Drought has clamped down hard on the throat of Rim Country — but that doesn’t mean the cottonwoods and sycamores can’t get all dressed up and throw a party.
Fall colors have already flared and dwindled on the high slopes of the San Francisco Peaks and in the lofty reaches of the White Mountains. However, the streamside trees have just this week caught flame along the East Verde and Tonto Creek. Meanwhile, the cottonwoods, willows and sycamores hugging the banks of Fossil Creek are still gathering themselves for their own run at glory — all orchestrated by elevation.
The bizarrely dry late summer monsoon season and early fall have parched the roots of all those trees. However, dwindling days and hard freezes have still prompted the trees to winterize – by pulling the green chlorophyll out of the leaves, leaving other red, yellow, brown and gold compounds to dominate.
Meanwhile, the decade-long drought has reasserted itself, turning last-season’s blissfully normal winter into a failed monsoon a fall dry enough to make a Halloween ghoul’s bones rattle. With rainfall so far this year well under half of normal throughout the region, meteorologist say only the El Nino warming of the Pacific can save the winter.
“We’re still definitely in a long-term drought across the southwest,” said National Weather Service Meteorologist Robert Bohlin, who is based in Flagstaff. “We’ve had a couple of decent winters now, but overall we’re still below average.”
In fact, Flagstaff has suffered through the driest January-October period in 110 years of official record keeping, said Bohlin. Flagstaff has had 8 inches so far this year, compared to the normal 18.2 inches for the same period. Winslow has gotten just 2.47 inches compared to its normal 6.46.
The weather service numbers put the rainfall in Payson for the year at 6.4 inches, compared to a normal total at this point of 18.6 inches. Last year, Flagstaff had 13.5 inches for that same period.
However, the National Weather Service records in Flagstaff had no Payson entry for July. The semi-official weather monitoring station in Payson puts the total for the year at 10.4 inches – still well behind normal.
The abnormally dry, hot conditions should continue at least through the weekend in Rim Country, said Bohlin. Highs should drop from the low 80s to the low 70s between now and Monday, with a 10-20 percent chance of rain early next week, said Bohlin.
“But that’s still an 80 percent chance of nothing,” he said.
Despite the bone-dry fall, forecasters hope for an above-normal winter when it comes to rain and snow, thanks to a warming trend in the surface water in the Pacific.
The so-called El Nino pattern normally delivers wet winters to the southwest if the sea surface warms enough, said Bohlin. The last two, weak El Ninos “fizzled” because the surface water didn’t get warm enough – contributing to the extension of the drought.
“So you want a good, strong El Nino – the stronger the better,” said Bohlin.
So far, the event looks “moderate to strong,” but we won’t know for sure until December or January.
Forecasters still don’t know how to explain the severity and length of the current drought. Some climate experts have suggested it could be related to global warming. However, Bohlin said the rainfall records attested to in tree ring growth patterns going back more than 1,000 years shows that the region sometimes slipped into droughts lasting 20 or 30 years.
“The current drought has lasted more than 10 years, but we have longer droughts (in the tree ring record),” said Bohlin. “But even in drought periods, you’re going to have wet years.
Before the current drought set in, the southwest enjoyed 30 years of above-normal rainfall, he noted.
“That’s just life in the southwest,” he said. “It was wet for 30 years and now we’re in a drought cycle.”