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Don Paul: Drought is spreading, and now Western New York included

Don Paul: Drought is spreading, and now Western New York included

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Walking in the Rain (copy)

Caroline Keller walks with an umbrella on North Buffalo Road in Orchard Park, Wednesday, March 31, 2021. 

On March 22, I wrote a Buffalo News article headlined “It’s no drought, but we’re too dry.” It wasn’t a drought then. It is now. During this past week, the U.S. Drought Monitor placed a substantial portion of Western New York into moderate drought classification.

The data going into this assessment, the lowest category of drought, ran through March 30. This means it included the 1.11 inches of rain on the 26th and the .38 inches on the 28th, prior to which Buffalo had been on track for the driest March on record. The late month rain took us well off track for record dryness, but it wasn't adequate to forestall a drought classification. Through the 30th we received a total of only 1.77 inches, an inch below average for the month. For the year on the 30th, liquid was at 5.68 inches, 2.76 inches below the average of 8.44 inches. The yearly deficit has since grown to 3.11 inches as of Easter Sunday.

The soil moisture anomaly at the end of March shows a more developed acute shortage in recent weeks.

If this soil moisture anomaly were to persist into the growing season, its impact would become much more important than it is at this time. In fact, the current soil moisture status may allow more easy entrance for farm machinery into the fields than is typical. If the moderate drought were short-lived, that could actually be a benefit for the start of the planting season.

Compared to the drought status over much of the west, our situation is much less serious. Before anyone assumes the large portions of the west under “exceptional” drought can be dismissed with “but they’re always very dry out there,” you have to keep in mind the exceptional classification is relative to normal climatology in this arid region. In other words, it’s incredibly dry even compared to normal low soil moisture in the exceptional area, and has been for a long time in order to be classified as such.

The April drought outlook keeps our current moderate drought classification as is, with small areas of improvement in the upper Midwest. The seasonal outlook does, however, project things getting back to average around here but remaining critically dry over very large portions of the west, as well as in the northern plains and Texas. The confidence in the persistence of the critical drought in the west is high. Parched soil and very slow stream flow rates reduce available evaporative moisture for local precipitation. Those kinds of conditions are much less common in the east in general, and considered to be unlikely this spring east of the plains.

Saturday marks the first day of astronomical spring and the outlook is grim for the western portion of the country, where drought conditions will persist. Meteorologist Allison Chinchar has the forecast.

Even back in mid-March, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found nearly one half of the nation in drought, ranging from our moderate classification to severe, then upward to extreme, and topping out at exceptional. NOAA stated: “Drier conditions in the Southwest U.S. associated with La Niña and the failed 2020 summer monsoon have been contributing factors to the development and intensification of what represents the most significant U.S. spring drought since 2013, which will impact approximately 74 million people.

"The Southwest U.S., which is already experiencing widespread severe to exceptional drought, will remain the hardest hit region in the U.S., and water supply will continue to be a concern this spring in these drought-affected areas," said Mary Erickson, deputy director of the National Weather Service.

Nationally, probabilities for warmer than average temperatures much of the time in the Plains and the west will favor further spread and intensification of drought conditions. Precipitation in the central U.S has more uncertainty, and there is still some chance enough rain will fall to mitigate the soil moisture problems there. However, precipitation probabilities in the west on an annual basis become lower and lower as late spring and summer advance. That is why NOAA is most concerned about the west in general and the southwest in particular.

Even early in the wildfire season, there is already an area in the southwest at critical risk

As the year progresses, one mitigating factor in the long-term extreme to exceptional drought region is the lower amount of vegetative fuel to burn, following last year’s failed monsoon and this past winter’s La Niña-induced dryness. A wetter winter would have presented a paradox of somewhat lessened drought conditions but much more abundant vegetative fuel during the inevitable summer and early autumn dry season.

Getting back to the near term, projected rainfall amounts in our region over the next seven days are quite unimpressive, with spotty coverage at best.

Since it’s still early April, Western New York is a long way from a drought crisis. We’ll keep you updated as the season progresses.

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