October may mark the beginning of Texas’ next serious drought, warns the Texas A&M University professor who serves as state climatologist.
Citing data from the U.S. Drought Monitor released Oct. 21, Professor John Nielsen-Gammon says Texans can anticipate a warm and dry winter and drought conditions are already occurring in much of the state.
The U.S. Drought Monitor shows developing drought conditions in the Texas Panhandle and the Big Bend region. In East Texas, along the Louisiana border, drought conditions have already been present for some time, Nielsen-Gammon explains.
"The winter forecast is based primarily upon current and expected conditions in the tropical Pacific," Nielsen-Gammon says. "A La Niña event has been developing since the spring, and it seems that a moderate to strong La Niña is shaping up for this winter."
A La Niña occurs when sea surface temperatures in the Eastern and Central Tropical Pacific Ocean are at least a half a degree Celsius cooler than normal for several months. Currently, ocean temperatures average 1 to 2 degrees cooler than normal, Nielsen-Gammon notes.
"The Climate Prediction Center, part of the National Weather Service, is predicting that La Niña conditions will persist at least through the winter, and possibly much longer," he says. "That means the winter outlook calls for increased chances of warm and dry conditions across most of the southern United States.
"This outlook is consistent with past La Niña events. I have examined previous instances of strong wintertime La Niñas, and the most similar years from the past seem to be 1916, 1917, 1955, 1973, 1975 and 1999. In most of those winters, Texas had unusually dry and warm conditions."
Warm and dry conditions may be good for those who like outdoor sports, but several problems can arise, Nielsen-Gammon says.
One problem could be more wildfires this winter.
"Much of northern Texas, between the Panhandle and the Metroplex, had a wet summer, allowing plenty of fuel growth," he says. "Now, as the grasses dry out, the fire danger grows. The danger is most acute on days with very strong winds."
A few of the similar years from the past are actually memorable for their dryness, Nielsen-Gammon confirms. The winters of 1916-1917 and 1917-1918 were the driest years in recorded history for Texas, he points out. The winter of 1955-1956 was the beginning of the most intense drought year of the 1950s, when most of Texas established its drought of record.
"Texas as a whole has been unusually dry since late September, causing drought conditions to expand," he adds. "With the prospects of a warm and dry winter on the horizon, it is possible that this month marks the beginning of Texas’ next serious drought."