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Dry, cold March brings drought intensification

Gary McManus, State Climatologist Oklahoma Climatological Survey

April 2, 2014

Oklahoma’s weather during March was so boring only a Mother (Nature) could love it. Dust storms and wildfires livened things up a bit, but there was very little in the way of traditional severe weather. Through March 31, the number of consecutive days without a reported tornado in Oklahoma rose to 236, the third longest stretch since accurate records began in 1950. The last reported tornado in Oklahoma occurred back on August 7, 2013, when a small EF0 twister touched down near Turpin in Beaver County. The longest tornado drought on record is 292 days from May 17, 2003, to March 3, 2004. Snow and sleet kept winter in the news the first few days of the month with amounts of nearly 6 inches reported across northern Oklahoma. Despite that moisture, it was dry across most of the state and in some areas, exceedingly so. The Oklahoma Mesonet site at Boise City brought up the rear with a scant 0.05 inches of liquid moisture. Of the 120 existing Mesonet sites, 33 came in with less than an inch of moisture, and 64 recorded less than 2 inches. Mt. Herman in McCurtain County recorded the most with 5.98 inches. The statewide average was 1.75 inches, 1.36 inches below normal to rank as the 38th driest March since records began in 1895. March was the seventh consecutive month that the statewide average precipitation total dipped below normal, and the 30th month out of the previous 42 to do so, dating back to October 2010. The cumulative statewide precipitation deficit over that period rose to approximately 28.9 inches.


March also continued a tendency for cooler than normal weather. According to preliminary data from the Mesonet, the statewide average temperature was 46.4 degrees, the 23rd coolest March on record at 3.8 degrees below normal. That is the 12th month out of the last 14 to finish cooler than normal, dating back to February 2013. The month’s highest temperature of 88 degrees was recorded at four separate locations on the 31st. The lowest temperature for the month, minus 7 degrees, was reported at Buffalo on the third. Several low temperature records were either tied or broken at stations in northeastern Oklahoma during those first few icy days of the month.


The combination of drought, high winds and low relative humidity produced numerous days with extreme wildfire conditions. Fires burned several hundred acres in Logan County on March 20, destroying two mobile homes. A Texas wildfire on the 18th spread for 20 miles and burned its way into Ellis County, Oklahoma. It required several Oklahoma and Texas firefighter units to extinguish the blaze. Many other wildfires were reported throughout the month. Those same weather conditions also produced intense dust storms that some local Panhandle residents likened to the Dust Bowl storms of the 1930s. The biggest “duster” was possibly the March 11 storm that kicked up dust from eastern Colorado down into the High Plains of the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles. Another dust storm on the 18th spread much farther to the east, obscuring the sky throughout western and central Oklahoma.


The drought that helped produce those dust storms intensified across the High Plains into western Oklahoma. The latest U.S. Drought Monitor report indicated a significant increase in extreme to exceptional drought across the western third of Oklahoma, now encompassing 24 percent of the state. That’s an increase of nearly 20 percent since October 1, 2013. Moderate to severe drought covered approximately 53 percent of the state and nearly 19 percent was considered to be in “Abnormally Dry” conditions. Only four percent of Oklahoma was portrayed devoid of any dry conditions. The Drought Monitor’s intensity scale slides from moderate-severe-extreme-exceptional, with exceptional being the worst classification.


The latest April outlooks from the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center (CPC) gave no indication of increased odds for either above-, below- or near-normal temperatures and precipitation. CPC’s U.S. Monthly Drought Outlook for April shows drought either continuing or intensifying across the western half of the state through the month, with drought removal likely across northeastern and southeastern areas of the state.