Q&A with Alabama state climatologist on current drought

Tractor in Dusty Field

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – Parts of Alabama continue suffering from the worst drought in nearly a decade. The Alabama Forestry Commission issued a fire danger warning Wednesday morning for 46 counties.

The most recent Drought Monitor now expands the “extreme drought” to include most of Jackson County, northern Marshall County, and eastern Madison County. Even a small sliver of DeKalb County is included in this category. It’s the second highest level of drought. Communities in Jackson County would need nearly 14 inches of rain to end the current drought.

Meteorologist Jake Reed reached out to Alabama State Climatologist Dr. John Christy for more insight and perspective on the ongoing drought, and what it would take to end it. Read their exchange below.

Reed: “How does the current drought compare to previous droughts in north Alabama?”
Christy: “This is not exceptional, but on the order of 1-in-10 to 1-in-20 dryness. In 2007 it was about 1-in-100. Essentially the entire state was in D4 (severe drought) late that summer, whereas we have a few areas in D3 and none in D4 yet.”

Reed: “What is considered to be the worst drought in north Alabama and why?”
Christy: “Depends on the place.  2007 was driest in Huntsville, but other years of both dryness and excessive heat (i.e. much hotter than 2016) were 1888, 1902, 1914, 1925, 1943, 1952 and 1954.  For just temperature, 1954 and 1902 were especially bad.  Our highest ever Alabama temperature was recorded in Sep 1925 in the midst of that drought at 112F at Centerville (that was also the year Huntsville had the most 90+ days in a year- 117.  This year we’ve had 106 so far).”

Reed: “At what point should we be concerned about lake/river/groundwater levels?”
Christy: “The managers are watching these closely. Birmingham has issued a Level 1 water situation (voluntary cutbacks). The river operators have scaled back discharges on the Alabama River from 4,200 cfs to 3,700 cfs. Numerous calls from farmers whose hay cutting produced next to nothing in the past month. Groundwater has dropped, but is still above 2007 values.”

Reed: “How susceptible is the Tennessee Valley to droughts like the one we are in now?”
Christy: “We have droughts like this one about every 20 years.”

Reed: “What weather scenarios helped us get out of previous droughts of this magnitude?”
Christy: “Many previous droughts were reduced by tropical storms or decaying hurricanes that made landfall and made their way into the area.”

WHNT News 19 would like to thank Dr. John Christy, Alabama State Climatologist, for his insight and expertise on Alabama’s climate and weather history.