Drought Drags In

Originally Published in January 2018, it is, alas timely. A persistent ridge of high pressure is baking the usual places, including me.

Ninety-eight days without measurable precipitation, with no rain or snow in the foreseeable future. Drought is creeping back into the High Plains, and everyone is wary, watching the dry grass, watching the sky, waiting for something and praying for rain or wet snow. The grasses are brown, the normal winter color. But the ground is starting to dry, and to blow.

Drought is an interesting thing. There are multiple definitions of it, depending on what you read and which field you are in [pun intended]. Drought in the popular understanding is going for so long without rain or snow that things start to look dry, plants wilt, and water becomes scarce.Amarillo, or parts of it, got rain last Sunday and snow Thursday morning. But none of it reached the National Weather Service to be counted officially, and everything is still dry, so we are still in a popular drought.

Agricultural drought means that plants start to wilt due to the lack of soil moisture available to them. They lose water pressure inside their cells and droop. You can have agricultural drought not long after a rain, if the soil drains fast enough or you get something like a sirocco blowing that sucks the water out of plants, soil, animals, and anything else that happens to be exposed to the wind.

Hydrological drought means that water supplies for something have gotten below a set minimum. This might refer to rainwater, to a reservoir, to groundwater, or creek levels, it just depends what the hydrologist is looking at. Since the High Plains have been without precipitation since the water year started (October 1), we are starting to see some hydrological drought, and more agricultural drought in the winter wheat.

Meteorological drought is close to the popular understanding, which makes sense. If a place gets less than the thirty-year average for precipitation for a set amount of time (usually two-four weeks), and evaporation is average to above average, you have a meteorological drought. The exact definition varies from place to place because local and regional climates vary. If Seattle, WA gets less than ten inches of rain in three months, or goes longer than four-five weeks without rain and fog, they are in a serious drought. Down here we call that “average February-March or August.” Places that get most or all their rain in one season (Israel, California, India) define meteorological drought differently from places that are moist all year ’round (the Gulf Coast; Indonesia; Portland, OR; Newfoundland). http://drought.unl.edu/DroughtBasics/TypesofDrought.aspx

What I learned as cultural drought or economic drought is also called sociological drought. It means that the lack of moisture is affecting a region’s economy and society. When ranchers have to sell their cattle and are not spending money, and farmers lose their crops and are not spending money, so that other businesses are hurting, or the lack of rain causes reservoirs to drop and tourism goes away, you are in a sociological drought. This kind of drought can continue after the water returns. There’s a sense of depression in the air along with the lack of moisture, and people get quiet, or snappish. I can also tell you that blowing dust and water-sucking winds wear people out after several months. Drought grinds.

It’s hard to say “yep, the drought starts today.” Agricultural drought might be the easiest to define by a set start point, because you can test soil and plant moisture and say “Available soil moisture has sunk below X inches per acre. This is drought.” Otherwise it creeps in. A week passes without rain or snow. Then another, then another. That’s a dry spell. Then the dry spell stretches longer and longer, and the dew points go lower and lower. It takes moisture to get moisture, and so long as the air down low is bone dry, the rain and snow doesn’t reach the ground. It’s really frustrating to see rain on the radar, go out side and see rain falling, and know that its stopping five thousand feet above the top of your head.

When the dust starts moving, and headlights show dust even on calm evenings, and the ground is like rock under your boots, and grass crumbles and crunches as you walk on it, you are in a drought. Rain will come back, but when? Ah, that’s the hard part.

Drought is also spelled drouth. It is pronounced “drou-th.” And the “common” spelling can be pronounced “drou-th.” “D-mn dry” is another popular term, pronounced as written.


9 thoughts on “Drought Drags In

  1. We’re in the same boat. Stock tanks are dry/drying up, lakes are down feet, and grasses are dry and parched. We’re getting the occasional drops of rain as it moves east of us, but nothing here. And the temps are now going on 2 weeks over 100 degrees.

  2. Went to Nocona this morning, to turn in cut sheets and arrange to pick up a beef in two weeks. The ranchers are culling the herds, so now is a good time to buy. We were warned that some of the cattle were actually close to 500 pounds hanging weight a side, as cattle gain about a pound a day when finished in the feedlot, and “The government wouldn’t get out here for the final walkthroughs and inspections for us to open, so the feedlot got backed up.”

    On the way there, the clouds that teased with a fitful spatter here and there, but not enough to call it anything but dry, started getting darker and the spatter more frequent. When we got to Nocona, it was a steady light sprinkle. Not enough to worry about getting wet unless you were working outside in it, not even enough for anywhere but blacktop to form a puddle. When we came out with extra meat purchases, the ground looked… not even damp, it was sucking up the moisture so fast in the caliche parking lot. Not dusty, is how it looked.

    And you could tell in the relaxed shoulders, the light banter, the fervent prayers that it might continue, and the vows to do all the superstitious activities to encourage such. (One man’s mowed lawn or washed car is another man’s rain dance. Some call upon the heavens with prayers on impromptu roadside signs, some leave their windows open in invitation to the rain spirits.)

    • When the storms started rolling off the mountains last night, I assured Dad Red that I had left my windows rolled down. Which I had. Alas, the “broom” (sweeps down from the Rockies) skirted the city and we had Macbeth weather: “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

      • Be careful what you pray for…
        Most thunderstorms go north of my place.
        Until one didn’t.
        High winds brought a branch down on my porch roof.
        This week much hammering and sawing ensured.

        • Yes. When southwest Flat State got twelve inches in one hour, one of the farmer/deacons in the church where I sang said the following Sunday, “Thank you, oh Lord, for the late rains. Please spread them out more next time, if You don’t mind.” A heartfelt prayer indeed!

  3. Macbeth weather describes pretty much the whole monsoon season out here in the Sonoran desert. Hey, it’s a desert. We get almost nothing BUT drought.

  4. Yes, drought where I live too. Which is normal this season (since we get all our rain in t’other season) — except that this past winter we didn’t get anywhere near enough to tide us over.

  5. I’m a little late to the drought party, but Virginia Beach is also experiencing some dry weather, which is pretty rare here at the coast. I live on protected wetlands at the edge of the swamp, and a swamp creek of about 1-4 foot depth (depending on season and rain) usually runs through the backyard. Today I went to do my writing group back there, and the creek bed was mud. A single puddle with tiny flopping fish remained.

    Some minutes into my group meeting, a red and black mudsnake slithered into the creek bed and disappeared under a log. I spend a lot of time in the yard. Enough that I know what has taken up residence here. For snakes, only a few black snakes, a garter snake, and the occasional cottonmouth. In 12 years I’ve never seen a mudsnake here, it really just isn’t muddy enough. They stick to the inner parts of the swamp, not the periphery. So this guy was visiting due to weather and shifts in opportunity.

    A few minutes after disappearing under this log (usually submerged), an eel popped out, followed by Mr. Red&Black. The eel was a sizeable and quick dinner. Mr. Red&Black knew exactly where to find the eel, how to get him into the mud, and was slithering back to his neck of the woods within twenty minutes of arriving. He didn’t have to look around or go searching, he went straight from the grasses to the log, like he’d known that tasty eel was living there all along and was just waiting on a drought.

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