One of the biggest weather stories in recent years is the distinct lack of weather in much of the country—the drought is an ongoing, slow-motion disaster in the western United States, but abnormally dry conditions are starting to spread east. More than half of the United States is suffering from an unusual lack of rainfall, with much of the south and East Coast joining the west in their need for water.

The U.S. Drought Monitor, which runs its analyses every Tuesday and releases the data every Thursday, says that 52.00% of the United States—including Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico—is suffering from a lack of precipitation and is now abnormally dry or stuck in a drought.

The five-point scale used to measure drought runs from zero to four, with a zero meaning “abnormally dry” and four meaning “exceptional drought.” Experts arrive at these numbers using a scale that takes into account observed precipitation, soil moisture, and river and lake levels, among other indicators.

California and the Rest of the West

The entire western United States—save for a couple of pockets in the desert—is in some level of abnormal dryness or in a full-blown drought. The most dire need for rainfall is still out in California, a state that’s been in a severe drought since early 2013 and exceptional drought (the worst level) since early 2014. As of last week’s analysis by the U.S. Drought Monitor, 46% of California is in this worst level of drought, down from 58% this time last year.

However, that 12% reduction in the most serious level of drought is too little too late for water tables, reservoirs, farmers, and the many thousands of people in the path of destructive wildfires that are wiping out entire towns in one night.

The only saving grace at this point is El Niño, which is something that Californians have pinned their hopes to in recent months. Winters with strong El Niños historically see above-average rainfall in parts of California, with drier-than-normal conditions possible in the Pacific Northwest. A constant stream of rain is by no means a guarantee, and even an entire winter full of rain wouldn’t be enough to remedy the drought, any precipitation is good at this point.

In the meantime, some areas have seen beneficial rainfall over the past couple of days. Some parts of Los Angeles saw more than two inches of rain today, breaking several records along the way and becoming the wettest day the city has seen so far this year.

Southern Plains

Today’s extensive drought in the southern Plains and the northern Gulf Coast would be magnitudes worse today if it weren’t for the hellacious, flooding rains the region saw this past spring. The intense rainfall—many spots saw several feet in just a few months—downright murdered the region’s growing drought, taking most regions from an exceptional drought to normal in just a couple of weeks.

Three months ago, a whopping 92% of Texas was drought-free, flush with water for the time being. In the season since, that number has slipped to 52%, but it’s still nowhere near as bad as it was before this spring, and certainly not the disaster it was just a couple of years ago.

For all of the problems the rainfall caused, it kept the region from going into a much deeper and much more severe situation this summer. The surplus of liquid sunshine allowed states like Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arkansas to weather this dry, hot summer without slipping too far down the chasm.

Over the past 90 days, rainfall deficits have ranged from eight to ten inches below normal on the northern Gulf Coast—around Mobile and Pensacola—to just a few inches below normal in the heart of Texas.

East Coast

A significant portion of the Carolinas slipped into a drought this summer, with the center of South Carolina taking the hardest hit. The extreme lack of precipitation this year is likely due to the back-to-back(-to-back...) heat waves that plagued this part of the country for the duration of the summer.

Average temperatures were consistently above average, with sweltering high temperatures and stifling lows that didn’t offer much relief from the heat. Florence, South Carolina—the first notable city you hit going south on I-95—is in the severe drought range, and they fell just short of tying the record for the most consecutive 97°F days ever recorded this year. The city saw a high of 97°F or higher for fourteen days between June 13 and June 26, and they’ve seen nine days so far this year with highs at or above 100°F.

It’s not just the Carolinas wondering when things will return to normal. There are scattered patches of dryness and drought throughout the region from Maine to Florida, with the worst drought occurring in southeastern Florida. The drought in far southern Florida has somewhat improved over the past couple of weeks, but it’s still considered a severe drought.

Precipitation Outlook

The Climate Prediction Center, which issues long-term outlooks, expects a precipitation pattern very similar to what one would expect during an El Niño as we approach winter.

The agency’s latest three-month outlook, covering September, October, and November, calls for increased odds of above-average precipitation from southern California through the central Plains, with a bullseye focused on Arizona, a result of increased moisture flowing north from the tropical Pacific. The outlook also calls for higher odds of below-normal precipitation in the northern United States near the Canadian border, another common feature one would expect as a result of an atmosphere influenced by El Niño.

[Map: author | Images: AP]

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