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Don Paul: We're not in a drought. At least not yet.

While conditions are drier than normal across the region, large portions of our hilly terrain and Southern Tier are doing fine with soil moisture, including topsoil.

Farmers and gardeners to the south have benefited from more frequent showers and thunderstorms, although convective cells and thunderstorms have uneven coverage over smaller areas. Widespread soaking rain is much harder to come by in the warm-weather season.

On the whole, the northern two-thirds of Western New York has been short on rainfall since June. Lawns are crunchy and many plants are wilting when not watered. The heat speeds up the rate of evaporation from plants and soil, and the process of evapotranspiration speeds up even more when it is breezier.

The U.S. Drought Monitor issues a weekly report on Thursdays about where soil may be abnormally dry and, beyond that, the severity of drought conditions where they exist. The most recent report from July 5th showed no drought in Western New York, but abnormally dry conditions over more than half of our region.

With this very dry week in progress, it’s obvious abnormally dry conditions are worsening.

It simply hasn’t been dry enough long enough for this abnormally dry status to be upgraded to moderate drought. For example, Buffalo has had 2.96 inches of rain since June 1, with 4.56 inches being average. Last year, it was even drier to this point, with only 2.37 inches having fallen.

For the year, precipitation has been normal, running .37 inches above average. However, the Buffalo Niagara International Airport observatory, with the spotty coverage of summertime convection, is not representative of the Niagara Frontier. Far less precipitation has fallen in much of northern Erie, Niagara, Orleans, and Genesee Counties. Many people, myself included, are reporting cracked soil and brown lawns elsewhere.

This is peak growing season for many crops, so irrigation has become a must for many farmers. To my knowledge, the water table for those on well water is not in any real trouble.

Here is a useful link, particularly for farmers and gardeners. You can type in your zip code and get access to the lastest weekly drought and soil moisture status, which is updated on Thursdays.

What appears to be potential good news is that overall conditions are not expected to worsen through September, according to the Climate Prediction Center and other federal agencies.

I say “potential” good news because precipitation is notoriously more difficult to forecast in the longer range than temperature. Moreover, “dry begets dry.” Dry topsoil leaves less water vapor to evaporate and feed the development of clouds, with or without rainfall. The longer the dry pattern lasts, the more that effect may take hold if the abnormally dry region expands. Strictly local dry soil has less of an impact. (Dry air also heats more quickly in the daytime and may also cool more at night. Humid air masses can mitigate that effect.)

Keeping in mind the very limited reliability of longer-term rainfall prediction, here is total projected rainfall accumulation from the American GFS model through July 26th.

Here is the Canadian GEM model output through 10 days.

The Canadian model is even less likely to verify because it has the lowest accumulation over the hilly terrain to the southeast, which is precisely the opposite of what’s been happening and what is likely to continue to happen. That terrain is more conducive to heavier convective cells because it’s out of reach of the stabilizing Lake Erie breeze, and because the topography causes more upward motion of the air, producing more convection. Note: This negative commentary on the Canadian model in this case is entirely unrelated to the current state of diplomatic relations between our 2 great nations (cue canned laughter here).

For proprietary and licensing reasons, it’s probably better that I can’t show you the European model output for the next 10 days. It shows less than 1 inch of rain for all of WNY, with the least over the most parched areas to the north and northeast of Buffalo. In short, the European model is the most pessimistic. It is also the most accurate of the three I’ve mentioned the most often.

Here is a helpful short piece on watering vegetation by a Cornell Extension horticulture educator.

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