Intense Drought Tightens Grip, Spreads To the High Plains

By Tom Yulsman | May 9, 2014 2:08 pm
intense drought

Two false-color images from NASA’s Aqua satellite, one from May 24, 2012, and the other from May 5, 2014, show the evolution of drought in Texas and Oklahoma. Green is indicative of vegetation. (Images: NASA. Animation: Tom Yulsman)

In the already parched Plains of the United States, intense drought “seems to be waking up and pushing rapidly north along with warmer temperatures.”

That’s the grim assessment, issued yesterday, from the U.S. Drought Monitor.

The bullseye of this expanding misery is Texas, large portions of which have been in drought for close to four years. As of this week, 21 percent of the state is categorized as being in exceptional drought — the most intense of the Drought Monitor categories. That’s up from 13 percent a year ago. Overall, more than 80 percent of the state is experiencing some degree of drought.

The animation above, centered on the Texas Panhandle and western Oklahoma, shows how conditions have changed between 2012 and today.

It consists of two false-color images from the MODIS instrument on NASA’s Aqua satellite, one from May 24, 2012, and the other from May 5, 2014. Green is indicative of vegetation. Bodies of water, mostly reservoirs, appear black. (The images show what’s known as the 7-2-1 composite from the MODIS instrument. For more information, go here.)

Palo Duro Canyon, Oct. 18, 2014. (Photograph: © Tom Yulsman)

Palo Duro Canyon, Oct. 18, 2014. (Photograph: © Tom Yulsman)

In May of 2012, spring vegetation was quite evident even though some degree of drought gripped the region. (I shot the photograph to the right in Palo Duro Canyon in October of that year.) Two years later, the situation has changed dramatically as drought has tightened its grip.

To complement the satellite images, I thought it would be interesting to compare Drought Monitor maps for May of 2012 and 2014. Here’s what it looks like:

Intense drought animation

This makes it pretty clear why the satellite image from May, 2012 showed a much greener landscape than what’s evident this week.

Back to the shorter term, over just the past week, severe drought — the second most intense category — has pushed well up into Kansas, the nation’s so-called breadbasket. According to the Drought Monitor report published yesterday, intense drought:

. . . seems to be waking up and pushing rapidly north along with warmer temperatures. A large expansion of D3 [extreme drought] now covers nearly the entire southern half of Kansas and D4 [exceptional drought] is slowly pushing north out of Oklahoma. Soil moisture and groundwater levels are hurting well in front of the peak demand season as the cumulative impacts of such an intense multi-year drought are already glaringly evident, and it’s only early May. Precipitation totals on the year are running just 25-50% of normal, or worse, for many locales across southern Kansas.

And with the region now heading into summer, the prospects for improvement, at least in the short term, are not very good. According to the Drought Monitor report, heat and drought are now:

. . . even more pronounced and entrenched across western Oklahoma and much of Texas as well. Expansion has begun to happen in earnest now that Mother Nature has turned up the furnace, which will do the landscape no favors with summer not here yet.

Farther down the road, help could arrive in the form of wetter weather born of El Niño. As I reported yesterday, the odds of El Niño developing by summer now stand at 65 percent. This cyclical climatic phenomenon tends to bring wetter than normal weather across the southern tier of the United States during winter. Let’s hope!

  • Uncle Al

    Historic drought today, historic flooding next year. Does extreme weather average out to normal climate or to Klimate Kaos? Only the Carbon Tax on Everything can tell the difference – by 2100 or so. Sustainability is paying double and getting none, the essence of faith-based engineering.

    • Buddy199

      It’s the Koch Bros. Harry Reid said so.

    • Uncle Al

      Just in! There was no Global Warming. Klimate Kaos is a fraud, and next year the entire world will be flooded up to its yarbles.
      “We’re more confident than we ever have been,” says Michelle L’Heureux, a climate scientist at the prediction center.

    • Tom Yulsman

      Uncle Al: I think you really need a hobby or something. It would be so much more fun and healthy than saying the same thing here over and over and over again.

      • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

        I know you’re getting into slippery territory, but do you have to ability to prevent individual users from commenting on your articles?

        Uncle Al isn’t just taking an unpopular view point or advocating incorrect information based on personal ignorance. He is going out of his way to spread misinformation.

        The quote in his next post was with regards to the likelihood of there being an El Nino this year. While the article does reference global warming, the quote itself was intentionally taken out of context to misrepresent the subject matter.

        • Uncle Al

          The AAAS’ Science magazine is obviously disreputable compared to, say, carbon credit arbitrageur Al Gore. More cap and trade will save us by crippling civilization to Al Gore’s personal enrichment. Then, trickle down. He promises.

  • Mazhar Hussain

    It is the result of disturbing of the delicate balance of the nature. Clean energy and less greed is the answer.

    • emma852

      My Uncle James recently got a new black
      Mazda MAZDASPEED3 Hatchback by working at home online. you can try here C­a­s­h­D­u­t­i­e­s­.­ℂ­o­m

      • Buddy199

        Tom, WTF?

  • TheNomadicFamily

    Great and thinkable information Tom. thanks for sharing with us :)



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


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