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Texas Drought Term Paper – Phys Geography Essay

1. Worst Drought

According to the National Weather Service, in 2011 Texas endured the single worst drought in it’s history. During the drought, which began in October 2010, wildfires burned thousands of square miles and may have killed as much as half a billion trees (Tam 1). The weather was hot and dry with very little rain throughout the year. August 2010 through July 2011 saw the brunt of the worst drought with abnormally low rainfall. Many ranchers had to cull their cattle and many farmers suffered record low yields in crops. The rains were so few that rivers dried, lake levels dropped by incredible degrees, and the economy of Texas took a huge hit to the tune of billions of dollars.

2. Causes

So what caused such a drought in the southern US? The answer is not simple and there are many factors involved when trying to discern the facts from the all the possible culprits. Dr John Nielsen-Gammon, the State Climatologist who is also a professor of at Texas A&M University where he teaches atmospheric sciences points the finger to three patterns that are largely responsible for the 2011 drought. The Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, a temperature variation that became warm during the mid 1990’s. The Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a similar pattern which began cooling Pacific in the tropics during 2009, and The El Niño/La Niña Southern Oscillation. In mid 2010, La Niña developed from the previous weather pattern of El Niño.

Dr. Nielsen-Gammon stated that the 1950’s and early 60’s was the last time the weather patterns aligned causing a drought that lasted almost 10 years (Combs 3).

3. Blame it on La Niña

During a time when the east coast has had a flood of rain, Texas has been suffocating under a drought not seen in at least a hundred years. According to an article on New Scientist, the drought and the high temperatures were caused by the “lingering effects” from the La Niña ENSO that occurred from the summer of 2010 to the spring of 2011. The La Niñas have caused precipitation to bypass Texas by traveling across the northern states(New Scientist 4).

In the text book Physical Geography: A Landscape Appreciation, La Niña is described as having the opposite effects of El Niño and being “an episodic atmospheric and oceanic phenomenon of the equatorial Pacific Ocean, particularly prominent along the west coast of South America” but which has global impact including “the southwestern United States is drier than usual while Southeast Asia and northern Australia are wetter” (Stadler 131). The book goes on to state that the causes and effects of the weather oscillations are not fully understood. While a strong El Niño might bring rain to Texas, a weak or moderate El Niño might cause either strong rains or drought effects. The book also states that there is a possibility that global warming may be having an effect on the intensity of the oscillation but that there is no clear evidence to make a connection as of yet (Stadler 136).

4. Human Effects

Janet Raloff in online science magazine Science News makes the argument that the recent intense weather may have its roots in a climate affected by humans (Raloff 14). She cites a report written by David Rupp for the Bulletin of American Meteorological Society on behalf of Oregon State University that Texas’ chances of experiencing extremes in hot and dry weather during an event of La Niña have increased twenty-fold since the 1960’s and caused by global warming, an effect produced by humans. Rupp goes on to say in the same report that “most of the large-scale warming that has occurred over the past 50 years is thought to be attributable to the anthropogenic increase in greenhouse gas levels” assisting in identifying the culpable agents leading to the 2011 event. Rupp concludes by stating that the conditions leading to the event of 2011 are much more likely to reoccur than 40 or 50 years ago (Peterson 1053).

In 2011, the horn of Africa also experienced a drought similar to Texas within the same time frame that caused food shortages. Those events were blamed on La Niña as well, which seems to have been destabilized by “a recent warming of surface waters in the Indian and Pacific Oceans”. Intense heat in the summer of 2011 affecting Central Europe and unusual heat in England seems to also point to global warming (Raloff 14).

Raloff writes that although not all extreme weather may be caused by global warming and not all deadly disasters may be attributed to human-caused climate warming (many disasters were exaggerated by human modifications to topography such as heavy industrialization), human-caused weather has brought severe droughts, abnormal increases in hurricane activity, and unusual highs in minimum temperatures in the polar regions.

New analysis have brought “near real-time assessments” of the role that climate has in intense weather within reach of reality. Meteorological researchers are using attribution science by applying newly developed computing power to investigate the correlation between global temperatures and moisture patterns with intense weather caused by El Niño and La Niña. At the present time it is difficult to process events lasting less than a month and up to a year is needed to complete the analysis, but the hope is to see technology mature enough to allow a quicker turn around with a time frame measured in days, not months or years (Raloff 14).

5. High Temperatures

It isn’t difficult to see that one of the causes of the drought are high temperatures and the drought of 2011 is no exception. According to the National Weather Service, temperatures across Texas from June through August hit an overall average of 86.8 (that is taking into account the average lows) which beat out the previous record from 1936 recorded in Oklahoma. That high heat and low rainfall had destructive effects with consequences being burned homes and thousands of acres (Rick 1).

6. Wildfires

In 2011 Texas had record levels of wildfires that burned more than 6,200 square miles and destroyed more than 3,000 homes. That year saw over 30,000 fires and 117 deaths attributed to the wildfires. The fire in Bastrop County alone destroyed 1,649 homes and burned 54 square miles. Although Bastrop suffered heavily, most of the wildfires occurred in West Texas where hot dry weather coupled with a dry environment to cause the fires. Fires burning over 50 square miles were not uncommon (Amico 4).

7. Water Sources

Another area affected by the drought is the water supply for many Texas cities. With lake and reservoir levels dropping, many Texas cities had to enact emergency measures such as watering restrictions. 55 of Texas’ public water systems prohibited outside watering with 23 of those systems believing that within 180 days they would run out of water (Combs 2). Spicewood Beach, TX ran out of water completely and resorted to bringing water by truck at great expense in order to keep water on tap (Airhart 5).

8. Energy Supply

Yet another area affected by the drought is Texas’ electrical sources. The high temperatures have led to high demand during the summer for air conditioning taxing the power plants which rely on large amounts of water to cool down. An extended drought into the winter months could provide for rolling black outs or possibly worse. The Electrical Reliability Council of Texas has warned that the state’s power reserves might dip below the minimum targets if another summer like 2011 is experienced again.

About 16 percent of the total power resources provided by ERCOT rely on water sources that were at historic lows and more than 3,000 megawatts would be unavailable if there was a lack of water to cool those plants (Combs 3).

9. Effects to Ranchers and Farmers

Dan Campbell wrote an article for Rural Cooperatives, a bi-monthly journal published by the USDA, about the toll that farmers and ranchers have taken from the drought. He states that the lack of rain had come hard on the farmer’s crop which was dry, withered, and parched. Ranchers had been forced to sharply reduce their cattle herds “in direct response to the lack of water and forage” (Campbell 8). According to the story, the return on the wheat planted in winter was down by 60% and very late due to a late spout. The normal November spout time actually arrived in January. Cotton and soybeans have been sporadic with some plants achieving almost normal growth while others have been stunted with less than half of normal growth. Part of the problem is that irrigation in Central Texas is traditionally considered as supplemental therefore not all land has access to irrigation.

The low yields in cattle pasture and forage has led to a sell off in unprecedented numbers. The little rain and no forage the ranchers have had little choice but to sell their stock which might take years to replace. With crops, it is possible to bounce back the year after a drought, but not with cattle.

An Old Town Rediscovered

There have been other consequences to the drought other than crop damage, wildfires, tree deaths, and rising temperatures. In Central Texas a town rose from the depths after a lake almost ran dry. Bluffton, TX was flooded in 1937 when a dam was made and Lake Buchanan was formed. But now 74 years later Lake Buchanan’s level is 25 feet lower and signs of the town’s existence rose from it’s grave. The foundations of a gas station and a hotel, along with the scales from a cotton gin and headstones abandoned after the cemetery was relocated have surfaced and become the interest of local historians (American History 9).

10. Affects on Animals

Cattle, crops, and humans are not the only ones to suffer from the drought. Many animals have been affected which in turn affects other wildlife that eventually affects humans on top of the food chain. Major rivers such as the Brazos, the Guadalupe, and Pedernales have had sections dry completely that there aren’t even mud holes left. The heat has dried up ponds and artesian springs leaving mosquitoes in noticeably smaller numbers and seriously taxing the bat populations. In Austin, which has the largest urban bat colony, the bats have been leaving the colony earlier and arriving later to make up time to find enough to eat. Many animal shelters have been overwhelmed by the public dropping off baby or juvenile wild animals which were left to fend on their own by their mothers who couldn’t find enough water to produce enough for their offspring (Burnett 5).

11. Cost in $$

It is estimated that the cost in dollars to agriculture is $7.6 billion, according to AgriLife Extension Service. It had previously been estimated to be $5.2 billion. The sum includes $3.23 billion in cattle losses, with the rest of the losses settled between lost hay production, cotton, corn, wheat, sorghum, fruit, vegetable, and other grain and row crops (Fannin 12). DVM Magazine reports that “2011 losses equal 43 percent of the average value of agricultural receipts over the last four years, and dwarf the previous drought loss record of $3.5 billion from 2006” (DVM 24).

12. Water Consumption

The forecast for 2060 calls for Municipal water demand and consumption to overtake irrigation as the leading consumer of water due to predicted growth of urban areas in Texas. Power generator’s water demands are also forecast to grow for 2060 (Combs 5).

13. The Future

Meteorologists expected the wet winter to somewhat abate the drought for 2011, but long term prospects remained weak. The next few years will be unpredictable, according to Dr. Nielsen-Gammon, but heavy rain is not expected by meteorologists. The bright spot is that El Niño should arrive and bring needed rain, although to fill the reservoirs, aquifers, and lakes might take several years to complete (StateImpact 16).

14. Ideas for the Future

Texas lawmakers and municipalities have been looking for alternative ways to alleviate future droughts: Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District – planning to create an inland desalination facility similar to El Paso’s to convert brackish groundwater into drinking water. New bill by Texas legislature requiring rainwater collection systems on all future state buildings (StateImpact 20).

Other alternatives recommended:

Seawater Desalination – Texas currently does not have a municipal seawater desalination plant (due to the high cost, 2-3 times more expensive than groundwater desalination), but in 2011 Port Isabel voted to build a plant on South Padre Island at an expected cost of $13.2 million which will generate roughly three acre-feet of fresh water every day. The state would like to see that number climb to 125,514 acre-feet every year by 2060. Water Reuse – the treatment of waste water has been used for agricultural purposes in West Texas and with further treatment may be used as drinking water. The state would also like the number to climb from 100,600 to 915,600 acre-feet by 2060 (Combs 8-9).

15. Conclusion

Weather produced by ENSO has been very unpredictable and until more advanced technology and better methods to predict patterns emerge, extreme weather such as flash floods and heavy droughts will continue to menace the ecology, economy, and environment. The understanding of ENSO is relatively new but with that understanding doors to new ideas have been opened. More study and research is needed and with that comes years of waiting.

The year 2011 will go down in the records as the worst drought in Texas but perhaps the state my learn from this devastating event. Lessons that were taught need to be addressed so that the next time a major drought bears down on Texas, the state will be ready. And by the forecasts from meteorologists, it is only a matter of time before the next great drought arrives.

Works Cited

1. “Everything You Need to Know About the Texas Drought.” StateImpact Texas. NPR.org, 19 June 2012. Web. 12 Oct. 2012.

2. “Texas Drought Estimated At Costing State $7.62 Billion.” DVM: The Newsmagazine Of Veterinary Medicine 43.5 (2012): 24. Academic Search Complete. Web. 4 Sep. 2012.

3. “Texas Town Rises From The Deep.” American History 47.1 (2012): 9. Academic Search Complete. Web. 22 Oct. 2012.

4. “What’s Grilling Texas?.” New Scientist 211.2826 (2011): 4. Academic Search Complete. Web. 20 Oct. 2012.

5. Airhart, Marc. “Know.” Five Key Lessons (and Challenges) from the Great Texas Drought «. University of Texas at Austin, 10 Sept. 2012. Web. 24 Oct. 2012.

6. Amico, Chris, Danny DeBeluis, Terrence Henry, and Matt Stiles. “Dried Out.” Texas Drought Maps and Photos. NPR.org, 5 June 2012. Web. 8 Sept. 2012.

7. Burnett, John. “Texas Drought Takes Its Toll On Wildlife.” NPR. NPR, 26 Aug. 2011. Web. 12 Oct. 2012.

8. Campbell, Dan. “Drought Takes Heavy Toll On Texas Ranches, Farms.” Rural Cooperatives 78.5 (2011): 8-9. Academic Search Complete. Web. 4 Sep. 2012.

9. Combs, Susan. The Impact of the 2011 Drought and Beyond. Rep. no. 96-1704. Austin, Texas: Data Services Division, 2012. Print.

10. Fannin, Blair. “Updated 2011 Texas Agricultural Drought Losses Total $7.62 Billion.” Southwest Farm Press 39.10 (2012): 12. Academic Search Complete. Web. 12 Oct. 2012.

11. Peterson, Thomas C., Peter A. Stott, and Stephanie Herring. “Explaining Extreme Events Of 2011 From A Climate Perspective.” Bulletin Of The American Meteorological Society 93.7 (2012): 1041-1067. Academic Search Complete. Web. 12 Oct. 2012.

12. Raloff, Janet. “Recent Extreme Weather Attributed To Human-Caused Climate Warming.” Science News 182.3 (2012): 14. Academic Search Complete. Web. 12 Oct. 2012.

13. Rick, Jervis, and TODAY USA. “In Texas, drought feels like another Dust Bowl.” USA Today n.d.: Academic Search Complete. Web. 22 Oct. 2012.

14. Stadler, Stephen J., and Tom L. McKnight. Physical Geography: A Landscape Appreciation. 9th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2008. Print.

15. Tam, Julie. “In Texas’ Worst Drought on Record, Trees Dying by the
Millions.” U.S. News. Nbcnews.com, 7 Jan. 2012. Web. 14 Oct. 2012.


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