From the Dry Hole

The central Oklahoma dry hole is turning into a bonafide drought, and it isn’t just a matter for idle whining anymore. It’s deadly serious.

All year long, several of us in the meteorological community here have discussed how Norman has been “screwed” out of rain, having had scant rainfall in the typically wetter spring and fall months. Indeed, our rain curve seems like an inversion of normalcy, with a muted summertime peak and abject dryness from March-May and currently. The only thing saving us from even more pronounced effects through much of this year, until recently, was the liberal distribution of all those puny, light rain events. Not anymore.

We’ve watched as convective complexes died to our west or north, barfing out gust fronts that blasted through only to erupt with storms after moving away. We’ve watched supercells dump heavy rains just to the W, SW, S, NW, N or E. We’ve watched several times as the dryline lit up in the Panhandle and western OK, only to sink in somber sullenness as the resulting storms’ ragged remains moved overhead and spat just enough drops to wet pavement, at most. We’ve watched as drylines pass east of us, only to light up with a rampart of thunderheads teasing the eyes and tickling the imagination. We’ve watched as several big mesoscale convective systems (MCSs) roaded past us to the N-NE-E, or to the distant W-SW-S, leaving us on their feeble, sprinkly fringes. We’ve watched as fronts roar through, storms firing off to the distant south while wrap-around precip sweeps over the central plains, Norman being dry-slotted.

Normally the “Norman Effect” is a steaming horse turd of irrational meteo-mythology, just like as all the other “look how we get shafted” legends that weather aficionados attach to their favorite place of interest, as if to elicit a duplicitously obtained recognition of sympathetic uniqueness.

This year, however, it has been real in these parts, and I’ve got the proof. Check out the linked image, showing our rain deficit as of the beginning of this month. Notice that Norman lies nearly smack in the middle of that inflamed-looking red splotch in central OK. Also, bear in mind that this is a percentage of normal; though the colors are redder to our east and southeast, the absolute rain amounts largely have been greater there.

I’m concerned, and not just for my own gardens. Farmers and ranchers, boaters and fishermen, and drivers dealing with smoke and dust, all are impacted. This place is a tinderbox.

We just entered a bitter cold spell that should stem the fire danger for awhile. Nonetheless, without appreciable precipitation, there is no hope of either replenishing multi-horizon soil moisture, or boosting local water tables. An inch or two of snowfall accumulation is in the forecast for today and tonight (the accuracy of which I have doubts), but even the flimsy liquid equivalent of such token snowfall would not help. The resultant superficial and temporary moistening of the topsoil, provided by any snow which doesn’t sublimate first, would be lost with utmost haste in the inevitable warmup.

The atmospheric setting that led to the latest round of Southern Plains infernos is indicated in my annotated version of an excellent, true-color visible satellite image provded by NASA/MODIS. This was taken 27 Nov 2005, the day of a powerful synoptic low over the central Plains ands resultant dryline and cold frontal passage across central Oklahoma. Dust came from not one source region, but three: the calcareous particles of the Chihuahuan desert, an iron-rich plume from the Llano Estacado region (South Plains) of west Texas and eastern New Mexico, and (of minor importance) gypsum dust wafting off the White Sands in southern New Mexico.

The next photo was taken that afternoon, looking SW across my front yard and through the pall of fine dust of mainly west Texas origin. [The Chihuahuan dust was a distinct, more pale pall visible to the distant S, out of this photo and under the cloud band.]

© 2005 Roger Edwards, All Rights Reserved

As I took this digital image, as well as some slides yet to be developed, I was concerned for the camera equipment. Mineral particles settled in my eyes and hair, the grit crunching between my teeth. It seemed as if I was in Morocco during a Saharan surge, instead of the Southern Plains.

Smoke plumes from fires near Vernon can be seen in the MODIS image as well, and more would erupt in succeeding days, causing some folks in Norman to experience ashfall from the fires to the SW. Additional fires erupted across central OK the next day, as evident in the series of aerial shots I made while flying from OKC to DFW. The following images were taken over an area S of Chickasha and N of the western Arbuckles. First is looking W with a large grassfire pumping smoke into the post-frontal, boundary-layer northwesterlies…

© 2005 Roger Edwards, All Rights Reserved

Downwind, farther S and closer to my flight path, other smaller infernos also spewed forth their share of the smoke.

© 2005 Roger Edwards, All Rights Reserved

Still farther S was another blaze and its plume of toasted cedars, roasted grass and maybe even charcoal particles from someone’s outbuildings.

© 2005 Roger Edwards, All Rights Reserved

While banking for landing at DFW, I also could see the huge smoke pall from the disastrous fires SW of Fort Worth, but couldn’t take a decent photo due to glare and poor angle of visibility. Over succeeding days, fires also would erupt in eastern Oklahoma, burning dozens of buildings and thousands of acres of land. We’ve been under a burn ban for the bulk of two months now. That, of course, doesn’t concern the slobbering boneheads who toss their still-smoldering cancer sticks out car windows and ignite more fires.

Enough is enough, but it’s soon to turn into more. This situation will return to a critical hazard stage; indeed, it already has for those whose homes and buildings have been afflicted.

Argue all you wish about the merits and demerits of altering the natural landscape through settlement and cultivation, or the need to remove excessively invasive Eastern red cedar, or the need to torch grasslands for nutrient recycling. All those are fine and valid. But they don’t change the reality that it’s dangerously dry here and deeply soaking rain is sorely needed.

Without some prolonged and frequent rain events later this winter and into spring, both cultivated and wild vegetation may be slammed, wildfire damage and crop loss could cause some economic damage to this state, and a “normal” dry summer could become utterly blistering. Meanwhile I fear we’ll continue to vacillate from cold and dry to warm and dry, as we are now, the common denominator being obvious, the precip coming only in (at best) marginally consequential spits.

Admitedly this run of dryness has been fascinating meteorologically for its amazing variety of storm-scale to synoptic-scale causes, perhaps in a numbingly masochistic manner, much as if wondering how many different ways one can keep getting his butt kicked in fights. [Now I can’t relate to the latter on a first hand basis, mind you. The mental particulars of that state of existence are just a WAG for me. >:-) ]

The good news is that, as always, the rains eventually will come, the ground will moisten again, the ponds will refill and folks will turn their complaints toward the resultant inundations, clouds of West Nile bearing mosquitoes or inconveniently drenched backyard barbecues. That’s fine. I’ll take flooding rains anytime over this dessicated monotony. Having lived smack in the middle of one of the worst combined short-term droughts of modern memory (1980 in north Texas) and arguably the worst single-season flood regime (1993, Missouri), I’ll gladly take the floods.

Thanks to Lou for sending me the rain deficit map and to WFO Norman for the information behind it, and to NASA for providing such beautiful and interesting public-domain satellite imagery.


One Response to “From the Dry Hole”

  1. Gilbert S. on December 31st, 2005 12:35 am

    While I certainly empathize with your situation in Okie-land (getting worse by the day), I’d like for you to take a look at what’s happening in Gilbert-land in northern Illinois. What doesn’t show up on that drought is that it’s been going on for 3 YEARS. That’s right…over the last 3 years, we have a nearly 30″ rainfall deficit! That’s like no rain in one out of those three years! This year, we were 13″+ short on rainfall. 23.50″ vs 36.74″ 30 year, long-term average. The river which goes through this town, the Kishwaukee, went dry 5 times this year…and it’s deep spring fed at the headwaters. Water wells are going dry, we haven’t been able to water our lawns for the most part over the last 3 years, and this summer, we HAD no lawns. It all went brown. Corn was knee-high in many locations and without edible ears; a last minute deluge of 1.5″ of rain saved some hearty soybeans. Central and southern Illinois were drenched by the remnants of two hurricanes (Katrina and one other whose name escapes me now), but we missed it all in the northwest 1/3rd of the state. Even in winter, the ground still crunches when you walk on it. The cracks in the ground are sometimes as wide as your fist! There have been wildfires, nothing terrible so far…but I’m wondering how long that will last. When the NWS issued it’s first ever Red Flag Warning for northern Illinois last spring, I got a call from the Illinois disaster response center at the state Capitol building, fully mobilized to deal with this…whatever it is, because only a few people had ever HEARD of a red flag warning around here! I had to tell them what a RFW was. I heard sighs in the room after I completed my brief explanation.

    And so it goes. We suffer with you…

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