Tiffany Stecker, E&E reporter
The area of the continental United States in moderate or worse drought dipped below 50 percent for the first time in nearly a year, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor.
A series of storms across many of the drought-stricken areas alleviated water deficiencies in the soil, thanks to a major storm that barreled across the Rockies on Monday and continued eastward through the rest of the week. As of Tuesday, 47.8 percent of the lower 48 states is in moderate to exceptional drought, the smallest area since June 2012, and more improvement is expected next week.
Meanwhile, drought conditions in Arizona and New Mexico continue to degrade as the Southwest enters its dry season.
The storm relieved the concern that the frozen ground in the upper Midwest and northern Plains would prevent melting snow from seeping into the soil, said David Miskus, the author of this week’s Drought Monitor and a meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center.
“Above-freezing [temperatures] in the daytime and below-freezing at nighttime was enough for a nice, slow melt,” said Miskus. Overall temperatures in the region, which includes Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and the Dakotas, remain below normal.
Heavy rains last month in Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri and the Southeast last month relieved much of the drought. The last two weeks have brought beneficial rains and snow to Nebraska, where the area of exceptional drought has shrunk from 76 percent of the state to 8 percent.
“These are the most changes I have made as an author in the past 10 years,” said Miskus. “It’s been a very, very busy week.”
And the changes are likely to continue. The National Weather Service on Wednesday updated its forecast for the Red River between Minnesota and North Dakota to indicate possible record-breaking floods.
There is still up to 10 inches of snow in the area around the river, but low temperatures should control the speed of the melting. About 3 inches of precipitation should fall over the center of the country next week, from Oklahoma to Michigan.
The Southeast has also experienced significant changes in its drought profile, with Georgia almost completely ridding itself of drought areas over the past two weeks. South Carolina reduced its drought zones by close to one-third in the same period.
New Mexico and Arizona have fallen deeper into drought in the past two weeks. The area of New Mexico in extreme and exceptional drought — the two highest classifications — has more than doubled in two months, spreading from the northeast of the state through the center and West.
In Arizona, the area in severe to exceptional drought — the three top classifications — increased by nearly 50 percent. A strong summer monsoon will be needed to quell the chances for wildfire or other impacts of drought, said Miskus.