Published on 02/22/01

Drought Expected to Continue, Likely to Worsen

U.S. Drought Monitor

The drought that has gripped Georgia since May 1998 is expected to continue and will likely worsen during the spring and summer.

Early winter rains gave hope that Georgia's long drought would recede. However, an extremely dry late December through late February has caused drought conditions to intensify statewide.

As of February 20, all locations in Georgia are reporting rainfall deficits for the year. Athens is 3.49 inches below normal, Atlanta 3.78, Augusta 3.78, Columbus 5.46, Macon 4.95, Savannah 3.93 and Tifton 6.18.

These deficits are on top of the 10 to 15 inches below normal values for 2000. Since May 1998, much of the state is more than 30 inches below normal.

Soil Moisture Low

Soil moisture models from the National Climate Prediction Center (CPC) indicate that soil moisture is very low across the entire state. It's extremely low in the piedmont and the northeast mountain counties.

Streams are at record or near-record low flows for late February. Without substantial rainfall, streamflow conditions won't improve. Groundwater levels also remain at record or near-record low levels for February.

The Georgia Forestry Commission reports that in January 2001 there were 1,297 wildfires, which is 102 percent above normal. These fires affected 4,743 acres, 134 percent above normal.

Prospects Not Good

Prospects for widespread, long-term drought relief are not good. Conditions will probably worsen during the spring and summer. CPC's drought outlook for Georgia is for the drought to continue at least through May.

Based on past climate, March is Georgia's last best chance for relief. With the extremely low deep-soil moisture and groundwater levels, March is too short for major recharge. However, normal rainfall in March will help topsoil moisture and reservoir levels.

In March, soil moisture normally increases with bountiful spring rains and minimal soil moisture loss from evaporation and plant water use.

Spring Rains Badly Needed

By April, soil moisture loss is normally balanced by rainfall. Starting in May, the soil moisture loss from evaporation and plant water use is usually greater than the rainfall. Thus by May, with normal weather, the state's soils will begin to become dryer.

If the soils are dry on April 1, with normal weather, drought conditions will continue and worsen through the spring and summer.

The March-through-May climate outlook from CPC is for an increased likelihood of below-normal rainfall statewide except in the extreme northern mountain counties.

Across the extreme north, the outlook is for equal chances of below-normal, near-normal, and above-normal rainfall. CPC's temperature outlook for March through May is for equal chances of below-normal, near-normal, and above-normal temperatures.

Hotter-than-normal Summer

The June-through-August climate outlook from CPC is for an increased likelihood of above-normal temperatures statewide. Above-normal temperatures will increase soil moisture loss through increased evaporation and increased plant water use. CPC's rainfall outlook is for equal chances of below-normal, near-normal and above-normal rainfall across the entire state.

Even with normal rainfall during the summer, Georgia's soils become drier. With the soils already dry, normal weather will just compound the problem. All of this indicates that the drought will continue and likely worsen through the summer.

David Emory Stooksbury is associate professor of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at University of Georgia's College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.