Texas Drought Officially the Worst Ever

Aug 4, 2011

COLLEGE STATION, Aug. 4, 2011 – As Texas continues to bake in record heat, the drought news for the state continues to be bleak – Texas is now in the midst of its most severe one-year drought on record, according to John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas State Climatologist and professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University.

Preliminary reports from the National Climatic Data Center indicate that July 2011 was the warmest month ever recorded statewide for Texas, with data going back to 1895, Nielsen-Gammon reports. The average temperature of 87.2 degrees broke the previous record of 86.5 degrees set in 1998. The June average temperature of 85.2 was a record for that month and now ranks fifth warmest overall.

Rainfall totals were also unusually light across the state. The July monthly total of 0.72 inches ranks third driest, surpassed by the 0.69 inches recorded in both 1980 and 2000. This is the fifth consecutive month in which precipitation totals were among the 10 driest for that month, says the Texas A&M professor.

Among the other rainfall records set this month: least year-to-date precipitation (6.53 inches; historical average 16.03 inches; previous record 9.36 inches in 1917); driest consecutive 8, 9 and 10 months on record (7.25 inches 8.35 inches, and 9.17 inches respectively); and driest 12 months ending in July (15.16 inches, previous record 16.46 inches in 1925).

"These statistics rank the current drought as the most severe one-year drought ever for Texas," Nielsen-Gammon explains. "Never before has so little rain been recorded prior to and during the primary growing season for crops, plants and warm-season grasses."

Texas would need more than 4.5 inches of rain in the next two months to avoid breaking the 1956 record for driest 12 consecutive months, he adds.

"Dr. Nielsen-Gammon's work confirms the harsh realities," Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples says.

"The extreme heat and unprecedented dry weather are crippling agricultural operations in Texas upon which all Americans rely for food, fuel, clothing and other daily necessities. This historic drought has depleted water resources, leaving our state's farmers and ranchers in a state of dire need. The damage to our economy is already measured in billions of dollars and continues to mount."

Recent rains have brought some relief from drought conditions in extreme west Texas, extreme south Texas and extreme southeast Texas. However, in the interior of the state, conditions remain dire, Nielsen-Gammon says.

"The climate division that covers west-central Texas has received only 3.32 inches of rainfall since Nov.1," says Nielsen-Gammon. "That's less than 21 percent of the historical average and less than half of the previous record, set in 1956. Add in the record heat, and it's just devastating."

Nielsen-Gammon notes that the most severe Texas drought overall is still the 1950-1957 drought. During the most intense year of that drought – 1956– Texas set its all-time record for lowest 12-month precipitation, 13.69 inches ending in September.

"But in 1956, much of the rain fell in the spring when crops were being established," he says. "The current 12-month total (from 2010 to 2011) is dominated by rain that fell early last fall, and the ground had already dried out in many parts of the state by planting time."

Because the 1950-1957 drought lasted longer, it had a substantial impact on water supplies across the state, and most water supplies are now designed to withstand a similar drought, the Texas A&M professor explains.

"The present drought is shorter but sharper," Nielsen-Gammon adds. "So far, its impacts have been disproportionately felt in agriculture, but many water suppliers throughout the state have now imposed water restrictions.

"The outlook is not entirely grim," he reports. "Late August and September bring increased chances of widespread rain from tropical disturbances, as well as the occasional cold front. Some computer models predict a return to La Niña conditions this winter, which would imply continued dry weather, but most predict neutral conditions in the tropical Pacific and the possible return of normal weather patterns."

Contact: John Nielsen-Gammon at 979.862.2248 or Keith Randall, News & Information Services at Texas A&M University, at 979.845.4644