat, relentless winds and no rain created one of the most difficult years in history for Texas agriculture.

Many farmers across Texas, as well as parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, Louisiana, Arkansas and New Mexico — areas under extreme drought conditions, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor — are reporting the toughest season they’ve ever seen.

Officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, one of the agencies that run the Drought Monitor, foresee continued drought through the end of the year . But climatologists say there is strong possibility that the drought, nearing 12 months in duration, may extend to become a multi-year event, spanning several growing seasons. This could have painful consequences to the agricultural sector, with few tools for relief.

I’ll end with a quote from Texas climatologist Katherine Hayhoe:

We often try to pigeonhole an event, such as a drought, storm, or heatwave into one category: either human or natural, but not both. What we have to realise is that our natural variability is now occurring on top of, and interacting with, background conditions that have already been altered by long-term climate change.

As our atmosphere becomes warmer, it can hold more water vapor. Atmospheric circulation patterns shift, bringing more rain to some places and less to others. For example, when a storm comes, in many cases there is more water available in the atmosphere and rainfall is heavier. When a drought comes, often temperatures are already higher than they would have been 50 years ago and so the effects of the drought are magnified by higher evaporation rates.

Here’s another eye-popping video of Monday’s Lubbock dust storm:

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21 Responses to UPDATE (with Eye-Popping Videos): Record Rains Don’t Ease Texas Drought, State Braces for Multi-Year Dust Bowl

  1. Among those who say that global warming can’t be that bad, there often arises the question, “What about all the negative feedbacks?”

    Such feedbacks aren’t quite as common as they might like to think, but this is one of them. Drought causes desertification where plants die off, then dessicated roots break up. This loosens the topsoil. Plant die-off exposes soil to wind.

    Both wind during the long droughts and the occasional flash flood carry topsoil off, exposing bare rock. The rock is subject to weathering, a process that draws down the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over the next 100,000 years.

    Eventually things do return to normal. It just takes a while.

  2. Robert In New Orleans says:

    Anyone for Texas Toast?

  3. Merrelyn Emery says:

    I’ve just about forgotten what ‘steady rain’ is like: it either doesn’t rain here or Huie sends it down in tropical downpours – and I’m not in the tropics.

    But it sounds like Texas needs to dust off those plans for serious water restrictions, and prepare people for them, if most have not experienced anything longer than 2 years. But they can think themselves lucky they are not on Tuvalu or Tokelau who got down to their literally last bucketful until emergency supplies arrived from NZ, ME

  4. David B. Benson says:

    On top of which ERCOT (Texas grid) is in a serious bind due to the way elecricity generation is paid for. So not so far down the road, if matters don’t change, Texans will find their air conditioners don’t work.

    Not to mention attempts to do desal.

  5. Rob Jones says:

    From the state that gave us the Bushes and now Perry. One could posit that this is simply God punishing those responsible. Not that I actually believe that but the Bushes and Perrys might.
    I am so tempted to cheer for this but in reality even this won’t change the minds of those convinced that climate change is a fraudulent concoction of the left. More is the pity.

  6. Paul Magnus says:

    And here it is in action…

  7. Paul Magnus says:

    BREAKING: Video and Photos from Texas Dust Storm
    News – Oct 17, 2011; 7:16 PM ET
    Visibility less than 1/4 mile in Lubbock dust storm with gusts to 35 mph

  8. I think they are going to need Keystone XL for water, not tar sands.

  9. Greg Wellman says:

    Did anyone look at the chart carefully? More than 100% is in D0-D4, so less than 0% of the state is normal.

    Heh, they’ve fixed it at the US Drought Monitor site.

  10. Joan Savage says:

    One of the factors in western water law (western = west of the Mississippi) is that the interstate water use agreements were set up during a period of exceptionally HIGH precipitation in early 20th century.

    Texas is large indeed and has within-state watersheds in the east, but the west and north of the state shares water with other jurisdictions.

  11. Chris says:

    I noticed that too. I thought maybe with all the lakes drying up they had more land which made it >100% under drought

  12. DonB says:

    This is an analog for the other great disaster being foisted on the world: the economic depression. Keynes noted that without stimulus spending the economy STAYS depressed until the existing equipment used in manufacturing degrades and business investment eventually picks up, but he also noted that “in the end we are all dead.”

    Both oncoming tragedies need PROACTIVE steps to be avoided and while those steps ARE known, they are currently politically nearly impossible.

    Maybe the spread of Occupy Wall Street heralds a push by citizens to return politics to sanity, making proactive steps possible; it may be the last chance so it needs to be supported strongly and helped to find the real answers to the world’s problems and prevent its being captured by the current “powers-that-be,” as the initial “TEA Party” groups were.

    Interestingly, those “powers-that-be” seem to be trying, not to capture it but to denigrate it, which may be an indication they have determined that it can’t be captured or that they can’t turn out the Tea Party to grab OWS? But their arrogance and cluelessness is being exposed.

  13. Raul M. says:

    If congress desires to pass the new constitutional amendment to make it a No to harm the American flag, does it mean that someone could go to jail for leaving the flag out on the pole and it got caught in the rain and wasn’t completely colorfast. Or if a dust storm came up and they ran for cover and didn’t care sufficiently for the flag, family members could testify that (s)he should have known better.
    Could we think that it is the gov. Saying to god that the tide shouldn’t come in.
    Is it nuts to even think of the future with congress in control?
    How does a citizen of the U.S. get diplomatic immunity within the U.S. Of U.S. laws?

  14. Greg Wellman says:

    Good one. I didn’t think of that.

  15. Doug Blevins says:

    Watching these videos I try to imagine the impact that storms, like these haboobs, had on humans as overuse, salinization, and deforestation changed the land of the eastern mediterranean region. Will we continue practices that make these conditions more likely and lead us to a much drier future while continuing to pray for rain, or will we wake up in time?

  16. Colorado Bob says:

    Severe Drought, Other Changes Can Cause Permanent Ecosystem Disruption

    The findings, just published in the journal Freshwater Biology, raise concerns that climate change, over-pumping of aquifers for urban water use, and land management may permanently affect which species can survive.

    “Populations that have persisted for hundreds or thousands of years are now dying out,” said David Lytle, an associate professor of zoology at Oregon State University. “Springs that used to be permanent are drying up. Streams that used to be perennial are now intermittent. And species that used to rise and fall in their populations are now disappearing.”

  17. Colorado Bob says:

    Looking at the conditions yesterday, remember this was a cold front in mid Oct.
    The highs vs lows :
    New Max highs vs Lows
    116 to 4
    New Min highs vs lows
    22 to 1

  18. Colorado Bob says:

    It was 91F at Muleshoe, Texas (3,806 feet) before this storm , 21F degrees above the avg. for this date.

  19. rh says:

    spot on both econmics and atmospheric sciences.I am also enjoying the fact it is happening in a place that basically denies it! Whoopie’ ride’m cowboy!

  20. Colorado Bob says:

    The GOES EAST visible channel as the storm passed over Lubbock.

    The white line is the state border.

  21. Paul Magnus says:

    Just scary. Mother Nature reclaiming her paved car parks!
    What a future we look forward to…