When poet Carl Sandburg wrote of fog coming in "on little cat
feet," he could just as well have applied the image to another, more
troubling weather event: drought. For more than 50 years,
researchers have noted that drought is a "creeping" phenomenon.
People recognize they're experiencing it only after it has been
around for a while, and then struggle to cope with it.
But now, researchers are looking forward to new tools to help
them improve drought forecasting, while in Washington, lawmakers are
expected to introduce legislation in the next few weeks aimed at
setting up machinery to help states, counties, and cities prepare
for drought, much as many do already for hurricanes or earthquakes.
These efforts come as about 30 percent of the United States is
shaded in yellows, tans, and browns on drought-severity maps.
"In many places, the current drought is a 1-in-20- to a 1-in-50-
year event," notes James Laver, director of the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center (CPC) in Camp
Springs, Md. "It's not unprecedented, but it's pretty unusual."
Steven Turner needs no convincing of that. Standing inside the
water-filtration plant alongside the Millham Reservoir, which
ordinarily supplies a third of the drinking water to residents in
Marlborough, Mass., Mr. Turner, a plant operator, notes that the
water level is so low that the facility hasn't pumped a gallon since
the end of last October.
Since then, he quips, "we've painted everything that doesn't
move, and now we are chasing things that do move." Elsewhere in the
state, neighborhood ponds have become occasionally malodorous mud
flats. To tend nesting boxes for wood ducks, residents plod over
planks rather than paddle canoes.
In New Jersey, this winter has been the driest on record. On
Monday Gov. James McGreevey declared the state's first drought
In the Washington, D.C., area, conditions have been so dry that
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick asked the half-million Roman Catholics
in the area to pray for rain last month. US Army Corps of Engineers
officials made the same suggestion to residents attending a meeting
on water allocation in Anderson, S.C., last week, after saying the
corps has done the best it could to manage water levels in nearby
lakes. During the past four years, some parts of the state have
accumulated a rainfall deficit of 48 inches.
Georgia has also endured drought for the past four years, notes
Mark Svoboda, a climatologist at the National Drought Monitoring
Center (NDMC) at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Out west,
Montana and Wyoming are withering under three years of drought
conditions. There, drought conditions stretch to southern Texas.
The tricky business of forecasting
Climatologists attribute the drought to several factors. Cooler-
than-usual waters in the tropical Pacific, the flip side to El Nino,
have triggered shifts in climate patterns during the past few years.
Winters in the US Southeast have tended to be drier and warmer than
normal, as have summers in the northern-tier states, particularly
those along the Rocky Mountains. In addition, the atmospheric impact
of the cool Pacific waters, known as La Nina, have driven the storm-
steering jet stream toward the north.
Now, as La Nina has started to give way to what could be another
El Nino, these "teleconnections" between ocean-atmosphere
interactions in the tropical Pacific and seasonal weather patterns
over North America and elsewhere are expected to shift as well. In
its latest seasonal-drought outlook, the CPC anticipates "slow
improvement" in the northern Rocky Mountain states, along the
Eastern Seaboard, and along the Texas-New Mexico border. …