When it comes to weather, all bets are off.
Incredibly abundant and beneficial spring rains across most of Texas turned the tables on drought conditions that have prevailed the last several years. Although almost all of the Southwest has experienced drought relief to some degree since the first of the year, Texas has been especially fortunate.
Climatologists credit a developing El Niño as the primary reason for heavy spring rains, a welcome turn of events for farmers and ranchers in just about every corner of the region.
But what weather giveth, weather can take away.
New Mexico and parts of Arizona and Colorado are still benefiting from rains that are being driven by El Niño, a weather phenomenon caused by warming of ocean waters west of Peru that can effect changes in the atmosphere that can dramatically alter weather patterns worldwide.
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For New Mexico in recent weeks, this has caused a number of rain showers to develop. But the latest round of showers represents a change from normal summer weather patterns in that they have been largely influenced by weather conditions in the west instead of in the east — as they are in most normal summer seasons..
“The presence of unusually warm water is responsible for the busy hurricane season we’ve had so far in the eastern Pacific,” says Bill Patzert, a climatologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “It’s the source of the very warm subtropical moisture that’s being drawn up by the high-pressure system that lingered across Texas recently. In some ways, the intensity of the recent monsoon moisture and thunderstorms is due to all that El Niño water streaming in from the Pacific.”
Late summer rains in New Mexico, often referred to as monsoonal rains, are usually caused by warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico streaming in from Texas and lifting above the mountains in north central New Mexico. When that warm, moist air meets the dry, cool temperatures at those elevations, rains begin to fall.
But in contrast, monsoonal rains over the last few weeks have largely been fed by moist Pacific air carried into the state by El Niño.
As of Aug. 11, drought conditions for virtually all the eastern half of New Mexico had disappeared after months of rains that started as early as last fall. Less than 20 percent of the state was experiencing moderate to severe drought and only 1 percent was listed in severe drought, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor.
In July last year, no part of the state was free from some degree of drought, and more than 77 percent was in severe to exceptional drought.
In contrast, large parts of East Texas, which have fared well compared to other parts of the state during the last two years of drought, are beginning to dry out. This, in spite of good rains during the spring season.
Brian Fuchs, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center, says it’s due to ‘flash drought,’ a term coined by one of his colleagues a few years back to separate the condition from the long dry spells most Texans associate with drought.
"It’s just a way of talking about a drought event that develops rapidly and intensifies rapidly,” he says. “Typically, when we think of drought, it’s something that develops quite slowly without rapid changes. But this time of year, we can see those conditions develop at a more rapid pace, and that’s what we’ve been seeing across much of East Texas over the past month."
According to Fuchs, it’s not just the heat the region is experiencing, but a combination of heat and lack of rain that has caused a flash drought and rapidly changing climate conditions.
"When it comes to flash drought, your options are quite limited, depending on what sector you’re in,” he told David Brown, host of the Texas Standard Radio report. “If you’re a rancher, maybe you start looking at how you’re rotating your herds. If you’re trying to keep your lawn or garden alive, you start applying supplemental water. But even in those situations, there’s not a sure way to avoid the impact."
The solution, say climatologists, is for rain to start falling again — something forecasters predict is likely to happen this fall and winter if El Niño continues to develop.
Until then, all bets are off.