Devastating Drought Settles on The High Plains

Devastating Drought Settles on The High Plains

Cimarron County, Oklahoma, the westernmost county in the state, is “at the epicenter of the drought,” according to staff climatologist Gary McManus with the Oklahoma Climatological Survey (OCS). The land is occupied by wheat farms, corn fields, and pasture. It’s an area of periodic drought; the Dust Bowl years have not yet faded from living memory.

“The area has been in and out of drought since the start of the decade. Mostly in,” McManus said. “But fall of last year was when it really started to get bad. In some places, this year has been as dry or even drier than the Dust Bowl.” As of early August, the Oklahoma panhandle was experiencing its driest year (previous 365 days) since 1921, according to OCS calculations. Through July, year-to-date precipitation in Boise City, Cimarron’s County Seat, was only about 4.8 inches, barely half of average and drier than some years in the 1930s, the height of the Dust Bowl.

The toll of the drought on crops and pasture is evident in satellite-based vegetation images spanning the past year. On NASA’s Terra satellite, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) collects observations of visible and infrared light that scientists use to create a scale, or index, of vegetation conditions. In images from late July 2007, conditions appeared near or only a little below normal compared to the 2000-2006 average. In mid-autumn, however, during the beginning of the growing season for the winter wheat crop, conditions had already started to deteriorate. By late April/early May, the impact of the drought on the area’s crops and rangeland was dramatic.

In late June and early July, conditions in the agricultural lands appeared to improve somewhat. The apparent improvement could be misleading however. Paul Toon, the Cimarron County Executive Director for the Oklahoma Office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Farm Service Agency, says the Panhandle did receive patchy rains in June and July. But late June or July is also when the season’s winter wheat crop is typically harvested. In crop areas, at least, it may be normal for vegetation to be sparse at that time of the year. So the drought might not seem as dramatic in those areas.

Precipitation in Boise City from January through July 2008 was only 12 centimeters (less than 5 inches), only half of average. The dryness is on par with the worst years of the Dust Bowl decade, which came to be called the “Dirty Thirties.” From 1930 to 1936, the January–July precipitation ranged from 10 to 18 centimeters. (Graph by Robert Simmon, based on data from the Global Historical Climatology Network and NOAA NNDC Climate Data Online.)

Viewed from the ground, the situation is equally discouraging. According to Cherrie Brown, district conservationist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Boise City, subsoil moisture is virtually non-existent. “Any rain that falls is sapped by evaporation in two or three days. Four feet down, there is literally no moisture left in the soil. Recently we were digging as part of a project to decommission a county well, and we dug down to a depth of 7 feet, and there was still no moisture. Even irrigation can’t offset these deficits,” she said. As a result, crops have failed and pasture is severely degraded.

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This is happening in too many places worldwide simultaneously to simply be attributed to just water waste and mismanagement. From what I see here, these are the classic effects of climate change. And this isn't Australia, Spain, Cyprus, Africa, or Turkey... this is right here in our own backyard and effecting our own people.


Anonymous said…
Despite the impression left by our multiple hurricane hits, South Florida is also experiencing the worst drought in my sixty years of being born and raised here. The interesting corollary is the increasing and nearly constant winds. For half the year, you used to be able to set your watch to the afternoon thunderstorms, which would spawn rapidly over the heating land by drawing the moisture laden air from over the gulfstream to replace the hotter, rising air over land. Cooler moist air then ends up colliding with the hotter air over land and you get the predictable afternoon rain. Not any more. And it's certainly not for absence of heat. My own theory is that increasing global heat creates more energy in the atmosphere which causes more wind, necessarily tangential to earth's surface. This inhibits the upward convection of columns of moisture laden air which is the necessary catalyst for thunderstorms and, of course, hurricanes. This may explain why, after crescendoing to the most horrific season ever in 2005, the population of hurricanes has taken a decided downturn. The Chinese aren't burning less coal, are they?