Southern states brace for ‘whiplash’ of extreme weather

·4 min read

Dangerous heat and crushing drought conditions in southern U.S. states are unlikely to subside anytime soon, federal experts say, with many currently blighted regions expected to face a “whiplash” in extreme weather over the coming months.

That means period of rain may bring little relief, as summer heat squashes crop yields and forces farmers to sell off cattle, while also boosting wildfires and creating life-threatening conditions for outdoor work.

The heat wave across the middle of the country “will split next week and then gradually fade,” Greg Carbin, head of Forecast Operations at the National Weather Service told The Hill.

But don’t expect that to last. Within a couple of weeks, conditions will return to what they are now, “and you bring the heat back in with a vengeance to parts of the central U.S.,” Carbin said.

That tendency of summer heat waves and droughts to return — rather than breaking apart in a new wave of good weather — is “one of the big challenges facing all of us in the weather and climate community,” Victor Murphy, who runs the Climate Services program at the National Weather Service told reporters on Thursday.

“You can see an amazing amount of weather whiplash — from one extreme to the other, then right back to the first extreme again,” Murphy said.

He was pointing at a drought map of Oklahoma, where a nearly two-month spell of no rain had appeared to break in a rainy May and June.

No such luck: the drought has come roaring back hard enough to slash state wheat yields by 44 percent, according to a study this month from Oklahoma State University.

The persistent high-summer heat waves is the result of the “layering” of unusual climate conditions atop normal summer heat waves, Carbin said.

Those abnormal conditions — which helped drive the unseasonable spring heat waves across the country — included the persistent drought, which cause land and air to heat up more quickly.

It also included the atmospheric phenomena known as heat domes, in which a dense mass of warm air becomes trapped over a broad area — creating in effect an enormous greenhouse.

Both of these phenomena create feedback loops that make heat waves and droughts more likely to return, as dry soil, warm air and summer temperatures bid each other up like contenders at an auction.

It is difficult to link any particular phenomenon to climate change. Summer heat waves are, in themselves, hardly unusual.

But fossil fuel emissions are helping “load the dice,” Carbin said.

Continuing combustion of coal, oil and gas is creating a world in which the current spate of anomalous, record-breaking temperatures are ever more likely, he said.

These conditions are already taking a toll across the Southern Plains.

In Texas, which is experiencing its hottest July on record, electricity demand has broken records 11 times since June as residents and businesses try to stay cool, Houston Public Media reported.

Ninety-four percent of the state is in drought, forcing some ranchers to rapidly sell off their herds. Cattle sales are at their highest level since the drought of 2008, agricultural economist Walter Kunisch of Hilltop Securities told The Hill.

In one troubling statistic, the number of breeding female cattle is at its lowest level since 2006 — a sign that operations across the South and West are “selling more animals than they’re breeding,” Kunsich added.

In Kansas, the drought has been lighter — only 23 percent is in extreme conditions — although a heat snap killed at least 2000 cattle over two days in June, Hill partners KSNW reported.

One slight regional bright spot is New Mexico, where the summer monsoon season “came not a day too soon,” Murphy said.

The summer rains offered some relief to the state, which stands at the extreme eastern edge of the Western zone gripped by a 20-year mega drought.

But the broader situation there remains grim. Destructive fires have already burned almost four times more land this year than the state average.

And the crucial Elephant Butte reservoir — a water supply it shares with Texas — was at just 5.2 percent capacity as of Thursday.

With heat and lack of water have come a heightened risk of fire, Nick Nosler of the Interagency Fire Center at the Department of Interior told reporters.

The southern U.S. has experienced 1.1 million acres burned from wildfire this year — mostly in Oklahoma and Texas, he said.

“We thought Oklahoma and maybe parts of Texas were out of the woods — and then over the last month they’re right back into it,” Nosler said.

That puts those states in the unaccustomed position of having to compete with Western states for money, firefighters and equipment.

“What’s happening in Oregon does impact what’s happening in South Texas,” Nosler said. “There’s only so many firefighting resources.”

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