With summer officially a little less than a week away, and parts of the east coast under the sweltering heat, I wanted to see how the country is doing regarding rainfall or the lack thereof. Locally, there are pockets of abnormally dry soil, but overall rainfall over the last 30 days has been above normal. This drought monitor graphic shows that over the last 30 days, D.C., and northern Virginia are in green, while much of West Virginia’s panhandle and western Maryland are in yellow. The legend indicates that if you find your city/town in yellow, then below-normal rainfall has been seen in your location. Places like Keyser, Cumberland, and Thurmont fall under that category, while Chantilly, Woodstock, and D.C. Are green indicating that the ground has gotten wetter in those locations. In general, 2022 has not been a year where the entire area has been hurting from a lack of moisture in the region, as Hagerstown, D.C. And Reston area rain gauges have shown to be near normal rainfall. Hagerstown 15.57″ is a hair behind the average 15.96″, while D.C. Is roughly a 1″ above normal and Dulles is about a 1″ below normal. So while this year has not been an overly dry year, I looked back over the last five years, to see if there was a repeat pattern as to what we are seeing in 2022. It turns out that most of the time, the three above-mentioned locations, have been near normal with one exception, and that year was 2018. That was certainly a very wet year! D.C saw a staggering 66″ of rain, some 23″ above normal for the year and the same could be said in Reston and Hagerstown. The ebbs and flows of moisture over time have kept our region blessed with few water restrictions and moist ground. West of the Mississippi; however; the same can not be said.
The current drought monitor has improved for the central U.S., but the southwest is still having to deal with many areas under extreme or exceptional drought conditions, and the current heat wave across the central U.S. Is not helping the situation. As you can see red colors start in Texas and work their way right to the California coast. A year ago, June 2021, Texas was not in a dire drought situation, but the rest of the southwest was. And in 2020, the state of Colorado had the worst of the dry conditions, while moderate and severe droughts were seen elsewhere across much of the west. Clearly shown, the last two years have been getting worse for the western U.S., as 40% of the country and 48% of the lower 48 states are in a drought, as 27 U.S. States are experiencing moderate drought or worse currently. My college professor use to say to me “Drought begets drought”, meaning, the further your area is into a drought, or drought-like conditions, the longer it will likely stay in that condition. So what are the causes and can the drought situation improve out west? As the U.S. Drought monitor categorizes drought in a region according to soil moisture, streamflow, and precipitation levels, stagnant weather patterns help to start the drought process. In regions that rely on rainfall for agricultural production, drought can diminish crop and livestock outputs and may severely affect farm profitability. Drought also reduces the quantity of snowpack and streamflow available to irrigate agricultural land. These impacts can reverberate throughout the local, regional, and national economies. Locally, droughts can reduce farm income and negatively impact food processing and agricultural service sectors, while food prices may increase at the regional and national levels.
In an online article titled “Causes and consequences of epic western us drought”, the article ties the extreme dryness out west to climate change. The article mentions a study finding that the last 22 years have been the driest in the western U.S. In at least the previous 1,200 years! To fully grasp what is happening, we must recognize different types of droughts and understand the available data. Here we are talking about drought conditions as measured by soil moisture—or the lack of it—and the data is extraordinary. In 2020, scientists reconstructed soil moisture data for the last 1,200 years. This was accomplished by creating a correlation between tree rings and soil moisture, which is a standard measure of drought. Tree rings record the growth of trees year after year and for a western state’s climate in the U.S., the wider the tree ring, the more water (soil moisture) the tree had available that year. By correlating this information with recorded climate data, it is possible to link the width of tree rings to drought conditions. They have then applied that tree-ring width to moisture relationship to data from much older trees. The result is an incredibly precise record of soil moisture over 1,200 years. As dire a situation as it is out west, weekly rainfall over time will help the situation gradually, and it looks like that is happening for some western states. Across the west, a wet late 2022 spring pattern continues to improve conditions from the pacific northwest eastward into the northern Rockies. A broad improvement was made to eastern Washington, with improving conditions for parts of Oregon as well. In western Idaho, severe drought improved to moderate drought; however, based on rainfall and soil moisture, an expansion of drought occurred in parts of northern Montana as well as parts of Utah. Another way that mother nature can help alleviate a portion of the western drought, would be to bring several snowy winter seasons to the region. This past winter’s snowpack was a start in California, which was much needed since seven of its last 10 winters have been drier than average and in Colorado, the snowpack had greatly increased in January through March. Hopefully, mother nature can grant the western states plenty of moisture to dig themselves out of the dry predicament that they are in.