Rim Country Slips Back Into Drought

Cooling temperatures in the Pacific likely to cut regions rainfall in half this winter


The Rim Country is in for a warm, dry winter, according to the latest three-month forecast from the National Weather Service.

Not to mention a weird century — with more floods, droughts, freak storms and extreme weather, according to several recent studies.

Gila County remains in moderate to severe drought with roughly half the normal rainfall, with a repeat of last year’s heavy snowfall up on the Rim looking increasingly unlikely.

The region has gotten a few modest storms in the past two weeks. This week, Heber has 17 inches of snow on the ground at 7,640 feet and Happy Jack at 7,630 feet had 14 inches, according to the weather service.

Despite the recent storms, Payson has so far this year received just more than 17 inches of rain, about 23 percent below the 30-year average.

The short-term forecast includes a slight chance for rain through Friday morning, but mostly sunny skies over the weekend. Still, we’re doing much better than the whole southeast section of the state, suffering now from extreme to exceptional drought.

Up north, the Navajo Reservation suffers from severe to extreme drought, according to the weather service’s Drought Monitor. A recently released U.S. Geological Service study found that a decade of drought on the 27,000-square-mile reservation has set massive sand dunes in motion, threatening to cover roads and already parched grazing areas for the reservation’s struggling sheepherders.

Dunes that had been stable for decades are now shifting their positions by 115 feet per year, as the drought withers the plants that had held them in place. The field of sand dunes outside of Flagstaff has grown by 70 percent since 1995, the report concluded.

In Rim Country, Roosevelt Lake has dwindled to 64 percent full, after reaching record levels this spring. A year ago at this time, the Salt River Project’s reservoirs on the Salt and Verde rivers were 85 percent full. This year, they are 65 percent full.

The Salt River at this time usually carries 249 cubic feet per second as it enters Roosevelt Lake, but now has just 145 cubic feet.

Interestingly, Tonto Creek at this point has 22 cubic feet per second, well ahead of the normal 15 cubic feet. The Verde River at Tangle has 245 cubic feet per second, just a little bit below normal.

The Rim Country had best get used to big swings in the weather and dramatic changes in water-dependent ecosystems, according to an accumulation of recent studies.

The U.S. this year set a slew of weather records, including the largest wildfire in Arizona history.

The nation set records or near records for tornadoes and wildfires nationwide, matching computerized climate models that link weird weather with the currently observed warming.

For instance, climate models predicting longer and more severe droughts in the Southwest got a boost from a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers used lake bed sediments in New York and the Southwest to create a 1,000-year history of rainfall variations. Then they set about to compare that history of actual rainfall tallies with the predictions of key climate models that they ran backward instead of forward.

Those models predict that the gradual increase in average global temperatures will result in more extreme weather and longer droughts in the Southwest.

Those same models have been used by scientists to predict a global warming trend. The study found precisely the link between rainfall patterns in the East and in the West that key climate models predict.

The findings fit into an increasingly complex understanding of global weather patterns that connect rainfall in Rim Country to ocean temperatures.

For instance, the University of Arizona’s Southwest Climate Outlook published online a link between the return of the drought to a cooling of surface temperatures in the eastern Pacific, a condition called La Niña. At least a weak La Niña appears likely through January, with a 50/50 chance it will continue into the spring.

“Weak La Niña conditions are expected to expand and intensify drought conditions across the southern tier of the U.S., including Arizona and New Mexico until spring,” the posting concluded.

As a result, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration prediction center predicts Rim Country will get about half the normal amount of rainfall this winter.


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