The Drought of 2011, or A Public Service Announcement on Why You Should Water Your Lawn

If you are alive and well in Oklahoma, hopefully you have noticed certain… things… about the weather lately. Such as… it’s hot. And it felt kind of like we skipped spring entirely in order to make a nose dive into summer.  I have been waiting for the weird weather to end, and I have finally quit waiting out of boredom.  It will end when it will end. And until then, my plants will crispy-fry. I will wear tiny, breezy clothes. And I will post about it on ECOhoma!

Trivia on the Uber-Summer of 2011
·        Oklahoma City was featured as one of five cities on the Weather Channel and one of two cities on NPR for being crazy hot this June. On June 29th, we had 29 days in a row with temperatures above 90 degrees, breaking a 100-year record. We also are currently running on ten days in a row with temperatures above 100 degrees, and temperatures forecasted to be 100 or more for at least the next ten days.
·        This last June was the second hottest on record for the state of Oklahoma since records began in 1893. Texas had its hottest June ever recorded.
·        It was Oklahoma’s 4th driest June since 1893. Texas, Louisiana, and New Mexico had their driest 6 months ever.
·        When it comes to acres burned by wildfire, the country experienced twice the average, at 4.8 mil acres for the year. 1.3 mil burned in June. Texas had record wildfires.
·        Excessive drought covers 367,000 square miles, or 12% of the contiguous states
·        Drought/Heat conditions are comparable to or more severe than the Dust Bowl of the 30s. So why aren’t we covered in dust? Say thank you to the Oklahoma Conservation Commission, founded in 1937 so that the Dust Bowl would never happen again. The Dust Bowl was as much a result of unsustainable soil and farming practices as it was weather.

Interview with a Meteorologist
I was itching to know what the cause of our current weather trends may be, so I asked Patrick Burke, a National Weather Service forecaster, for his opinions. Because he’s a nice guy and I am a lucky girl, he did! Hooray! Below is the text from our informal email interview:
Me: Why we are having this crazy drought and heat? Are we in a funky El Nina or something? Are we about to crash into the sun? Am I just that hot, and need to dress less awesome and eat more junk food? I must know.

Patrick:  Everyone wants to know.  We are the recipients of increased media interest, so a few of us are working up some information this morning.  A lot of processes in weather/climate are chicken and egg questions.  It's hot because the ground is too dry... it's dry because the air is too hot.  So there is no single culprit.  But here is what we know:

This drought began last Autumn when precipitation was much less than average. The winter is almost always dry, but was even drier, and this was consistent with a strong La Nina. The La Nina remained strong through the spring, which is usually our wettest season. In part because the ground is so dry (Extremely dry from OK/TX to NM/AZ) extremely hot temperatures began earlier than usual in June.

The Southern Climate Region experienced the 2nd warmest April-June on record and 5th driest October-June on record. The farther west you go from Interstate 35 it is closer to The Driest October-June on record.

Here is what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported in 2007:
“…by 2010 to 2039…year-round temperatures across North America will be outside the range of present-day natural variability. The projected warming…is greatest in the summer in the south-west U.S. Warm extremes across North America are projected to become both more frequent and longer. Annual-mean precipitation is projected to decrease in the south-west of the U.S…” 
 Here is my interpretation (not an official interpretation of my office):
Any single heat wave arises from a number of influences – especially drought, season (summer), and in this case, a strong La Niña that existed during spring. It is impossible to say how much, if any, influence global climate change has on this single hot summer.

If we were to see an increasing number of these types of heat waves over the next few decades… that observation would be consistent with the predictions of climate modelers / climate models.

Me: So, if I water my lawn, the ground will be less dry, and it will rain??!!!  Woohoo!  (I am only partly kidding. If everyone watered their lawn, would it increase likelihood of rain?)

Patrick: Technically, that is true.  If everyone in a concentrated area added a lot of water to their near-surface soil, studies have shown that would create a locally lower cloud base and greater instability.  If other factors were not strongly opposed to making it rain (e.g., a strongly subsiding air mass) then the chance of rain over and downwind of your house would be slightly greater.  Of course, if you have to sacrifice water to receive water... hmmm...

I suppose it would be worthwhile just to mix things up.

So there you go, my friends: from the horse’s weather man’s mouth.  If you share my Okie condition, I hope you caught some of the showers we’ve been having over the last couple of days and have been eating lots of popsicles!

As a very big, important PS: If you are a resident of central Oklahoma, you very well may be under water rationing. I know that if you live in Oklahoma City, we have been asked to water our lawns only on even-numbered days for even numbered homes and odd-numbered days for odd numbered homes. Folks on the city fringes are having problems with water pressure, so be considerate! And if you live outside of OKC limits, you may want to check up on the status of your city's water supply, as well.

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