Environment

Intense Drought Tightens Grip, Spreads To the High Plains

ImaGeo iconImaGeoBy Tom YulsmanMay 9, 2014 11:08 PM
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Two false-color images from NASA's Aqua satellite, one from May 24, 2012, and the other from May 5, 2014, show the evolution of drought in Texas and Oklahoma. Green is indicative of vegetation. (Images: NASA. Animation: Tom Yulsman) In the already parched Plains of the United States, intense drought "seems to be waking up and pushing rapidly north along with warmer temperatures." That's the grim assessment, issued yesterday, from the U.S. Drought Monitor. The bullseye of this expanding misery is Texas, large portions of which have been in drought for close to four years. As of this week, 21 percent of the state is categorized as being in exceptional drought — the most intense of the Drought Monitor categories. That's up from 13 percent a year ago. Overall, more than 80 percent of the state is experiencing some degree of drought. The animation above, centered on the Texas Panhandle and western Oklahoma, shows how conditions have changed between 2012 and today. It consists of two false-color images from the MODIS instrument on NASA's Aqua satellite, one from May 24, 2012, and the other from May 5, 2014. Green is indicative of vegetation. Bodies of water, mostly reservoirs, appear black. (The images show what's known as the 7-2-1 composite from the MODIS instrument. For more information, go here.)

Palo Duro Canyon, Oct. 18, 2014. (Photograph: © Tom Yulsman) In May of 2012, spring vegetation was quite evident even though some degree of drought gripped the region. (I shot the photograph to the right in Palo Duro Canyon in October of that year.) Two years later, the situation has changed dramatically as drought has tightened its grip. To complement the satellite images, I thought it would be interesting to compare Drought Monitor maps for May of 2012 and 2014. Here's what it looks like:

This makes it pretty clear why the satellite image from May, 2012 showed a much greener landscape than what's evident this week. Back to the shorter term, over just the past week, severe drought — the second most intense category — has pushed well up into Kansas, the nation's so-called breadbasket

. According to the Drought Monitor report published yesterday, intense drought:

. . . seems to be waking up and pushing rapidly north along with warmer temperatures. A large expansion of D3 [extreme drought] now covers nearly the entire southern half of Kansas and D4 [exceptional drought] is slowly pushing north out of Oklahoma. Soil moisture and groundwater levels are hurting well in front of the peak demand season as the cumulative impacts of such an intense multi-year drought are already glaringly evident, and it’s only early May. Precipitation totals on the year are running just 25-50% of normal, or worse, for many locales across southern Kansas.

And with the region now heading into summer, the prospects for improvement, at least in the short term, are not very good. According to the Drought Monitor report, heat and drought are now:

. . . even more pronounced and entrenched across western Oklahoma and much of Texas as well. Expansion has begun to happen in earnest now that Mother Nature has turned up the furnace, which will do the landscape no favors with summer not here yet.

Farther down the road, help could arrive in the form of wetter weather born of El Niño. As I reported yesterday

, the odds of El Niño developing by summer now stand at 65 percent. This cyclical climatic phenomenon tends to bring wetter than normal weather across the southern tier of the United States during winter. Let's hope!

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