Drought Scorches Texas and the Record Books

Jul 6, 2011

COLLEGE STATION, July 6, 2011 – The months-long Texas drought is sapping the record books bone dry and is racking up dire statistics that have never been reached since reliable record-keeping was started 116 years ago, according to figures from Texas A&M University researchers.

Don Conlee, instructional associate professor of atmospheric sciences who, along with graduate student Brent McRoberts, also assists State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon with recordkeeping, confirms that the period from February through June was by far the driest on record with a statewide average of 4.26 inches of rain. The next driest occurred in 1917 with 6.45 inches.

Also setting records: March-June, driest on record; January-June, driest on record; December-June, driest on record; November-June, driest on record; and October-June, driest on record.

They note that official weather keeping began in 1895 in Texas.

Drought researchers, emergency managers and state and federal officials will convene in Austin on Thursday (July 7) for a special Southern U.S. Drought Impacts & Assessment Workshop.

As for June, it was most definitely time to crank up the AC unit: 2011 marked the hottest June ever in Texas with an average of 85.2 degrees, breaking the previous mark of 84.9 set in 1953.

"June was not only the warmest June in Texas history, it comes in as the fourth warmest month ever, which usually goes to a July or August time period," Conlee notes.

One stat sure to make Texans sweat: Even if the state receives an average of 2 inches of rain in July (the long-term average is 2.45 inches), it will already have had the driest August (2010) through July period ever.

Conlee says the Palmer Drought Severity Index (used by the National Climatic Data Center) is currently -6.37, officially making this the third worst drought on record. First place occurred in 1956 with a mark of -6.54, and second was in 1918 with a -6.41 reading.

"But the stats are through June, meaning this still has the potential to surpass one or both of the infamous past droughts to be the worst or second worst drought in Texas history," Conlee adds.

"The primary cause of the drought is the lingering La Nina in the Pacific, but we don't know for certain if climate change is affecting rainfall one way or the other. What we do know is that temperatures are a degree or two warmer with climate change so the drought is worse than it would otherwise be," says Nielsen-Gammon, whose position as state climatologist is in addition to his service as professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M.

As for rainfall in the upcoming months, Conlee says the prospects are not that promising: the mid and long range forecasts are no better than an equal chance of above and below-normal precipitation, with many parts of the state having greater probability of below-normal.

"The saving grace could be the wildcard of a tropical storm or hurricane, although that rain could come at a high price," Conlee adds.

Contact: Office of the State Climatologist at 979.845.5044 or osc@geos.tamu.edu or Keith Randall, from News & Information Services at Texas A&M University, at 979.845.4644 or keith-randall@tamu.edu