2021 Brings in Even More Hot and Dry Conditions
A new year is finally here, but the Texas heat remains as forecasters share that drought conditions may continue across the state throughout 2021.
Fall and the beginning of winter in 2020 stayed true to its forecast with above-normal temperatures and dry conditions, leading to an increase in wildfire activity. The month of October is usually one of the state's wettest months, but most regions received below-average, if any, rainfall during that time.
Looking ahead, the Climate Prediction Center anticipates that the above-normal temperature and below-normal precipitation trend will likely continue through the spring in Texas.
“January through March temperatures have chances to be above normal across the entire region, with the highest chance across southern and western Texas,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in its December Southern Region Quarterly Climate Impacts and Outlook. “Precipitation has chances to be above normal across parts of Mississippi, Arkansas, and most of Tennessee, and chances to be below normal across central and southern Mississippi as well as most of Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas.”
But what exactly is the cause of this persistent pattern?
“The main driver of drier conditions in Texas is rising temperatures,” said John Nielsen-Gammon, the state’s climatologist and professor at Texas A & M University. “When the final numbers for 2020 are in, it looks like the state will be just a little bit below normal for precipitation but among the top ten (out of 126 years) for temperature. The year 2021 could well be similar.”
According to Nielsen-Gammon, the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), the recurrent weather patterns in the central and eastern tropical Pacific that often influence whether Texas will enjoy heavy rainfall or prolonged drought conditions, is still in a moderate La Niña status. A La Niña forms when waters in the tropical Pacific Ocean are much cooler than normal, which typically results in warmer and drier weather.
“Conditions are generally pretty dry around the state, and they're likely to get worse before they get better because of the moderate La Niña in the tropical Pacific,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “La Niña favors below-normal precipitation and above-normal temperatures through March, and climate change favors above-normal temperatures throughout the year.”
The recent rain and even snow events in early January will not provide significant drought relief to the state, as the remainder of winter will likely continue to be dry.
“Even with the past storm, the two-month percent of normal map shows that most of the area is below normal so far since early November,” Nielsen-Gammon said. (photo reference below)
The U.S. Drought Monitor shows that as of Jan. 14, about 52% of Texas’ population is experiencing drought conditions, down 27% from the prior week. To compare, about 8% of Texas’ population was experiencing drought conditions in late September. The U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook by the Climate Prediction Center shows that these drought conditions will persist for most of the state through the spring.
Despite the current drought conditions, Nielsen-Gammon added that the upcoming spring season could potentially bring a decent amount of rain to the Brazos River basin. Wintertime is not especially rainy and conditions can turn quickly come spring.
“La Niña loses its punch for affecting Texas weather by early spring, so it won't matter much for our springtime weather either way,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “Later in spring, though, if soils remain dry, it becomes harder to generate thunderstorm activity and break the drought, so dry conditions can prolong themselves. And in any event, forecasts call for La Niña to be gone by June or July.”
One year ago, 2020 started off with more than 50 percent of the basin under some form of drought conditions; however, the BRA’s Water Supply System remained relatively full at 92 percent. Skip ahead to 2021, and circumstances have not changed drastically.
Regardless of the continuation of above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation levels, the BRA’s Water Supply System remains in relatively good shape heading into 2021. As of Jan. 7, the BRA system is 96% full and storing more than 1.83 million acre-feet of water.
“January’s drought monitor shows fairly widespread drought conditions across the Brazos River basin,” said Aaron Abel, BRA Water Services Manager. “However, the La Niña is not as strong as what we saw during the 2011–2015 drought. When we have weak or moderate La Niña events, we can still have major rain events like we had recently, which gives me hope for spring rains. The basin currently has areas that are much drier than others, as Lake Georgetown is under Stage 1 Drought Watch. But generally, we are in excellent shape headed into the spring. There is still a good amount of water that is stored in the system.”
Another factor for 2021’s late winter and early spring is another intense wildfire season. According to Nielsen-Gammon, a bad wildfire season requires wet conditions followed by dry conditions.
“We had those conditions in west-central Texas, so wildfire is definitely a concern for this spring,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “The other thing you need is a day of bad fire weather—strong winds with very low humidity. There are only a handful of such days in any given year, but we'd have to be lucky to avoid them completely. In far West Texas, it has been dry for so long that they might have a better chance of avoiding bad wildfires because there's just not that much to burn.”
To keep up to date with real-time data on rainfall, streamflow and reservoir elevations within the Brazos River basin, click here.