Agency ranks 2011 as driest year ever in Texas

January 6, 2012 5:35:59 PM PST
Drought-stricken Texas suffered its driest year on record in 2011 as well as its second hottest, the National Weather Service said Friday.

And 2012 is not expected to offer much relief.

"Unfortunately we are once again predicting below normal precipitation statewide to continue into the springtime, through May at least," said Victor Murphy, a climate service program manager for the weather service in Fort Worth. Temperatures during the summer are also expected to be above normal, he said.

The average rainfall for the state last year was 14.88 inches. The previous driest average total was in 1917 with 14.99 inches.

The weather service said 2011's average temperature was 67.2 degrees. Texas' warmest year on record was in 1921 with an average temperature of 67.5 degrees.

Last year, Texas suffered its worst single-year drought, its largest agricultural losses and the hottest summer in U.S. history. From June through August, Texas averaged 86.8 degrees, beating out Oklahoma's 85.2 degrees in 1934.

The drought started in fall 2010 with the arrival of the La Nina weather condition that causes below-normal rainfall. La Nina is back and forecasters say the drought is expected to drag on through at least May.

Murphy said forecasters were expecting below normal rainfall across the state in 2011 because of La Nina.

"But I think the magnitude of the drought and the severity of the drought was obviously not expected," he said.

However, it was no surprise that the driest year on record was also the second hottest, Murphy said.

"Drought begets heat, heat begets drought and basically a vicious feedback cycle develops," he said. "That's pretty much what happened to us (last) year."

Scant rainfall and scorching temperatures in 2011 dried up many riverbeds, prompting some wildlife biologists to rescue threatened fish that are found only in one Texas river in the world.

Ranchers and farmers have been hit hardest. The most recent estimate shows crop and livestock losses at $5.2 billion and that number was expected to rise.

The drought led to some of the worst wildfires ever seen in Texas, destroying hundreds of homes and scorching millions of acres. The Texas Forest Service estimates that as many as 500 million trees across the state died last year due to the drought.

Many Texas cities, including Amarillo, Lubbock, Victoria and Wichita Falls, had their lowest rainfall totals in 2011. Houston, which averages nearly 50 inches of rain a year, had less than half that total in 2011, making it the third driest year on record for the city. Houston's average temperature of 71.9 degrees tied 1962 for the hottest on record. Other cities, including Austin, Brownsville and Midland, also had their hottest average temperatures on record in 2011.

Murphy said another reason why it was so hot and dry in 2011 was because no tropical cyclones, including tropical storms and hurricanes, made landfall in the state. While residents along the Texas coast are usually wary of such storms, they could have brought much needed rain and kept temperatures down, he said.

Despite above average rainfall in December, many of the state's reservoirs and lakes remain well below normal levels and this does not bode well for 2012, Murphy said.

"What happens in the spring time will be huge not only for the summer time but also for recharging the state reservoirs," he said.


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