Drought Perception and Reality

Expectations are as much a part of drought as is climatological reality. Take this LA Times story:

CANTON, Texas — The effects of a long, stubborn drought are everywhere here: in the parched, wasted fields and the bony cows nosing the dirt for nonexistent grass; in the cracks splitting stone-hard earth and the worried faces of farmers running out of savings, and options.

“It’s sad when you see what’s going on all around you,” said Windy Watkins, a feed-store manager. “This has been the lives of so many for so long, and now it’s gone. It’s heartbreaking.”

The reality is that in the East Texas and North Central Texas climate divisions[1], the 1990s were extraordinarily wet. The dry years they’ve been having lately have been bad, but not out of the ordinary range of variability when you look at the long term record. By the numbers, the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and (arguably) the ’80s were worse.

When it gets wet for a while, people come to think of it as normal. The worst drought problems, in a sense, happen not as a result of it getting dry, but of it returning to normal after it’s unusually wet for a while. This doesn’t make the problems any less real, but helps explain where they come from.

[1] data here