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Texas Drought the New Norm, say Climate Scientists

August 10, 2011

PALISADES, N.Y. - While the current Texas drought is the result of naturally varying conditions, climate scientists predict much more of the same in coming decades because of long-term warming trends.

Texas is poised to surpass a 1956 dry spell and record its worst drought on record if high heat and low rainfall persist much beyond summer. Get used to it, say scientists who point to climate models and historical patterns as confirmation that subtropical areas across the southern United States are permanently drying out.

While he's not expecting the entire South to become a vast desert, Richard Seager, a climate scientist with the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, says conditions that used to be considered extreme are fast becoming the norm.

"There were some historical droughts, like in the '30s and '50s, that went on for years and years on end. That level of aridity will become the new climatological state by the middle of the century."

Climate-change skeptics attribute today's conditions to natural variables rather than permanent atmospheric changes caused by humans. Seager argues that both are true: Natural patterns modified by long-term warming - leading to less-wet wet spells, and more severe dry periods. La Niña conditions in the Pacific, as well as unusually warm Atlantic temperatures, share the blame for the current drought, he says.

"For this individual event, yes, climate variability is very important. But, as this progressive aridification occurs due to human-induced climate change, events like this are going to become more likely."

Short of discovering ways to reduce carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere, Seager says not much can be done to slow the drying trend in coming decades. The good news, he thinks, is that lower water supplies are predictable. The question is how we choose to act on that knowledge...

"What places like Texas should be doing is thinking how to assign water resources to human users, industries, agriculture. We should start planning for that now."

Already this year, drought has led to farmers abandoning crops, ranchers thinning herds, record-setting electricity usage, and a record-breaking wildfire season.

Peter Malof, Public News Service - TX