Carolinas Parched And Pining For Meaningful Rain After Months Of Dry Weather

It’s been a warm and dry couple of months across much of the eastern United States. The unusually calm and unsettlingly dry weather has been particularly hard on the Carolinas, where sporadic wildfires have popped up amid a worsening drought.

The latest update of the United States Drought Monitor (USDM) on December 14 found drought conditions across more than 80 percent of North Carolina and just shy of half of South Carolina. Severe drought conditions covered 42 percent of North Carolina, with nearly one-quarter of South Carolina experiencing a severe drought, the third category on the USDM’s five-category scale.

Rainfall totals since September 1 tell the tale of how dry it’s been over the past few months. Charlotte, N.C., typically records about a foot of rain between the beginning of September and the end of December. This year, though, they’ve only seen just over half a foot of rain over the same period. It’s a similar story across the border in Virginia, as well, where Norfolk has only received about 57 percent of their normal rainfall during the last four months of the year.

Two factors play into the ongoing drought across the Carolinas.

The first was the relative lack of tropical systems that moved through the area this hurricane season. Only a few early-season systems tracked over the Carolinas this summer. The remnants of tropical systems can be a significant source of rainfall during the late summer and early fall months. Most of this year’s landfalling systems steered clear of the southeast, and the ones that didn’t moved through fast enough that they didn’t drop meaningful rainfall.

The second, and most important factor, was a persistent ridge of high pressure that’s consistent with La Niña. La Niña years typically see topsy-turvy weather patterns, with a wavy polar jet stream shunted far into Canada. This pattern allows a ridge of high pressure to build over the southeastern United States, keeping the region relatively warm and dry for much of the winter.

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That’s not to say we won’t get any cold snaps or snowstorms this year, of course, but the practical effect so far is that we’ve gone many weeks without meaningful rainfall across a large swath of North Carolina and South Carolina so far this season. We can see the end result in the latest update of the drought monitor.

Unfortunately, there’s not too much relief in sight. It’ll take many inches of steady rain to ameliorate the current drought. Current indications are that the warmer-than-normal and unusually dry pattern will continue into the new year.

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