Say the word drought and for some people it immediately conjures up images of long, hot summers or, for others, it may trigger reminders of the brutal 1930s Dust Bowl. However, the hard, uncomfortable truth is Oklahoma is always a few weeks away from being at the mercy of this weather phenomenon and the potentially devastating impacts it can leave in its wake.
 
The U.S. Drought Monitor maps are updated on a weekly basis both nationally and state-by-state. Lately, Oklahoma has been a shifting swirl of color indicating the presence of drought in varying intensities across most of the state, including pockets of extreme drought in the southeast.

Three months ago, the same map showed a large swath of the middle part of the state was clear of drought. A year ago, Oklahoma was all but clear of drought conditions with the exception of a couple smallish areas in the south and west that were designated as abnormally dry.

This year, the two drenching rains in early- to mid-February helped beat back, for now at least, the slow, but obvious expansion of drought throughout the state, and recent forecasts actually call for improving conditions in the weeks ahead.

However, if additional timely precipitation does not materialize, the threat of drought may only be delayed.

The good news is Oklahoma is heading into its rainy part of the year, said Gary McManus, state climatologist for the Oklahoma Mesonet.

The less good news is it is difficult to predict just how much moisture might be on the way.

The bad news is there is no way to tell whether a serious drought is in the making.

“We’ve certainly had a dry fall through winter, really dating back to last summer,” McManus said. “We’ve sort of set the stage if we don’t get normal to above normal rainfall, we could end up being in a bit of trouble, especially with the predictions from the Climate Prediction Center of warmer-than-normal weather over the next few months, at least increased odds of above-normal temperatures come into play.”

Above-normal temperatures open the door to intensifying drought conditions, which means if that prediction proves accurate, Oklahoma will need even more rainfall.

It is a good thing, then, that springtime annually holds the promise of bringing storm systems armed with some moisture.

“Right now we’re primed for a little bit of trouble, but we’re certainly not set in stone there’s going to be a bad drought,” McManus said.

National Weather Service Fact Sheet describes drought as a deficiency in precipitation over an extended period of time, usually a season or more. As a result, there is a shortage of water that damages vegetation, animals and/or people. It is a normal, recurring feature of climate that happens in almost every climate zone, from very wet to very dry.

Aside from its potentially destructive nature, one of the more frustrating elements of drought is that typically there is very little advance notice of its arrival.

“That’s the problem with drought versus other weather hazards. You’re already starting to see the impacts before you’re getting the notifications that something going on,” McManus said.

Examples of those impacts might include wheat crops showing signs of stress, farm ponds beginning to dry up and Bermuda grass starts turning from a brilliant green to a sickly yellow.

“It’s just unfortunate. You don’t get tornado warnings after the tornado has passed,” McManus said. “With drought you might get a little bit of lead time, but really you get the notifications about drought after the damages have started to occur.”

If there is a silver lining in Oklahoma’s history of surviving droughts it is that each event is a learning experience. For instance, after the decade long Dust Bowl in the 1930s, one significant takeaway was to stop plowing to avoid causing dust storms during subsequent droughts.

The most recent drought to hit the state was a multi-year ordeal stretching from 2010 through 2015. It was the worst drought in Oklahoma since the 1950s and just happened to follow the wettest 30 years in the state’s history since the 1890s. So, not surprisingly, there was a steep re-learning curve.

“This most recent drought allowed us to better prepare. Do we need watering restrictions in place earlier? Do we need aid to be more readily available from the federal and the state governments during times when we have these droughts pop up?” McManus said.

“What they learned in the 1930s and 1950s was definitely valuable, but with this latest drought, it was a whole new chance to learn about severe drought and severe, long-term drought,”

Although drought is commonly envisioned as developing over a long period of time, Oklahoma also is susceptible to flash drought.

Flash droughts occur when precipitation stops abruptly and is followed by an extended period of heat.

“We’ve seen that, just last fall, where we had an abrupt end to precipitation and one of the warmest falls. In northwestern Oklahoma, the drought there developed very rapidly,” McManus said. “Normally it’s something we expect during the summertime. If you’re having the second warmest fall on record, like we did in Oklahoma, you can have drought into the fall and the cool season. There’s not much you can do to predict a flash drought, but you can certainly keep on top of it by watching the weather patterns.”

In fact, that is what everyone is doing – watching and waiting.

If drought does visit the state once again, no worries. McManus said there are lots of steps Oklahomans can take to successful manage the weather hazard.

“If you’re worried about fire danger, you can clear the brush and debris and keep the urban/rural interface well managed. If you’re worried about your lake going dry, join the efforts and don’t water your lawn everyday. Don’t run the faucet when you’re brushing your teeth,” he said. “It’s things like that with everybody working together that helps conserve water.”

For more information about drought and strategies and tips for managing this weather hazard, contact the county Extension office, visit the Oklahoma Mesonet (www.mesonet.org), check Oklahoma Water Resources Center at Oklahoma State University (www.water.okstate.edu) and connect with the National Weather Service (www.weather.gov).