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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Enduring Drought in the South


 

The southern United States is experiencing some very dry times. Record high temperatures and below average rain fall have set off timber fires in Georgia, scorched crops in New Mexico and crippled wildlife populations and over-burdened electricity grids in Texas. And experts say this extreme weather could be here for a while.

A map that monitors drought, stains the state of Texas deep red. Nearly 250,000 square miles are listed at the highest intensity of drought- D4: Exceptional. This is the worst drought-year on record; July was the hottest month and 2010-2011 was the driest year since Texas started keeping records in 1895. The strain of cooling homes and offices has sent the state’s electricity meters surging past levels not expected till 2014, just avoiding the need to call for rolling blackouts. Farmers of wheat, cotton and peanuts are all expecting thin harvests. Ranchers have moved cattle across state lines, to Kansas, for water.

Though 2011 has been extreme, Texas has endured similar droughts for much longer. Many long time Texans remember the decade-long drought of the late 1940’s and 50’s, known as the Drought of Record. But before the Drought of Record, before any drought records, and before the Lone Star was a gleam in America’s eye, actually- even before there was America; Texas trees logged the dryness.

The science of tree rings: dendrochronology, tells us that there have been several decade-long droughts in Texas history; the worst being 1716-1725; the worst 20 year drought happened between 1697-1716. And just a few years before Columbus’ first voyage, the Texas-Mexico region was just emerging from a half-century long drought. Doian Burnette, an instructor of Geo Sciences at the University of Arkansas describes the life of these trees as "longevity under adversity." Which could be the forecast for all life here. Climatologists attribute the current drought to the La Nina weather pattern. Experts say there's a 50 percent chance the same system will continue into the fall.

 


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