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Dry cycle continuing across much of the Southwest

Dry cycle continuing across much of the Southwest

The 2011 historic drought resulted in a $7.6 billion loss (2010 and 2011).

Lest recent precipitation, frozen and otherwise, lull Southwest farmers and ranchers into some kind of sense of drought relief, Al Sutherland, coordinator for the  Oklahoma Mesonet ag program, reminds them that things can go south in a hurry.

“A big drought is always lurking around,” Sutherland told some 100 participants at the Red River Crops Conference in Childress, Texas. “We are now in a negative phase (lower than normal rainfall), and that can last a long time. We could see an extended period of below average rainfall.”

It’s happened before, and it’s expensive when it does. “Weather drives agriculture,” Sutherland says. The 2011 historic drought resulted in a $7.6 billion loss (2010 and 2011). A drought in 2005 and 2006 took $4.1 billion; a 2000 drought cost another $1.1 billion and the 1998 drought resulted in a $2.4 billion loss. Loss from the 2012 drought totaled $420 million. “We don’t have official estimates yet for 2013 and 2014 but the loss is probably close to $550 million.”

“A drought is very expensive, and it can come on slowly. It doesn’t attract as much attention as a tornado.” But the cost can be equally devastating.

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Wheat yields offer a perspective on drought losses. From 1973 through 2005 wheat yields in Oklahoma dipped below 100 million bushels only once. From 2006 through 2014, five wheat crops produced less than 100 million bushels.

“We’re in a different weather pattern,” Sutherland says. “It’s more variable with more extremes. Texas conditions may have been even worse with a combination of drought and freeze damage to wheat.”

Improved drought status

Much of the Southwest has experienced some improvement in drought status in recent months. The latest drought monitor shows Texas with 43 percent of the state rated in moderate to exceptional drought. Oklahoma is in worse shape with a tad over 65 percent of the state rated in moderate to exceptional drought.

“The Red River area has been in extreme drought for quite some time,” Sutherland says. Extreme and exceptional ratings in Oklahoma hit 23 percent in late January, compared to less than 5 percent in that range last year.

A three-month prediction indicated February through April would see below normal temperatures with most areas of the Southwest showing an equal chance of above or below normal moisture. “Farther west, the chance is better for above normal moisture. For most of the Southwest, drought is expected to continue or intensify. New Mexico and Arizona should see improvements.”

It’s a dry cycle, Sutherland says. “From the 1980s to the early 2000s, we had above average rainfall in Oklahoma. That’s a 30-year stretch. Texas had a wet period back into the 1960s. In the Texas Rolling Plains, with an annual average rainfall of 28.7 inches, the wet times were not as pronounced as for other parts of the Southwest. And dry periods were more severe.”

An El Niño event will help the Southwest but “much of the East gets drier. La Niña was very strong in 2010 and 2011.” The El Niño and La Niña patterns occur in one to three-year cycles, Sutherland says, and range from very strong to weak. Longer cycles favor one or the other of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) patterns, too. From 1950 through 1974 La Niña occurred more often. El Niño was more frequent from 1975 to 2005.

Drought is complex

Texas A&M State Climatologist Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon said in a recent crop and weather update that drought is more complicated than observing rainfall patterns. Texas has seen an improvement in rainfall during the last six months, but rainfall pattern is not the only concern.

Global warming plays an increasingly important role.

Global warming has pushed up average temperature in Texas by about 1.5 degrees since the 1970s. That’s enough to increase the evapotranspiration of plants and loss of surface water by several percent.

“Any incremental increase of severity of the drought starts having a huge impact,” Nielsen-Gammon says. “It doesn’t matter at all during normal conditions, but when you’re in an extreme drought, it can make the difference between making it through the drought and not making it through.”

Despite the rising temperatures, Nielsen-Gammon remains optimistic for agriculture during the next couple of decades because of an expected increase in rainfall compared to the last 10 or 15 years.

“Over the long-term, yes, there will be a trend to greater evaporation,” he said. “But then there are also short-term trends on top of that long-term trend. Based on how the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans operate and how they influence our weather, over the next 20 to 25 years we are probably going to see an improvement in drought conditions, mainly from an increase in rainfall amounts. This is because the two oceans have been working against us for the past decade or decade and half, and that trend tends to flip back and forth every 20 years or so.”

Global warming also may have a positive effect on agriculture and could benefit crop production, Nielsen-Gammon says. Plants open up stomata to take in carbon dioxide and to cool themselves by evapotranspiration. As atmospheric carbon dioxide levels rise, plant pores don’t need to open as much to get carbon dioxide. They lose less water through transpiration and tend to become more drought-tolerant. With ample water, plants can grow faster, depending on other factors such as nutrient availability.

It’s a cliché to say that no one can do anything about the weather, other than complain. But Sutherland says farmers and ranchers have tools to help cope with weather extremes. The most important tool, he says, is information. Mesonet, for instance, provides real-time weather data to help producers schedule irrigation and plan for operations such as spray applications, seeding and harvest. Information is updated every five minutes and includes wind speed, soil temperature and evapotranspiration rates. The Oklahoma Mesonet, established in 1994, is a joint program with Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma. The service aids agriculture as well as public safety efforts and other applications.

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