Drought Conditions Could Stretch to Spring, Set Stage for Another Rough Fire Season

Map crop: US Drought Outlook
Forecasters expect dry conditions to persist in California and spread eastward.

The latest outlook from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggests that California's persistent drought-like conditions could last through the winter and into spring, possibly fueling another grueling fire season in 2021.

Currently, three-quarters of California is experiencing at least moderate drought conditions.

"Keep in mind, we’re coming off the driest May-through-October period, statewide at least, across California, Arizona and New Mexico," said Mark Svoboda of the National Drought Mitigation Center in Nebraska.

Forecasting three to four months out is a dodgy proposition for scientists, but NOAA's modeling shows the likelihood of relatively dry weather through February. The current La Niña conditions — colder-than-normal waters in the tropical Pacific Ocean — have been a seeming harbinger of scant precipitation in California in the past, though the connection is not reliable.

"Drought is very difficult to predict," Svoboda said. "When you get down to real specifics, it really comes down to the weather and the interface between the atmosphere and the ground."

Map: US Drought Outlook
Forecasters expect dry conditions to persist in California and spread eastward. Click on image to enlarge. (NOAA)

Svoboda says he sees increasing evidence that the warming climate is changing the behavior of droughts, just as it's changing the behavior of hurricanes and wildfires.

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"I think we’re living it right now," Svoboda told reporters at the online Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, "and we’re probably right on the precipice of being able to say, ‘Yeah, now we can look back 20 years and say this has really changed the behavior of droughts.'"

He says rising temperatures play a key role in drought development.

"To me, it’s becoming more and more apparent, readily apparent," he said. "I think there’s enough research and literature out there now that shows we should expect an increase."

At the same news conference, NOAA offered a preview of it's new web portal for drought information.

Kelsey Satalino, of NOAA’s National Integrated Drought Information System, says that for the first time, the site will allow users to drill down for drought information at the level of individual ZIP codes, a much more granular view than the  state-level data currently offered. Interactive tools will also show information on current wildfires, as well as historical data for localities, some of it dating back as far as 1895.

The new interactive site is set for an early January launch.

"As we like to say, ‘All droughts are local,’" says Svoboda. "But we know this increasing temperature has a big role in drought, and the feedback between a dry soil and a dry atmosphere. That’s not a good combination."

AGU's Fall Meeting, normally a huge conference that draws more than 20,000 people in the scientific community to San Francisco's Moscone Center, is being conducted entirely online this year as a COVID-19 precaution.