Late October rains have practically wiped severe drought conditions from the face of Texas maps, and a new weather system is enhancing predictions of a wet El Niño winter, a weather expert says.
Cattle in Brazos County seem to be enjoying water brought by heavy rainfall in late October that helped end severe drought in Texas. (Texas A&M AgriLife Communications photo by Kathleen Phillips)
Barry Goldsmith, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Brownsville, said that the rare, record-breaking rain events fueled by Hurricane Patricia will leave Texas with “no significant drought.”
“Hurricane Patricia notwithstanding, El Niño reared its atmospheric head right on que,” he said. “Other factors were involved, but the second half of October was classic El Niño, with rich moisture from the Gulf of Mexico drenching Texas with efficient rainfall.”
Goldsmith said rainfall is most efficient when it originates deep in the tropics. When such rain falls often enough, it will soak into the soil and enhance reservoirs, lakes, creeks and streams.
“Efficient rainfall is hugely beneficial for agriculture,” he said.
Dr. Juan Anciso, a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service fruit and vegetable specialist in Weslaco, said an end to the Texas drought is long overdue, but a wet winter might cause problems.
“There are overwhelming positives to all this rainfall for agriculture statewide,” he said. “The great news is that it ends our drought, conditions the soils, fills reservoirs and limits irrigation. But the flip side is that some crops still out in the fields that got hit by hard rain suffered. Heavy rains for vegetable production here in South Texas, for example, flooded fields, set off plant diseases and ruined some production.”
Anciso said a wet winter in extreme South Texas last year was a serious problem for vegetable production.
“If we have another wet winter in the Rio Grande Valley, it will be another disaster for cabbage, onions and carrots,” he said.
While increased rainfall from the warm waters of a strong El Niño late this year had been predicted, Goldsmith said, another weather pattern called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, or PDO, will strengthen El Niño’s chances for more efficient rainfall through January at least.
“El Niño patterns that enhance the chance of rainfall can be fleeting,” he said. “But a moderate to strong PDO helps an El Niño maintain and even strengthen its rain-making abilities. And that appears to be what we’re seeing as of late October.”
El Niño refers to warm Pacific Ocean waters in the tropics, while a PDO refers to El Niño-like patterns of climate variability in the mid-latitudes of the Pacific.
Goldsmith said a strong PDO doubles down an El Niño.
“We haven’t seen a PDO of this strength since the mid- to late-1990s, and for El Niño, it’s like having some caffeine, then drinking an energy drink. It’s a double shot. In this case, this PDO will lock down a wetter-than-average Texas from roughly November through February.”
As the season cools, Goldsmith said, it decreases the chance of torrential rainfalls like those seen recently in Willacy County and Wimberley in Hays County.
“The nature of the rain we’re in for later this fall and winter is more gradual,” he said. “Between November and February, we’ll likely see 3 to 5 inches of rain in one or more events somewhere in Texas, but it will take up to several days, not a few hours. We can’t rule out a sudden thunderstorm, but it will be difficult to create a deluge, say 12 inches of rain in four or five hours that quickly floods because it overwhelms drainage systems and can’t flow away.”
Goldsmith said the current El Niño will likely oscillate “back to neutral” in May through July, 2016, but chances are high that growers will have little or no need for irrigation water this winter into early spring.
“It’s been said that Texas is in perpetual drought interrupted by the occasional devastating flood,” he said. “Well, this year, 2015, has been wet overall, with our share of occasional devastating floods and unfortunately, dozens of fatalities. But in late October alone, Texas shifted from large areas of extreme and exceptional drought to some areas of abnormally dry, and only a few pockets of moderate drought — a much improved situation.
“Drastic category shifts like that are rare in such a relatively short period of time, but the accumulation and efficiency of the late October rainfall was sufficient for the shift,” Goldsmith said.
AgriLife Extension district reporters compiled the following summaries:
South: Rainfall halted field activities in the Cameron County area, where 4 to 7 inches of rainfall were reported. Saturated fields amounted to flooding with hay left in a lot of the fields. Onion, lettuce and tomato crops were reported as progressing well. Hidalgo County also received a lot of rainfall with some isolated areas receiving a bit too much. Starr County received scattered rainfall amounting from 1.5 to 4 inches. Fall crops within the area continued to progress well. Range and pastures in Starr County and surrounding counties continued to benefit from all the rainfall. Soil moisture conditions were reported as 100 percent surplus in Cameron County, 65 to 100 percent adequate in Hidalgo County and 90 percent adequate in Starr County. Atascosa County received quite a bit of rainfall throughout the county. Frio County received scattered rainfall at the end of the week. Peanut harvesting continued throughout the week but was halted at the end of the week due to the rainfall. Wheat and oats planting also continued during the week, and range and pastures dramatically improved – also as a result of the rainfall. La Salle County received a lot of rainfall on Saturday. In McMullen County, soil moisture conditions continued to improve as well as grazing conditions on range and pastures. Rainfall within the area has been reported as slightly above average for this time of the year. Duval County reported there not being many crops in that part of the region, but U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Services Agency was asking about the possibility of any winter wheat being planted in the county. Jim Wells County received some light rainfall during the week. The rainfall helped further improve soil moisture conditions within the area. An average of 4 inches of rainfall fell across Kleberg and Kenedy counties, helping fill livestock tanks on grazing pastures. Range and pastures in Kleberg, Kenedy and surrounding counties have improved as a result of continual rainfall. With the help of continual rainfall, conditions continued to improve in the Dimmit County area. Maverick County received more showers this past week. Coastal Bermuda grass remained green, and farmers continued cutting for bale production. Winter crops, such as some ryegrass and oats, were also being planted within the area. In Zavala County, light rain occurred at the end of the week, slowing down some farm operations. For the most part, most farming operations within the area remained workable. Also in Zavala County, cotton ginning activities were winding down. Wichita pecan-variety harvesting was active. Livestock producers reported native range and pastures responding well to recent rains, and cabbage harvesting preparations took place.
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