Nearly half of the continental United States is hit by drought, government forecasters said Thursday, and conditions are expected to worsen this winter across much of the southwest and south.
Mike Halpert, deputy director of the Climate Prediction Center, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said a lack of late-summer rain in the southwest had extended extreme and unusually dry conditions to the western Texas to Colorado and Utah, with significant drought. also predominantly westward through Nevada, northern California and the Pacific Northwest.
Much of the western half of the country is now experiencing drought conditions and parts of the Ohio Valley and the Northeast are too, Halpert said on a teleconference announcing the weather outlook for the NOAA for this winter.
It is the most common drought in the continental United States since 2013, he said, covering more than 45% of the lower 48 states.
The winter forecast does not bode well, added Mr. Halpert. Warmer and drier conditions are expected in the south and southwest and drought is likely to develop in parts of Georgia and Florida and in central and southern California where dry conditions could increase the risk of wildfires in what has already been a catastrophic year for fires in California.
But areas in the north of the country could see some relief, with wetter conditions forecast for most of the north, said David Miskus, a drought specialist with NOAA.
The Pacific Northwest, the northern Rockies, perhaps the northern plains and also New England are likely to show improvement, he said.
Cooler temperatures are also forecast for much of the north, he said.
Globally, 2020 has been unusually warm in many regions, including much of the Arctic. There’s about a two-thirds chance the year will be the hottest on record, eclipsing 2016, said Ahira Snchez-Lugo, NOAA climatologist.
At least 2020 is very likely to be in the top three. It’s a very close race, she said.
The American Southwest has been mired in drought for most of the past two decades. Studies suggest the region is experiencing an emerging mega-drought, similar to parts of the past 1,200 years, when droughts persisted for 40 years or more.
Global warming has worsened drought, in the southwest and elsewhere, scientists say, illustrating a trend for more extreme weather as the climate changes.
Mr Halpert said the likelihood of worsening drought this winter may be linked to La Nia, which developed in August and is expected to persist at least through the winter.
Nia occurs every two to seven years on average when the upper layer of the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean cools to below normal temperatures. This leads to changes in atmospheric circulation which can affect weather conditions around the world.
In the United States, during a La Nia, the south is generally warmer and drier, the east coast is warmer, and much of the north is cooler and wetter.
The current NOAA forecast is for moderate to strong La Nia, as measured by the difference in sea surface temperatures from normal. In a stronger La Nia, the effects on the United States should be greater, Mr. Halpert said.
But he stressed that the agency’s winter outlook is based on probabilities and that sometimes in La Nia or El Nio the expected impacts do not materialize.
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