The wet weather that pounded much of the state for parts of 2015, resulting in flooding and full reservoirs throughout most of Texas gave way to overall dry conditions in the first two months of 2016. However, this week's rain shows that the El Niño weather pattern is still alive and kicking.
According to forecasters with the National Weather Service, the dry conditions were just a pause in the precipitation.
“El Niños can be tricky things,” said Greg Waller, service coordination hydrologist with the West Gulf River Forecast Center in Fort Worth, which is part of the National Weather Service. “Most of the time, the larger scale trends would indicate cooler than normal wetter than normal for Texas during El Niño. Cooler than normal this year? Nope. But the October-December time frame was so wet, we may still end up being wetter than normal when it is all said and done. Plus, some of our driest months are January and February, so drier than normal on a dry month isn't as much of an impact as say, a drier than normal May or September.
“The El Niño hasn't fizzled out. It is near peak and should slowly transition this year to neutral conditions by late spring/early summer. But there are other players beside El Niño, like the North Atlantic Oscillation and the Madded-Julian Oscilliation,” Waller said. “These large scale features can all influence the large scale weather patterns. Right now, the pattern is to carry the large scale systems north of Texas, and develop east of the area. But at this time, we are still expecting wetter than normal conditions through early May.”
“At that point, it is an equal chance of below/normal/above precipitation for the summer. One thing to point out, when El Niño weakens to neutral conditions, the Atlantic Tropical Season tends to get active, sometimes REALLY active. And it has been a while since the U.S. coast has been hit with a major hurricane. We can't pinpoint tropical activity this far out, but it is something to keep an eye out (for). We did have Tropical Storm Bill hit Texas last June … and there is nothing saying that the Texas coast couldn't get hit again.”
Dry spells are not unprecedented during El Niño
Texas Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said there are several examples of dry periods during an El Niño cycle.
“Dry spells like this during a moderate to strong El Niño have happened before, just not recently. The winters of 1896-1897, 1925-1926, and 1941-1942 all were El Niño winters with extended dry periods. Of those, only 1941-1942 ended up below normal (in rainfall) over the whole October-May period.”
Nielsen-Gammon also said because of rainfall in late 2015, Texas remains way ahead of the curve in terms of precipitation received.
“Despite the current dry period, the overall Texas rainfall from October through the end of January is greater than any other moderate to strong El Niño year. Even if the remainder of the winter and spring are drier than normal, Texas is likely to still end up above normal overall for October-May because of the wet start in October and November,” he said. “Going forward, the El Niño is expected to weaken, and weakening El Niño years average close to normal for February through May. This doesn't mean that we'll actually receive close to normal precipitation, but that above and below normal precipitation come down to a flip of a coin.”
Key concerns outlined
The recent dry weather, however, does present another hazard, Nielson-Gammon said.
“Central Texas in particular has dried out considerably over the past several weeks,” he said. “This makes wildfire a potential concern, especially with all the plant growth last spring and fall. Make sure that there's not a lot of potential wildfire fuel leading up to the edge of your house, be conscious of not causing sparks, and be especially alert on very windy days.”
And while water levels are high at reservoirs, the dry conditions do pose additional concerns, especially for agriculture.
“Because of the past wet weather, the current dry spell does not represent a water supply concern, but I imagine many farmers are getting concerned that the soil will be too dry to plant,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “The next few weeks will be crucial. There's plenty of moisture deeper in the soil, but young plants first have to grow the roots to reach it.”
Even though reservoirs remain full, Waller, with the National Weather Service, said it’s important for people to continue to closely monitor their water use.
“It is always wise to try and conserve water,” Waller said. “We went through a multi-year drought, and the lakes across Texas did their job (providing us water). But they did take a hit. With the population increasing across the state, and with lake resources fixed, more demand will be put on the water system over the long term. It is a good year. Gardens and lawns should have water, but please don't waste it.”
Bob Carle with the National Weather Service in Fort Worth echoed Waller’s sentiments on water conservation.
“If your yard gets a good rainfall, shut your sprinklers off for a few days and conserve the water,” he said. “Water at night to give the water a chance to soak in and avoid high evaporation losses we see in the summer months.”
Also, just because we’ve had a dry start to 2016, that doesn’t mean we can rest easy and think that the potential for flooding has ended.
“As far as floods, significant rain events can occur at any time, even during drought. If the large scale pattern does shift to one more favorable for locally heavy rainfall, the lakes are full,” Waller said. “Lake operators will need to manage their lakes to their designs, and we are not out of the woods as far as significant flooding (possibilities). Precipitation-wise, we could probably take an average spring. But an above average spring