I’ve reported on drought in the American West many times in this blog. What about the country as a whole?
One way of looking at this question is by asking each month how much of the country has been very dry, and how much as been very wet? By very dry, I mean that the amount of precipitation for that month falls in the lowest 10% for that month in the historical record. By very wet, I mean that the amount of precipitation for that month falls in the highest 10% for that month.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration keeps this data. They measure the precipitation in every county in the country, and calculate what percent of the country was very dry, and what percent was very wet. They have data for every month going back to January of 1895.
Figure 1 shows the monthly data for every month all the way back to January, 1895. Blue bars represent the percentage of the country that is very wet. Red bars represent the percentage that is very dry. (To keep the blue and red bars from obscuring each other, I multiplied the dry percentage by -1, thereby inverting it on the chart.) I dropped trend lines on both data series. As you can see, there is considerable variation from year-to-year. There is a slight trend – hardly noticeable – towards more very wet months and fewer very dry months. But it is small, and the yearly variation is much greater than the trend.
Figure 2 shows the same data, but it beings in January, 1994.. I constructed this chart to see whether the most recent 25 years look different than the record as a whole. Again, blue bars represent very wet months, and the red bars represent very dry ones. I dropped linear trend lines on both data series, as before. The yearly variation is again larger than the trends. There appears to be virtually no trend in the number of very dry months. There is a small trend towards increasing number of very wet months. It appears a bit larger than did the one for the whole time period, but even so, it is tiny compared to the yearly variation.
It’s a bit hard to read the two data series on opposite sides of the zero line, so I constructed Figure 3. For each month it shows the percentage of the country that was very dry minus the percentage that was very wet. By doing my subtraction that way, numbers above zero mean that more of the country was very dry than very wet, and numbers below zero mean that more of the country was very wet. I dropped a linear trend on the data (red), and I also dropped a 15-year moving average on it. The chart shows that, as we saw in Figure 1, there is a slight trend towards fewer very dry months and more very wet ones. The variation is much larger than the trend, whether one looks at the monthly data, or the yearly.
This data differs from other drought data I report. Those reports focus on the Palmer Drought Severity Index, an index intended to represent soil moisture. Soil can dry out because there is little overall precipitation, or because there are longer periods between precipitation events, or because the temperature is warmer. This data would tend to indicate that regions of the country with very little precipitation may be decreasing very slightly, very slowly. Regions with very much precipitation may be increasing. This trend would be consistent with consensus predictions regarding climate change, where overall precipitation is not expected to change, but the number of heavy precipitation events is expected to increase.
National Centers for Environmental Information, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. U.S. Percentage Areas (Very Warm/Cold, Very Wet/Dry). Downloaded 9/1/2018 from https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/temp-and-precip/uspa.