Notes from the TX State Climatologist

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“If you want a better forecast, check back in five years.”

I got to hear John Neilsen-Gammon (link:… , the State of Texas's Climatologist (link: , speak about the “Basic mechanisms of the 2011 TX Drought” and our “Outlook for the future: short & long terms” last Friday. His presentation, loosely, was titled, “Texas Drought: Why You Should Get Used to It.” His closing point, “If you want a better forecast, check back in five years.”

So, with that in mind, here are some highlight notes from the presentation.

Historical Data

  • For past 6 months, State of TX as a whole has recv'd an avg of 6″ of rain, compared to a 110 yr historical avg of 18 inches (spring/summer months).
  • This is clearly the worst one-year drought on record. Nearest competitor 1956. Note 2007 also the wettest year on record. Note that 1980's & 90's were anomalously wet decades, averaging far more precipitation than weather and tree ring records show.

    >> Gammon says: a) current drought is somewhat of a natural cycle, and b) current drought is somewhat of a correction in relation to wetter than usual decades, and c) current drought appears to be markedly exacerbated by global warming. <<

  • From a short-term perspective: this has been a top 10 drought for almost every location in TX.
  • Next most widespread drought was 1925. Longest term drought was 1956. 2011 is worst 9-month cumulative dryness of any single year on record.
  • Last major precipitation system across Texas was 9/27/2010. (Note that parts of far East Texas had already slipped into drought at the that time.) By March 2011 the drought had started statewide. By August, the coloration of the US Drought Monitor drought chart no longer did justice to showing the severity of Texas's 2011 drought.

    Current Data

  • 10/10/11 things are improving slightly, however most of the state at less than 50% of normal for 12 month precipitation accumulation period.
  • In addition to the drought, heat in 2011 is exceptional. TX temps are running neck & neck w Oklahoma's as to which will have the hottest summer on record for the US, 2011.

    Projections Data

  • A confluence of climatological, meterological, and hydrological factors all implies that future droughts will be HOTTER. Dryness in the system drives heat increases. Evaporation management to become incredibly important.

    >> Gammon says: It is not yet fully understood the value of trees and vegetation in helping to manage evaporation, hydrological systems, and high heat. It is believed that less moisture in the system means more intense heat. <<  

  • Will this continue? What can we expect?
  • Ocean temps say yes will continue. La Nina strengthens that possibility.
  • Climate models say we're looking at a weak to moderate La Nina rest of this year, this means: below normal rainfall, above normal temperatures.
  • Global studies indicate that rainfall should increase everywhere except TX, next 20 years.
  • The evidence seems to be expanding that the worst possible conditions (a cold tropical pacific and a warm Atlantic Ocean) are increasing. However, and as always in climate science: It's not clear which factors are going to win.

    Drought outlook

  • Returning to La Nina

       o Drought likely to continue

  • Period of drought susceptibility

       o Ocean temps favor drought

       o Period will last 5 to 15 years

       o “Come back in 5 years for a better forecast”


    This is the time for water planning.

    What if we have 4 more years of 70-80% below normal precipitation?

    Time to change our response to drought. Some ideas:

               > Take actions according to months of the year

               > Take actions according to whether we're in an El Nino or La Nina

    For More Info

    Office of the State Climatologist:

    John's blog:…

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    1. Aqueducts
      Several months ago, somebody joked to me that we ought to build a big aqueduct from the Midwest, where they've been getting floods, down to Texas. While that's obviously not something to do in 2011, it's something to think about down the line.

      Unlike the situation in the Southwest (where the giant aqueducts running to Los Angeles take water away from other dry areas, creating shortages elsewhere), there really isn't any shortage of water along the Mississippi River. Getting water from there to Texas would be expensive, but there aren't any ecological reasons why it couldn't be done.

      We all need to practice water conservation, and I agree with the City of Austin's pricing structure (which keeps water cheap for households that only use a little, like for drinking and bathing, but cranks the price way up for high-volume users).  However, there's a limit to what conservation can do. This summer, evaporation from Lake Travis (which we can't do anything to stop) equaled roughly half of Austin's water usage!  Without rain, even the best conservation measures are insufficient.

      If we really are settling into a long-term dry period, then we need to start importing water before we drain our aquifers and lakes. It will be a few years before we know if a large-scale aqueduct-building program is needed, but the time to start thinking about it is now.  

      • thanks L
        I've had several friends make similar suggestions. Love to see more thinking on that. It does seem we humans might be headed into a new era of engineering ecology;  controlling nature to provide for our needs…

        Didn't know about Lake Travis's evaporation, wow! Thanks for sharing. Do you have a source for that?

        Best, Chris

        • LCRA website
          You can get the data on evaporation from the LCRA website.  For instance at this site , which is from 2009, it says

          LCRA officials estimate that Lake Travis drops about two-tenths of a foot each week due to evaporation. Last year, about 220,000 acre-feet of water was lost to evaporation, which is about 30 percent more water than the City of Austin used in 2008 to meet its municipal needs.

          Since the area of Lake Travis is about 30 square miles, dropping .2 feet/week works out to a little under 200 million gallons/day. That's less than Austin uses in the summer, but more than Austin uses in the winter. (Of course, there's also more evaporation in the summer than the winter.)

          This came up, by the way, when my son asked me this summer for a “Fermi problem” — an out-of-the blue physics question where the goal is to get a decent ballpark estimate in as little time as possible. I asked him “how much water evaporates from Lake Travis in a day?” A minute later, he estimated a billion liters (=264 million gallons).  Close enough for jazz.

    2. Chris some other items about the drought
      A giant haboob hits Lubbock, Texas


      The storm from the GOES EAST visible loop at 5:32 PM 10-17-2011

      Two Graphs about the Great Texas Drought

      When one reads about what has happened in Texas this year, the top graph below shows better than anything I've seen, just how remarkable the heat in Texas was.  The heat was an order of magnitude greater than anything thing seen in the last 116 years.


    3. Just wondering…
      While this diary is making excellent recommendations about water usage and conservation…not a word has been mentioned about the egregious use of water this summer by the shale gas drillers and frackers. So, while the lakes were drying up and communities were placed on water restrictions, the shale gas drillers could drill, baby drill and frack, baby frack.

      Did this state climatologist mention shale gas drilling and fracking in his presentation entitled “Texas Drought: Why You Should Get Used to It.”?

      Did he mention that the fossil fuel industry should get “used to it,” too??

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