Texas is dry and hot. Global warming?

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A matter of cycles plus
Michael Notaro, Center for Climatic Research, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Natural rainfall variation in Texas is related to cycles in water temperature in the tropical Pacific, says Michael Notaro, associate director of the Center for Climatic Research at UW-Madison. “Texas is always cycling between El Nino and La Nina [a combination called El Nino-Southern Oscillation, or ENSO]. During La Nina, it’s normally drier in Texas, the Southwest and Florida, and potentially wetter in the northern United States.”

La Nina – the current condition — dries the southern U.S. by diverting the storm track northward, which explains much of the drought, Notaro says. “But we also have climate change in the background, and that has a similar effect: The projection is that the northern United States will get wetter, and the south will get drier.”

Notaro sees a combination of ingredients at work in the Texas drought. “Most of the drought is due to ENSO, but it may be worse because climate change has dried out the soil, so climate change is exacerbating the drought.”

The Southwest has had many long droughts, including the 1930s, 1950s and 1990s through the 2000s, Notaro says, but that may be little solace given the change in background climate conditions. “These droughts are not new, but the climate models predict that climate change will make them worse. In a lot of the Southwest, the average climate may look like the worst droughts today.”

Farmer uses shovel as a child crouches against the wind and dust, cow in background.

Photo: Arthur Rothstein, Farm Security Administration
A farmer raises a fence that was being buried under drifting sand during the Dust Bowl in Cimarron County, Oklahoma (just north of the Texas border).