The U.S. drought map hasn’t looked this boring in a while. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the Lower 48 appears to be experiencing less severe drought than any time in the past 19 years of record keeping.
A wet wrap to 2018 and continued rain and snow to start 2019 mean that just 5.73 percent of the U.S. is currently in drought. That’s great news for drought plagued California and the West as a whole, though unfortunately it also means the Midwest is underwater.
The distinct lack of drought was first picked up on by the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang. The Drought Monitor uses a scale from 0-4 where zero indicates “abnormally dry” conditions and 1-4 are various levels of drought going from moderate to exceptional. In addition to the percentage of the contiguous U.S. in drought, another roughly 15 percent is abnormally dry. That means nearly 80 percent of the country is drought-free, which as Capital Weather Gang puts it, is “quite a reversal from summer 2012, when less than 20 percent of the Lower 48 was drought-free.”
Dry pockets include parts of the Pacific Northwest and patches here and there from Arizona to Georgia. But in the Southwest and Northwest, at least, the conditions are a marked improvement from the start of winter when there was widespread exceptional and extreme drought. Factoring in Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico, and the numbers are a little less rosy since those states and the U.S. territory are all experiencing drought conditions.
But on the whole, this is positive news for everywhere that isn’t the Midwest. California is drought-free for the first time in seven years. Western snowpack ended the winter above average for only the third time in 10 years. These types of wet years are vital for the region, which relies on that snowpack for its water the rest of the year.
And they’re set to become rarer. An analysis of drought records going back to 1890 published this week by Climate Central shows that the West has become progressively drier, and there’s ample research showing that the drying trend is linked with climate change. The risk of decade-long droughts is rising, making water storage and better management increasingly important.
Of course, the good times rolling in the West is only part of the story. The wet fall and winter in the Midwest followed by a crippling bomb cyclone last month have unleashed a torrent of flooding. Records, along with dams and levees, have been toppled as saturated soil was unable to absorb the sudden influx of rain and snowmelt. Even the Gulf of Mexico could feel the effects later this summer in the form of a nasty dead zone. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has warned 200 million people could be inundated by floodwaters this spring.
With much of the U.S. looking at increased odds of more precipitation than normal through June, we could see drought area shrink even further.