Arid opening to 2014 echoes Dust Bowl spring in 1936

05/03/2014 7:40 AM

05/03/2014 7:42 AM

April showers?

Not in Kansas this year.

In fact, there has been precious little precipitation of any kind in Wichita in 2014. Just one year – 1936 – has had a drier opening four months since such record keeping began in 1889.

The 1.99 inches of precipitation recorded in 2014 was “topped” only by the 1.54 inches recorded in 1936, which turned out to be the heart of the Dust Bowl.

Several incidents from recent weeks around Kansas have resembled scenes from the Dust Bowl era:

• A 30-year-old Great Bend man was killed on April 28 when his Cadillac Escalade ran into the back of a semi that had stopped on U.S. 56 in Barton County west of Great Bend after several accidents were triggered by blowing dust and near-zero visibility.
• Vehicles in the ditch along U.S. 56 appeared stranded in drifts in late April – but they were drifts of fine dirt, not snow.
• Highways in northwest Kansas also were shut down in late April due to poor visibility caused by blowing dust.

“There are many reasons” why so little precipitation has fallen on Wichita – and indeed, much of Kansas – this year, said Eric Schminke, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wichita.

Perhaps the most significant, he said, is that moisture from the Gulf of Mexico isn’t making it into the Sunflower State in necessary amounts to fuel showers and thunderstorms. Often, dry spells in Kansas are spawned by the absence of low-pressure systems rolling through the state. But that hasn’t been the issue this year.

In fact, Schminke said, several fronts with strong low-pressure centers have surged across Kansas. But with little to no Gulf moisture to interact with, few showers or thunderstorms have blossomed.

Those strong lows have prompted the strong winds howling through the state in recent weeks, Schminke said, which has dried out wheat and other vegetation.

“It’s resulted in a pronounced grassland fire danger,” he said. “I don’t recall a month where we’ve hoisted red flags this often.”

The arid opening to 2014 has plunged Kansas back into drought. Essentially the entire state is in moderate, severe or extreme drought – more than double the extent at the turn of the year, according the U.S. Drought Monitor.

The drought is worst in far western Kansas, west of a line from Liberal to Garden City to Oakley. But there’s also a tongue of extreme drought that covers Sumner and Sedgwick counties.

The dry vegetation and soil will help vault temperatures into the 90s across much of the state Sunday and early into next week, forecasters say. Some areas next to the Oklahoma may even hit 100, said Larry Ruthi, the meteorologist-in-charge of the Dodge City branch of the weather service.

But forecasters disagree over whether the early arrival of 90s signals a long, hot summer for the Sunflower State.

“I would think this would be a fairly warm summer, considering how dry it is already,” said Justin Pullin, a meteorologist with AccuWeather’s Wichita office. “It’s looking pretty warm for the foreseeable future.”

The temperature reached 100 in Wichita on May 9 in 2011, the first of a record-setting 53 days for the city that year. But Ruthi said he’s not anticipating a blast furnace of a summer for Kansas.

“I don’t see anything right now that jumps out at me that suggests that we’re going to get hotter and hotter,” he said.

The same general weather pattern that allowed cold air from the arctic to plunge the eastern half of the nation into unusually harsh cold appears likely to remain in place through the next several months, he said. That will allow cooler air from Canada to periodically drop down across the Great Plains and eastern U.S., derailing any extended heat waves.

The Climate Prediction Center calls for slightly above-average temperatures but average precipitation for Wichita and the southern half of the state during June, July and August.

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