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Why it's dry

As forecasting improves, states may soon be able to prepare for droughts as many now do for hurricanes and earthquakes

By Peter N. SpottsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 7, 2002



When poet Carl Sandburg wrote of fog coming in "on little cat feet," he could just as well have applied the image to another, more troubling weather event: drought. For more than 50 years, researchers have noted that drought is a "creeping" phenomenon. People recognize they're experiencing it only after it has been around for a while, and then struggle to cope with it.

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But now, researchers are looking forward to new tools to help them improve drought forecasting, while in Washington, lawmakers are expected to introduce legislation in the next few weeks aimed at setting up machinery to help states, counties, and cities prepare for drought, much as many do already for hurricanes or earthquakes.

These efforts come as about 30 percent of the United States is shaded in yellows, tans, and browns on drought-severity maps.

"In many places, the current drought is a 1-in-20- to a 1-in-50-year event," notes James Laver, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center (CPC) in Camp Springs, Md. "It's not unprecedented, but it's pretty unusual."

Steven Turner needs no convincing of that. Standing inside the water-filtration plant alongside the Millham Reservoir, which ordinarily supplies a third of the drinking water to residents in Marlborough, Mass., Mr. Turner, a plant operator, notes that the water level is so low that the facility hasn't pumped a gallon since the end of last October.

Since then, he quips, "we've painted everything that doesn't move, and now we are chasing things that do move." Elsewhere in the state, neighborhood ponds have become occasionally malodorous mud flats. To tend nesting boxes for wood ducks, residents plod over planks rather than paddle canoes.

In New Jersey, this winter has been the driest on record. On Monday Gov. James McGreevey declared the state's first drought emergency.

In the Washington, D.C., area, conditions have been so dry that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick asked the half-million Roman Catholics in the area to pray for rain last month. US Army Corps of Engineers officials made the same suggestion to residents attending a meeting on water allocation in Anderson, S.C., last week, after saying the corps has done the best it could to manage water levels in nearby lakes. During the past four years, some parts of the state have accumulated a rainfall deficit of 48 inches.

Georgia has also endured drought for the past four years, notes Mark Svoboda, a climatologist at the National Drought Monitoring Center (NDMC) at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Out west, Montana and Wyoming are withering under three years of drought conditions. There, drought conditions stretch to southern Texas.

The tricky business of forecasting

Climatologists attribute the drought to several factors. Cooler-than-usual waters in the tropical Pacific, the flip side to El Niño, have triggered shifts in climate patterns during the past few years. Winters in the US Southeast have tended to be drier and warmer than normal, as have summers in the northern-tier states, particularly those along the Rocky Mountains. In addition, the atmospheric impact of the cool Pacific waters, known as La Niña, have driven the storm-steering jet stream toward the north.

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