Turning Brown: rusty colors on the hills are a sure sign of drought

This year had the potential to be one of the wettest on record starting out with over twenty inches of rain through January and February; since then, it’s been pretty dry. Lately, it’s been very dry; so dry in fact we are now in a ‘flash drought.’

Local Drought Statement from NWS Huntsville

The excessively hot weather and the lack of rain over the past 60 days has really made an impact on Northeast Alabama.  The ridges along Lookout Mountain, Sand Mountain, Brindlee Mountain and some of the smaller foothills along the Cumberland Plateau in Madison County like Reed Mountain and Keel Mountain are ‘browning.’

Leaves on Lookout Mountain ‘browning’ in the rapidly-developing drought on September 26, 2019

What does this mean?

We’ve seen it before, but it’s been a while. The rapid onset of this drought in Northeast Alabama in particular turned a hot, humid, green summer into a brown early Fall because the trees are stressed.

The stress forces the trees to drop leaves prematurely; sometimes they even drop branches more quickly than they would have in a wetter season.

So, this year, instead of the brilliant reds, yellows and oranges of Fall, we’re looking rusty and brown. A little rainy, cool weather could give us a little pop of color later in the season, but even that looks meager at best at this point.

Below, you’ll find typical Fall foliage color change when we don’t have a major drought:

Rainfall outlook:  The chance of rain through the next two weeks stays in the slim-to-none range.

We expect drier-than-average conditions to last for quite a while; however, that does NOT mean it won’t rain at all.  Early to mid-October does look exceptionally dry; some rain will eventually fall, but a few spots may see zero rainfall through October 10th.  We need 5″ to 10″ to break the drought, and that’s definitely not an expectation right now.

Looking longer-term, one of the few tools we have to see rain potential beyond a two-week period is the ECMWF (European) weekly.  This was issued Tuesday, and it’s not wet at all until late October to early November.

ECMWF weeklies from Wednesday, Sept. 25th

This chart can be a little hard on the eyes, so here’s the basic information gathered from it:

  • It’s 50 different ‘runs’ of the same model (ECMWF) going out 45 days in the future.
  • The differences come as initial conditions are adjusted slightly to account for missing or incorrect data going INTO the model.  (It’s amazing to see how slight changes at the beginning can lead to HUGE changes at the end.)
  • The clustering of higher rainfall totals begins after October 15th.  The red lines that are overlapping show that.
  • The ensemble ‘mean’ brings up four inches of rain by November 10th.  The ‘control’ (one single run) only shows a fraction of an inch for Huntsville in that time.

The bottom line is that we see no really impactful rain in the foreseeable future.  It doesn’t mean it can’t happen; it just means we cannot see it right now.

The heat will break on or around October 5th, but this dry spell will keep rolling through October and potentially longer.

Looking for the rest of the forecast? It’s always online at WHNT.com/Weather and in the “Daily Forecast” section on Live Alert 19!

-Jason
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