Rain, cooler temperatures in Austin next week, but can they stop wildfire, drought threat?

·5 min read

A night after strong rain and thunderstorms pelted Austin Saturday, more storms are expected early next week. The forecast shows a 50% chance of showers and thunderstorms Monday afternoon with more storms likely Monday evening and Tuesday night, and possibly into Wednesday.

The precipitation comes on the heals of an unusually dry spring which left Texans facing the twin threats of wildfires and drought at a level they haven't seen in years.

On Thursday alone, Texas A&M Forest Service resources were dispatched to 10 wildfires that burned more than 620 acres. In Central Texas, three fires remained active Friday, including the Twin Starts fire that was 75% contained after burning 420 acres in Llano County.

According to data this week from the U.S. Drought Monitor, a consortium of government and academic researchers, nearly 30% of Texas is experiencing exceptional drought — the most severe level — a proportion unseen in about a decade.

This weekend, a strong cold front stretching from the Great Lakes to the Rio Grande is expected to bring welcome rain and relief from extreme heat, but its effect on the drought and wildfire threat has yet to be determined.

Storms associated with the front could dump a cumulative total of between 2 and 3 inches of rain from Saturday to Wednesday, soaking the Hill Country and the urban areas along the Interstate 35 corridor, National Weather Service meteorologist Aaron Treadway said.

Some locations could see heavier amounts, Treadway said, especially with training storms possible in the area. Training refers to the repeated passage of storms in a particular area, like the rail cars of a train passing through a road crossing.

What does the forecast look like?

Saturday in Austin will look at first like the rest of May: sunny, humid and hot. The elevated humidity brought in by tropical winds from the south could make the forecast high temperature of 99 feel more like 107, according to the weather service.

"Heat index values will be a bit higher as well and could flirt with heat advisory criteria," forecasters warned in a bulletin Friday. Heat advisories are issued when temperatures and humidity rise to dangerous levels for those who are active outside.

Although Saturday has a 20% chance of rain after 1 p.m., rain chances rise to 50% at night. The heavy cloud cover will help keep overnight temperatures above 67 degrees, forecasters said.

The full effects of the cold front will likely be felt Sunday, when temperatures are forecast to stay below 80 degrees under mostly cloudy skies. Rain chances, though, slip from 40% to 20% at night, when cooler east-northeast winds become calm after midnight.

The weather service's extended forecast for the coming workweek calls for a 50% chance of rain on Monday, then a 70% chance of storms Tuesday, before declining to a 30% chance on Wednesday. Temperatures during those three days will waver between the lower 80s during the day and around 70 degrees at night.

How bad is it without enough rain?

A rain-producing cold front could hardly be more welcome.

May is, on average, Austin's rainiest month of the year, weather service climate data show. The gauges at Camp Mabry, site of the city's main weather station, normally record 5.04 inches of rain for the whole month.

But with about 10 days left, May 2022 has produced only a half-inch of rain in Austin — about 75% of that total fell on May 5 alone. Since then, the city has gone two straight weeks with zero rain.

The proportion of Texas experiencing drought conditions as of Friday was about 90.4%, a slight increase from last week, according to U.S. Drought Monitor data.

Exceptional drought — typified by crop loss and extreme sensitivity to fire danger — jumped from 24.5% last week to 28.9% — the state's highest percentage since the week of Jan. 3, 2012, when it was reached 32.4%.

The exceptional drought expanded in the Hill Country south and west of Austin — particularly in Burnet, Blanco, Llano and Gillespie counties — where watersheds are critical to feeding reservoirs like Lake Travis, which is at 61% of capacity.

The water elevation of Lake Travis at Mansfield Dam on Friday was about 653.5 feet above mean sea level, which is about 16.2 feet below the historical average for May, according to the Lower Colorado River Authority, which manages the lake for hydroelectricity and flood control.

At least eight public boat ramps at these spots on the lake are closed because of the low water levels: Arkansas Bend, Camp Creek Park, Cypress Bend, Gloster Bend, Muleshoe Bend, Narrows Recreation Area, Pace Bend at Collier Cove and Pace Bend at Tatum Cove.

A dust cloud from the Sahara Desert in Africa, far right, drifts into the eastern Caribbean Sea on Friday. An approaching cold front might keep the dust cloud from reaching Texas, which is visible in the satellite image's top left corner.
A dust cloud from the Sahara Desert in Africa, far right, drifts into the eastern Caribbean Sea on Friday. An approaching cold front might keep the dust cloud from reaching Texas, which is visible in the satellite image's top left corner.

Sahara dust cloud in the Gulf

Coincidentally, the cold front this weekend could help keep the year's first trans-Atlantic Saharan dust cloud from reaching Texas.

Massive plumes of dust from the Sahara Desert in northern Africa drift on the trade winds across the Atlantic Ocean, typically from May to August. The dust cloud can turn sunsets into gorgeous displays of color, but it also can irritate sensitive respiratory systems of those in its path. As of Friday, satellite images showed the dust had drifted into the eastern Caribbean Sea.

Meteorologists at AccuWeather said computer model simulations project that the dust will sweep into the Gulf of Mexico before reaching the Florida Panhandle.

"It is possible, but not a certainty, that this dust will make the trip as far as the Gulf and south-central U.S. late this week or this weekend," senior meteorologist Alex Sosnowski said on AccuWeather's website. "The biggest impact will be to make the sky appear hazy, but it can also give extra color to sunrises and sunsets."

AccuWeather hurricane expert Dan Kottlowski added that he thinks "the dust seems to dissipate with time and probably won't be much of an issue as it moves farther west."

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Austin weather forecast: Chance of rain, cooler temperatures next week