wheat and dried soil

Texas AgriLife Extension Service says wheat crops are expected to be severely reduced or wiped out in most parts of Texas by the 2011 drought.

Johnny Carson started it, as far as we know – the late-night comedy tradition of “it’s so hot” jokes. David Letterman, Jay Leno and others have kept it going.

Here’s Leno, with a recent variation on the time-honored theme: “It was so hot in California today that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s clothes were out on the lawn setting themselves on fire.”

We’re not above trying our hand at an all-American joke formula at TCN Journal, so here goes: It’s been so hot in Texas lately [dramatic pause] that even some diehard climate change skeptics may be having second thoughts about scoffing at Al Gore.

OK, maybe we’re not ready for late-night joke-writing yet. Or will ever be ready. Levity aside, however, no one can deny it has been mighty hot – and dry – in the Lone Star state of late.

How hot and dry has it been (to paraphrase Carson’s audiences, who chanted just such a set-up line for the pre-Leno Tonight Show host’s punchlines)? Well, it’s been so hot and dry that all manner of records have been crumbling – last month was Texas’ hottest June on record, for example – as a pair of federal and state reports recently described.

Here’s how the release from Texas A&M University’s College of Geosciences put it: “The months-long Texas drought is sapping the record books bone dry and is racking up dire statistics that have never been reached since reliable record-keeping was started 116 years ago, according to figures from Texas A&M University researchers.”

The same report quoted the Texas state climatologist (and A&M professor of atmospheric sciences) John Nielsen-Gammon on the reasons for the extended run of extremely hot and dry conditions across the state:

The primary cause of the drought is the lingering La Nina in the Pacific, but we don’t know for certain if climate change is affecting rainfall one way or the other.  What we do know is that temperatures are a degree or two warmer with climate change so the drought is worse than it would otherwise be.”

(Nielsen-Gammon wrote in a recently published book from the University of Texas Press, The Impact of Global Warming on Texas, that climate models indicate temperatures in the state will probably keep rising in decades ahead, with related increases in water demand and evaporation making it likely there will be increased stresses on both environmental and human water systems.)

Here are some of the Texas-centric and related details from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s State of the Climate report for June:

  • “The expansive heat across Texas resulted in an average statewide temperature of 85.2 degrees F, which was 5.6 degrees F above normal, surpassing 1953 as the warmest June in 117 years of records. This was the Texas’ fourth consecutive June with temperatures at least 2 degrees F above the long-term average.” [The A&M release noted that last month was also Texas’ fourth-warmest month ever – a distinction usually reserved for July or August.]
  • The second three months of 2011 comprised the hottest April-June period recorded.
  • “In addition to the daily high temperatures, average temperatures during June were also historic in Texas. In Lubbock, the average temperature of 85.8 degrees F was 8.5 degrees F above the June average. This surpassed July 1966 (85.4 degrees F) as the city’s warmest month on record. In Midland, the average temperature of 88.0 degrees F  was also the warmest month on record, surpassing the monthly average of 87.2 degrees F set in August 1964. Additionally, Houston and Galveston had their warmest June on record.”
  • Fifteen Texas cities recorded temperatures in June that set or tied their all-time high-temperature records for any month. New records were set and then exceeded during the month in Amarillo (109 and 111 degrees F), Borger (109 and 111) and Dalhart (108 and 110). New records were also set in Wellington (114), Morton (111), Plainview (111 – after tying its all-time record earlier in the month), Turkey (116), Shamrock (115), Panhandle (112) and Silverton (111). All-time records were also tied in Laredo (113), Tulia (110), Canyon (109 – on two days), Paducah (118) and Lipscomb (112). Except for Laredo, on the Texas-Mexico border, all of those locations are in the Texas Panhandle region.
  • Neighboring states were unusually hot and dry, too. Louisiana had its second-warmest June on record, while Oklahoma’s June was tied for its second warmest. It was the sixth-warmest June in Arkansas and New Mexico, which had its driest June on record.  Texas and Oklahoma had their fourth-driest Junes. Texas, Louisiana and New Mexico had their driest January-June periods during the first six months of this year.
  • “In that [six-month period], Louisiana was 11.72 inches (297.7 mm) below the 20th century average of 29.16 inches (740.7 mm). Texas was more than eight inches (203 mm) below average (13.83 inches or 351.3 mm) and New Mexico was nearly 3.5 inches (89 mm) below their average (4.68 inches or 119 mm) at that point in the calendar year.”

According to the release from the A&M College of Geosciences:

  • The five-month span from February through June in Texas “was by far the driest on record with a statewide average of 4.26 inches of rain. The next driest occurred in 1917 with 6.45 inches.”
  • The end of June also marked a number of other drought records for the state: “March-June, driest on record; January-June, driest on record; December-June, driest on record; November-June, driest on record; and October-June, driest on record.”

Illustrating just how warm a June it was for the country at large, meteorologist Steve Scolnik analyzed NOAA’s statistics and reported on his Capital Climate blog that the 2,706 daily high temperature records during the month exceeded daily low records by an “incredible” ratio of 10.8 to 1.

Since the preceding June, daily high records have exceeded daily low records in every month but one – last December, Scolnik reported. (Daily high and low records are records for that date. The great majority of these are not all-time records.)

– Bill Dawson

[Disclosure: The Houston Advanced Research Center, which publishes Texas Climate News, commissioned the new, updated edition of The Impact of Global Warming on Texas, as it did the first edition, published in 1995. TCN editor Bill Dawson wrote the introduction to the new edition.]

Image credit: Texas AgriLife Extension Service