The percent of land area experiencing exceptional drought reached record levels in August in three U.S. states--Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas--amid new concerns about how long the conditions may persist, according to an official with the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
A record 81.08% of Texas was facing exceptional drought as of Aug. 31, says Brian Fuchs, UNL assistant geoscientist and climatologist at the NDMC. Oklahoma, at 69.1%, and Kansas, with 17.4%, also saw new high-level marks for exceptional drought.
The most recent U.S. drought monitor report, released late last week, showed that 59.3% of the United States was drought-free, while 41.7% faced some form of abnormal dryness or drought. The amount of land area experiencing exceptional drought was 9.37%, almost all of it in the southern Plains and Texas.
The monitor uses a ranking system that begins at D0 (abnormal dryness) and moves through D1 (moderate drought), D2 (severe drought), D3 (extreme drought) and D4 (exceptional drought). Exceptional drought's impacts include widespread crop and pasture losses, and shortages of water in reservoirs, streams and wells, creating water emergencies.
Louisiana, now at 37.65% in exceptional drought, and New Mexico, at 30.9%, set records earlier this summer for the percent of the state in exceptional drought.
As harvest season begins, Fuchs says information is beginning to emerge about the drought's toll. Economists with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service conservatively estimated agricultural losses this year would approach $5.2 billion. Meanwhile, the U.S. Climate Prediction Center recently forecast a 50/50 chance the La Nina conditions in the equatorial Pacific Ocean--which have powered this year's current drought--will return in some form this fall.
"It's alarming to drought watchers," Fuchs says of the increasing likelihood of the drought holding its grip in the region through the coming months, which are typically wet and mild. Even if we enter into a mild La Nina pattern, it's still taking a bad situation and compounding it. The fall and winter in that area is typically a time for recharging. Not if this persists."
As evidence of how extraordinary this year's situation is, Fuchs notes that the U.S. Drought Monitor showed just 2.4% of Texas in any type of abnormal dryness at this time in 2010.
The drought monitor combines numeric measures of drought and experts' best judgment into a weekly map. It is produced by the NDMC in Lincoln, USDA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and incorporates review from 300 climatologists, Extension agents and others across the nation. Each week the previous map is revised based on rain, snow and other events, observers' reports of how drought is affecting crops, wildlife and other indicators.
To examine current and archived national, regional and state-by-state drought maps and conditions, go to http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu.