Published on 05/06/99

Drought Not Just for Summer, UGA Scientist Says

When you hear the word "drought," you probably think of the dog days of summer and dry weather conditions. Well, it's May, and Georgia is in a drought.

"Usually, we aren't concerned about drought conditions in May, but that's the situation we're in this year," said David Stooksbury, state climatologist and professor of engineering at the University of Georgia. "A drought isn't just a summer condition. It can happen any time of year, as we are seeing now."

Drought Explained

Stooksbury said weather researchers don't determine drought conditions based just on how much it has rained. "We use the Palmer Drought Severity Index, which is a measure that takes into account temperature, precipitation, soil conditions and antecedent soil moisture," he said.

"The major concern now," he said, "is that the soil moisture reserve is virtually depleted, particularly in the southern third of the state."

The soil moisture was high last spring. "Last year, the soil moisture reserve was there. And crops and trees could tap into it when the weather turned dry during the early summer," Stooksbury said.

Last spring's soil moisture reserve was depleted during the summer, though, causing agricultural losses in the millions of dollars. The soil moisture wasn't recharged last winter, as it normally is. "This year's crops won't have a reserve to tap into," he said.

GEORGIA'S CLIMATE ZONES help scientists determine when an area is in a drought. Each zone has a distinct weather pattern, including rainfall amounts, temperature ranges and prevailing winds.

Long-term Dry Conditions

Stooksbury said the state's drought conditions have developed over the past 12 months. "Droughts don't develop like an afternoon thunderstorm," he said. "It takes months."

"It was dry in Georgia this winter before people started thinking about it being dry," he said. "It's important to realize that a few days of rain aren't going to get us out of a drought. It didn't happen overnight. It's not going to disappear overnight."

Climate Regions

Georgia is divided into nine climate regions: northeast, north central, northwest, east central, central, west central, southeast, south central and southwest.

According to the Palmer Drought Index, the entire state is in a drought. "We're seeing moderate to severe drought conditions across the state," Stooksbury said.

Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.