Texas has experienced extreme weather over the past five years – from historic droughts to the wettest month in the state’s history — and it’s difficult to say if the pattern will dramatically change over the next few years, says a Texas A&M professor who also serves as the State Climatologist.
John Nielsen-Gammon, professor of atmospheric sciences and State Climatologist since 2000, notes that Texas had one of its driest spells ever from 2010 to 2011, but 2015 was the wettest year ever and May of last year was the wettest month in the state’s 171-year history.
So far, he adds, 2016 has been very mild, and winter is probably over for most of the state. But much of Texas has seen much-below normal rainfall totals.
The current El Niño in the Pacific Ocean — when vast stretches of warm water influence weather patterns over much of the United States and even worldwide– is the culprit.
“This is the third strongest El Niño ever recorded,” he points out.
“It has no chance of intensifying enough at this point to overtake either of the top two. Indeed, sometime over the next few months it will start weakening dramatically. Most likely, the tropical Pacific will transition to neutral conditions sometime in the summer.
He adds that the rainfall during Feb. 21-23 broke a near-record dry spell for much of the state. Abilene was having its driest start to a year ever (with 131 years of data), and Austin was having its fourth-driest start to a year.
“It appears that Texas and the southeastern United States will be getting more El Niño-type storm systems tracking across Texas and the Gulf of Mexico starting next week, and the potential will be present for some heavy rainfall,” he notes.
“Some more frequent rainfall would help reduce the risk of wildfires, which has been running high because of all the dry grasses available to burn and the dry weather recently. I think Texas has actually been lucky that it hasn’t experienced more wildfires so far this year.”
He adds that for the most part, winter is over for Texas, and “it looks like most of the snow the rest of the year will be along the East Coast and in the western mountains. The cold weather behind the most recent storm system might be as cold as we get from here on out.”
He says the state has had abnormally high temperatures since the start of the year, adding that “while there were definite signs that this winter might not be especially cold, we’ve been warmer than even the most optimistic forecasters would have predicted.”
There’s a 50-50 chance, he says, that the current El Niño will gradually turn into a La Niña (colder water than usual in the Pacific) and if it does happen, it’s likely that next winter could be even warmer than this one for Texas and also probably drier than this winter.
The outlook for the future?
“Texas has been going through a volatile stretch of climate. Just about everyone remembers 2010-2011, when Texas easily broke its record for driest 12 months on record,” Nielsen-Gammon adds.
“During 2015, Texas had its wettest calendar year on record, as well as its wettest month ever (May). Between the wet spring and wet fall, Texas had a brief but intense drought, and now we’ve had another unusual dry spell. Many other parts of the country are not so heavily influenced by El Niño and La Niña as it is in Texas, so their climate tends to be more regular from year to year.”