Published on 10/30/00

Georgia's Climate Returning to More Extreme

Now in its third year, the current drought has many Georgians wondering if the state will ever return to normal weather. But state climatologist David Stooksbury says the drought is part of a historically more normal climate pattern.

Stooksbury, who is also a professor of engineering in the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, doesn't see drought as strange or even unusual. But that doesn't mean the state will be a desert anytime soon.

"The state has now returned to a more normal climate pattern, with greater year-to-year variability," Stooksbury said.

Drought is part of the overall history of the Southeast, he said. The history also contains long periods of wetter weather.

"We will have more years that are extremely wet and more years that are extremely dry, which is historically the more common pattern," he said.

Unusually Mild Weather

Farmers and others looking back now recall extended times of wet, mild weather in the 1960s and '70s. That weather makes the current drought seem that much more unusual. But those days weren't the "normal" that people think they were.

"If you look back at droughts, the '60s and '70s were the abnormal years," Stooksbury said. "They had very little variation."

In the '60s, central Georgia had only one month of drought. And throughout the '70s, the same area had only 13 months of moderate, extreme or severe drought.

Drought Still Grips State

Though rains brought relief to parts of the parched state in September, Georgia remains under drought conditions. As of Oct. 27, the soil moisture in 80 percent of the state was short to very short.

State water restrictions remain in effect.

The severity of the drought varies from region to region, Stooksbury said. Georgia is the largest state east of the Mississippi River, and the state has a diverse landscape. This allows for variations in the drought's severity. The state's northwestern corner is in mild drought, the west central area in severe drought and the south central part near normal for this time of year.

A drought doesn't start during summer. It's what happens the winter before that marks the severity of a drought.

"Wetter" Winter Expected

Winter rains usually replenish the state's soil moisture and the groundwater supplies lost during the year. However, the past two winters haven't brought the needed rain.

With the dissipation of the Nino family -- for now -- Stooksbury said the state will probably return to near-normal rainfall this winter.

"The global ocean temperature pattern is close to neutral, which means we don't have the more robust, forcing pattern for the weather," he said. The state is less likely to have the wet winter of El Nino, but it's also less likely to have the dry winter of La Nina.

"We don't have a well-defined guide for this winter," Stooksbury said. "But we'll tend toward a more normal winter."

He said another El Nino event is possible for the 2001-2002 winter.

It would still take several months of above normal rainfall to pull out of the drought, he said. Even normal rainfall through winter will not solve the problem.

Going into the next growing season, Stooksbury believes the state will have adequate soil moisture to germinate seeds. But groundwater and deep-soil moisture levels will remain low.

"We should have enough moisture in the top soils to get the crops up," Stooksbury said. "But there won't be much of a cushion for next year."

Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.