A "tumbleweed tornado" outside of the ABQ City Limits. Taken by Hassan Ahmad on March 31, 2016.
A popular 1990s country song by Sylvia Robinson goes, "Tumbleweed, you're living a cowboy's dream. Tumbleweed, freedom is in the air you breathe." Anyone who is familiar with the climate of New Mexico knows that the windiest time of year is generally during the spring months of April and May (with March and June often times not far behind). By March or April, the polar jet stream has started migrating northward, but can often influence the southwestern U.S. with wind speeds varying with height. Meanwhile, the sun angle is getting higher in the sky and creating greater heating near the surface of the earth. The heated surface air rises to a greater depth of the atmosphere during these spring months, often to a height between 7,500 and 10,000 feet above the surface. The rising air mixes with stronger winds aloft, resulting in stronger and turbulent winds mixing down to the surface. Strong surface pressure gradients can enhance surface winds. High wind events across New Mexico can also occur with strong surface fronts, especially those that race through the eastern plains.
One example of such a system occurred in late March 2016, where chances were good that the wrath of the state’s spring winds were felt. As a potent upper low emerged east of the Sierra Nevadas overnight Monday into Tuesday the 29th, isolated rain and snow showers hugged the NM/CO state line. Windy to very windy conditions were also forecast, with the strongest gusts of 60-65 mph across the southwest and south-central mountains. Unseasonably warm conditions persisted with widespread critical fire weather conditions across the eastern plains. However, temperatures were going to begin their drop Tuesday afternoon across western New Mexico behind a cold front that was to shift from west to east Tuesday night. Conditions continued to remain quite windy across the eastern plains on Wednesday. By Thursday, March 31st, a cold front was to approach northeastern NM backing southward Thursday night, while a second low developing across southern Arizona sagged southward.
In Albuquerque, the Sandia Mountains to the east disappeared behind clouds of dust, pollen, and tumbleweeds, as city officials alerted people to stay inside and avoid breathing the dust. Then, several videos and pictures began to emerge- if there was ever a moment to fully capture what spring is like in New Mexico, it would be… a tumbleweed tornado!
Now, this “tumbleweed tornado” would technically be a dust devil. According to the
American Meteorological Society (or AMS), a dust devil is defined as a “small, but vigorous whirlwind, usually of short duration, rendered visible by dust, sand, and debris picked up form the ground”. A tornado, on the other hand, is defined as “a violently rotating column of air in contact with the surface and extending from a cumulonimbus (thunderstorm) cloud often visible as and/or circulating debris/ dust at the ground”. Dust devils form when hot air near the surface rises quickly through a small pocket of cooler, low-pressure air above it. If conditions are just right, the air will begin to rotate. Dust can occur with thunderstorm wind gusts or strong non-thunderstorm winds, reducing visibilities to near zero at times.
While high wind events are relatively common across New Mexico, these strong winds can cause significant impacts to life and property. Strong winds can damage buildings and uproot trees, but can also produce areas of blowing dust that can reduce visibilities making road travel hazardous. If caught in a dust storm on the road, remember to always pull completely off the road and take your foot off the brake if stopping due to low visibilities.
To learn more about other drought topics across the desert southwest, please click here!
©2020 Meteorologist Sharon Sullivan
DISCUSSION: Trees have a complicated two-way relationship with the environment which depends on several factors, including type of tree and location. In general, the environment influences trees in straightforward ways. For example, drought conditions (when water levels are significantly below normal) can obviously, dry a tree out, making it easier to burn and potentially making disease or insect infestation more likely. Any condition that reduces sunlight (e.g., volcanic eruption) would slow photosynthesis and tree growth.
Not only does the environment influence vegetation, but trees also impact their environment. Trees and other vegetation absorb carbon dioxide. On a global, aggregate scale, this absorption can help partially mitigate the warming caused by the increase of that gas and others like it in our atmosphere. Unfortunately, humans are releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere far faster than trees (or the oceans) can absorb it. But, Earth’s global mean temperature would be rising faster without vegetation and the oceans.
Trees can also influence environmental conditions on a more local scale. Abundant rain falls over tropical rainforests because the tropics are mostly covered by water, there is abundant energy to evaporate the water, and intense solar heating of the land surface generates rising motion there. Trees in the tropics readily pull moisture from the soil and transpire (evaporation from vegetation) it into the atmosphere. This enhances the local water vapor content of the atmosphere and further enhances rainfall.
A recent study suggests that certain trees could have the opposite effect and actually enhance drought conditions. When drought conditions exist and rains finally come, some trees (e.g., oak trees in California) rapidly absorb and transpire the added water from the soil, quickly drying the soil again and perpetuating drought conditions. In contrast, other trees usually found in cooler climates (e.g., cedars, pines) slowly absorb water from the soil as it becomes available, keeping soil water levels higher for longer. One of the main takeaways from the new study is that some trees may be less appropriate in drought-prone regions, or such trees should be planted with a variety of other trees that are more drought-resistant.
For more drought-related information, click here!
© 2019 Meteorologist Dr. Kenneth Leppert II
580 Billion Gallons of Water Added to California Reservoirs in Less than 1 Month (Credit: Enterprise Record, UNL Drought Monitor, Meteorologist Jessica Olsen)
DISCUSSION: Winter often provides much needed relief for states experiencing extended drought. California currently contributing only 7.77% of no drought seen, is seeing 92.23% of its land experiencing D0-D4 drought, where D0 is Abnormally Dry to D4 begin Exceptional Drought (the highest classification) according to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s National Drought Mitigation Centers’ Drought Monitor (UNL).
Excessive rains due to the winter season in California have brought some positive impacts to the state, which include the addition of significant fresh water to reservoirs, and some decrease in D1-D4 classification of drought. An estimated 580 billion gallons of water were added to 47 reservoirs currently monitored by officials. Representatives from the Enterprise-Record estimate nearly 9 million residents of California are using these 47 reservoirs. Much of the precipitation was due in part to a large swath of moisture in the upper atmosphere acting like a river of transportation for the moisture, otherwise known as an “atmospheric river” bringing some form of precipitation, often snow or rain. Estimates are showing significant increases in average water in reservoirs, continuing to add to the positive trend of breaking out of the 5-year extended drought from 2012-2017
Observing the UNL Drought Monitor, comparing the weeks of December 25th, 2018 and January 22nd, 2019, some significant changes in southern and eastern California are apparent. The monitor indicates no D4 (Exceptional Drought), D3-D4 drought has decreased 1.39%, and D2-D4 has decreased an astounding 12.80%, and D1-D4 has decreased 2.94% with an overall elimination of D3 (Extreme Drought) in southern California! These are positive trends as California hopes to continue with precipitation to aid in prevention of forest-fires which have proved rampant in recent years.
For more information on drought and other climate effects visit the Global Weather and Climate Center!
© 2019 Meteorologist Jessica Olsen
Discussion: How would you know if you are in a drought? Well, you can observe your local drought monitor website or view what your local Meteorologist has to say. But you can really notice the difference when you step outside and examine your surroundings. First, you’ll witness that the grass is dry and crunchy, the creek in the woods is running low, and the gardens around your neighbor's house look parched. Your area hasn’t observed an inch of rain in weeks. Finally, a time comes when rain falls steadily throughout the day. You step outside the following day hoping to see an improvement in your neighbor's garden to only be met with the same depleted look. That rain may have relieved a bit of the arid view, but it is far from making everything lush and green again. After a continued period of time with little to no rain, one rainstorm won’t replenish what had been lost.
Before beginning to see signs of drought, an area will see a decrease of precipitation. Below average amounts of precipitation are usually caused by a shift in weather patterns that drive weather systems away from the area rather than towards it. More likely in the summer, this change in pattern can increase temperatures causing an area to become extremely hot and dry. Dry, hot air increases the evaporation of water from soil and plants leaving the soil to dry up and the plants to wilt. When it is exceptionally dry and it rains, the water immediately evaporates back into the air and rolls off the surface of the soil instead of soaking into the ground. This makes it hard for the soil to regain its moisture level. Due to this, a single heavy downpour will not regenerate a exceptionally dry area. Rain has to happen more frequently in order to allow soil to regain moisture.
There is a considerable number of factors when determining the severity of a drought. Different models and indexes are used to calculate severity including one called the Palmer Hydrological Drought Index (PHDI). This quantifies long-term drought using the water budget, precipitation and temperature data. The more dehydrated an area gets and the less precipitation the area receives, the more negative the PHDI reads.
The amount of precipitation needed to improve a drought depends on the time of year, climatology of an area, and drought severity. Climatologists can reverse the calculations of PHDI to estimate the amount of precipitation needed, in inches, to help improve or eliminate a drought. For example, if it were the month of August and your area is in an abnormally dry condition, a trace to 3 inches would be sufficient in improving those conditions. A moderate drought could need 3 to 6 inches, a severe drought may need 6 to 9 inches, and an extreme drought would need 9 to 12 inches. If your area was in an exceptional drought, 12 to 15 inches or more would be needed to make a difference. However, a drought would only improve if that amount of precipitation was going to fall. It may take months to a couple seasons for the weather pattern to cooperate and deliver the needed amounts of precipitation.
More than just one rain system needs to impact the area to replenish what was lost. Rain needs to fall in large quantities and more frequently to make a change in drought conditions. In many cases, weather patterns don’t cooperate, and that area will go longer without seeing rain. This leads to worsening drought conditions and a need for even more rain. Depending on how severe a drought is, it may take multiple rain systems over a course of weeks and months to see an improvement.
To find out more on current or past drought information click here!
© 2018 Meteorologist Alexandria Maynard
Drought Update Across the United States (Credit: NOAA Climate.gov, United States Drought Monitor,Climate Prediction Center)
Discussion: In the southwestern United States, drought conditions have gone from abnormally dry to extreme in a span of six months. Some states across the Southern Plains received less than 100 percent of their average monthly precipitation this winter. In the Northeast, Midwest, and Southeast these states saw some relief in drought conditions as they experienced some significant rainfall and snowfall events. According to the U.S. Drought monitor, 36% of the country is experiencing some level of drought.
The drought map, which is made by the National Drought Mitigation Center, bases the level of drought on 4 levels ranging from D0 (abnormally dry) to D4 (exceptional drought). Levels of D3 drought, which is extreme drought, still linger across the Texas Panhandle, Oklahoma, and into some parts of the Four Corners. he Climate Prediction Center has released their drought outlook for the month valid from February to March and it shows that conditions are likely to remain the same across the southwestern United States while in parts of Montana and the Carolinas drought starts to improve a. Overall the seasonal outlook which is valid from February to May shows that drought will remain in parts of the southwest but conditions will start to improve and in parts of Montana and the southeast drought conditions are likely to be gone.
For more information on the ongoing drought conditions, be sure to click here!
© 2018 Meteorologist Shannon Scully
DISCUSSION: One year later and effects of drought are still seen amid the possibility of decreasing drought conditions due to 2016-2017 winter rain season in California. Although California has seen drought difficulties recently which amount to extreme burn scars, flash flooding, mud and landslides, some benefit has come from this yearly comparison.
Comparing the January 31st, 2017 monitor to the January 30th, 2018 monitor, the light at the end of the tunnel is still no observable D4, exceptional drought index seen within the state. There has also been a decrease in D3-D4 drought down 1.87 % to zero this week, D2-D4 decrease of 15.38%, and D1-D4 decrease of 7.08%. The drought monitor is indicating an increase in at least D0 (abnormally dry) areas within California, extending to a large portion of the state at nearly 73.33%.
This abnormally dry area is attributed to nearly 6+ months of drier weather impacting, “California and Nevada northward across the Great Basin to Oregon and southern Idaho,” according to Richard Heim, NOAA/NCEI. Reports are indicating some difficulties for livestock ranchers with decreasing forage and water supplies especially due to deceased snowpack and dried vegetation. Heim states we are seeing weather patterns, “typical of spring than mid-winter.” However, despite some increased D0 conditions California has fared well in dryness management given landscape and water resources.
For more information on drought impacts, please visit the Global Weather and Climate Center!
©2018 Meteorologist Jessica Olsen
Despite Historic Hurricane, South Still Left Out to Dry (Credit: NWS Corpus Christi, US Drought Monitor)
DISCUSSION: As the year draws to a close, it is important to look back at major weather events and see if and how the effects can linger into the new year. The hurricane season is one of the most important aspects of the meteorological calendar, and this year was no exception.
Hurricane Harvey first made landfall on August 25, 2017 in San Jose Island, Texas and then near the Fulton and Rockport, Texas area at around 10pm CDT (11pm EDT). Winds maxed at nearly 130 mph. In the four days Hurricane Harvey battered the Texas Coast, many areas saw over 30 inches of rain (see photo).
The drought monitor has certainly changed in the south compared to one year ago, although perhaps not in the way one would think. On December 13, 2016, 42.66% of the land was not experiencing any kind of drought conditions. Fast forward almost a year to December 12, 2017 and now only 23.96% of the land is not under drought conditions. Despite the torrential amount of rain that was received from Hurricane Harvey (excluding any other storms), there are generally more areas under drought conditions this year than last year, with severe conditions persisting particularly in northeast Texas, northwest Louisiana, southeast Oklahoma and nearly half of Arkansas. On the other hand, 100% of Tennessee was under drought conditions at this time last year, and currently only 31.86% are under drought conditions.
Take a look at the drought monitor, or choose to read more about Hurricane Harvey.
For more updates on droughts and other weather events, visit the Global Weather and Climate Center!
©2017 Meteorologist Nicholas Quaglieri
Exceptional drought, the most severe case of drought, has developed in North Dakota, and Montana. According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, the United States has gone 25 weeks without a case of exceptional drought until the U.S Drought Monitor released their data on July 18, 2017. During the Drought Monitor week, an upper-level ridge of high pressure covered the western United States. Rainfall was hindered and temperatures soared as the ridge sat over the west. Stations in the excessive drought area have reported little to no rainfall. Crops have taken a damaging hit from high temperatures and very little rainfall. Burn bans have been issued in several Tribes in eastern Montana and the Rocky Boys reservation has reported water shortages. Looking ahead, rain showers have moved across northern and central plains since the Drought Monitor was released. Above average monsoon rainfall is expected to continue over the southeast. Temperatures are expected to stay above normal for much of the United States over the week ahead.
Stay tuned for the weekly Drought Monitor here!
ⓒ 2017 Meteorologist Brandie Cantrell
DISCUSSION: Drought conditions in the high plains have gradually worsened over the course of the year. This includes the states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming, and Colorado. Severe and extreme drought has expanded across eastern Montana, south-central North Dakota and northwest South Dakota where dry and hot conditions have persisted. Many areas this past week across the Dakotas had temperatures climb well into the 90s, with many even reaching triple digits.
In northwestern South Dakota, the South Dakota State University Extension staff reported “poor pasture and range conditions as well as deteriorating crop conditions.” The lack of precipitation and extreme heat has wreaked havoc on farming. In Glasgow, Montana, the National Weather Service Office reported several dry precipitation records were broken for Glasgow; this includes the driest January through June since 1983 (2.75 inches). In Montana, only 52.28% of the land is currently not experiencing any kind of drought conditions (image above). In the high plains, only 53.49% of the region is currently not under any drought conditions.
For more information on the drought, click here!
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©2017 Meteorologist Nicholas Quaglieri
DISCUSSION: In more than 5 years California had seen unprecedented precipitation starting Fall 2016-Spring 2017. These rains have brought both positivity and negativity to the residents of California. Californians can celebrate as its drought monitor has shown as far back at October 2016 when consistent rains began in the area there was no percentage area not covered by some D0-D4 drought, showing 100 percent of the state experiencing D0-D4 drought, conditions that plagued California for over 5 years. In comparison to the past reported week of May 16th 2017, the state is rid of 76.47% of drought while 23.53 of the state experiences from D0-D4 which can be seen in southern California. These improvements may increase crop yields, economy and livelihoods within the state.
Conversely California has now had to address the dramatic amounts of precipitation seen in the past several months. The deluge of precipitation has brought concern among water infrastructure, dam capacity, flooding, and of recent concern landslides and mudslides. One of the most highly impacted locations due to increased water retention is the area along the Big Sur Coast between Monterey and San Luis Obispo Counties.
Within the past two months the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge had been demolished due to the excess damage it experienced due to localized landslides. This structure originally built in 1968 is expected to be replaced this year with a reopening of September with a cost of $24 million (Caltrans). These costs do not include the difficulties Big Sur residents are now facing as some cannot pass northbound into Monterey County, likewise Big Sur coast is typically a scenic tourist location which is already seeing increased financial difficulties as visitors cannot visit due to the temporary road closures.
Earlier this week (May 20th, 2017) a major landslide impacted the Big Sur area, extending about a quarter mile with Highway 1 covered in nearly 40 feet deep of rock and dirt. The road is closed indefinitely with no indications for opening in sight. The increased landslides seen in this area are attributed to the influx of precipitation the area received within the past 6 months. There has been relief lately however this rain-packed season has proved challenging for Big Sur residents and employees.
For more updates on droughts and weather visit the Global Weather and Climate Center!
© Meteorologist Jessica Olsen
California, Caltrans State of. "Caltrans Removes Damaged Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge, Plans to Quickly Re-build." Caltrans Title. Tamie McGowen, 11 Apr. 2017. Web. 24 May 2017.
"Maps And Data." United States Drought Monitor > Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 May 2017.