Southern Plains Drought Now Considered 'Dire'; Four Months and Counting Without Rain or Snow in Parts of Texas, Oklahoma
Published: February 9, 2018
Drought in the southern Plains is becoming increasingly serious, as some locations in Texas and Oklahoma have now gone a staggering four months without rain or snow.
"The situation on the southern Plains is rapidly becoming dire," wrote Eric Luebehusen of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in the weekly Drought Monitor update released Feb. 8.
Extreme drought covered a swath of the southern Plains from southwest Kansas to western Oklahoma and northwest Texas as of Feb. 6.
This second-worst category in the Drought Monitor analysis covered almost 38 percent of Oklahoma, roughly 12 percent of Texas and 9 percent of Kansas.
Parts of eastern Arizona and an area along the Missouri and Arkansas border were also placed in extreme drought.
Areas of drought in the southern U.S., as of February 6, 2018. Darker shadings indicate increasing severity of drought. (USDA/NDMC/NOAA)
Altogether, almost 1.8 million residents were in extreme drought, and 90.5 million in the U.S. were in some category of drought, the most since mid-January 2017.
Amarillo, Texas, hasn't picked up any measurable precipitation – at least 0.01 inches – since Oct. 13, crushing its previous record dry streak of 75 consecutive days ending in early January 1957.
Lubbock, Texas, also is on a dry streak that is now over three months as of Feb. 8, closing in on their record streak set in fall-winter 2005-06.
Parts of western Oklahoma, including the Panhandle, have gone four months without any rain or snow.
Woodward, Oklahoma, shattered its record-long dry streak of 111 straight days that had been in place since late January 1902, Gary McManus, state climatologist with the Oklahoma Climatological Survey, wrote in the Feb. 8 Oklahoma Mesonet Ticker.
"It's the driest last 120 days on record for the Panhandle and west-central climate divisions (in Oklahoma)," McManus wrote.
He also noted this mid-October through early February dry spell in the Panhandle, west-central and north-central Oklahoma was either drier than, or runner-up to, comparable periods in the 1950s, "during the worst drought on record for most of Oklahoma."
The Sooner State's winter wheat crop, which rated poor to very poor, had climbed to 79 percent by the end of January, Luebehusen wrote in the Feb. 6 Drought Monitor.
Several large wildfires are burning in parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Kansas. Burn bans have been ordered in over 120 Texas counties and in the entire western half of Oklahoma, including the Oklahoma City metro area.
(MORE: Drought is Bad News For Spring Wildfire Danger)
Any Relief Ahead?
November through February is typically the driest time of year in the southern High Plains, including the Texas Panhandle.
In fact, February is the driest month, on average, in several locations of the Texas Panhandle and New Mexico, according to an analysis by Dr. Brian Brettschneider of the Western Regional Climate Center.
One reason winter is drier in these areas is the prevalence of strong Arctic cold fronts plunging down the High Plains – known as "blue northers" – and drying out the air mass.
Also, if the winter storm track isn't far enough south, a storm that brings heavy snow to the Rockies and northern Plains may simply blast the southern High Plains with high winds and blowing dust instead of rain or snow.
Precipitation Outlook and Current Drought Status
The pattern headed into mid-February has a little bit of potentially good news.
First, some light snow from Winter Storm Mateo may dust parts of southwest Kansas and the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas this weekend.
Granted, once that snow melts, it won't contribute much water to replenish the soil, but it's a start, and that could finally snap those record dry streaks.
Offering a bit more hope in the week ahead is a slow-moving upper-level low-pressure system that will eventually kick out of Southern California into the Plains late in the week.
This system offers the chance for some modest precipitation late next week for at least part of this parched region, but the details remain uncertain this far out.
(FORECAST: Amarillo | Lubbock | Albuquerque | Oklahoma City)
Meteorologist Chris Dolce wrote a piece in late January suggesting this dry winter was a classic signature of La Niña, the periodic cooling of the equatorial eastern Pacific Ocean.
A December 2017 Weather Underground Category 6 blog post cited recent research suggesting the second winter of a La Niña typically features increasing drought in the Lower 48 states, particularly in the South.
The latest seasonal drought outlook from NOAA's Climate Prediction Center doesn't offer good news; it either shows drought conditions persisting or expanding through the end of April.
Average precipitation steps up noticeably in spring in the southern High Plains and peaks in summer.
If that doesn't happen this spring, the drought will become even worse and more widespread as we move toward the hottest time of the year.
Jonathan Erdman is a senior meteorologist at weather.com and has been an incurable weather geek since a tornado narrowly missed his childhood home in Wisconsin at age 7. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
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