Most of the U.S. Is Experiencing Record-Low Drought Levels

Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

This winter, relentlessly wet weather patterns bathed the United States with much-needed water. As a result, drought levels in the United States are at their lowest since Y2K, according to an analysis released by the United States Drought Monitor (USDM). Only 5.4 percent of the country is experiencing drought conditions right now, the lowest level on record since the USDM began a weekly analysis of abnormally dry conditions on January 4, 2000.

The USDM’s job is to measure the severity of a region’s dryness based on data like observed rainfall, soil moisture, streamflow, and water levels in lakes and reservoirs. This precipitation data is categorized on a five-point scale that ranges from “abnormal dryness,” the lowest category, to “exceptional drought”—reserved for the worst and longest-lasting drought conditions.

About 12 percent of the country is experiencing “abnormally dry” conditions, usually indicative of fleeting dryness that can often be remedied with a decent afternoon of soaking rain. The regions still thirsting for water are mostly in the southeastern United States, where widespread severe drought conditions persist over central and southern parts of Florida. The worst drought conditions exist there and over the mountains of northern Georgia, a tiny area that’s seen a rainfall deficit of 8 to 12 inches since last fall. But drought conditions across the rest of the country are largely scattered and limited in both scope and duration.

A major contributing factor to these delightfully low drought levels is California’s incredible reversal in fortunes this past winter. The state endured a devastating, years-long drought that abruptly came to an end after a steady train of storms rolled ashore and produced copious amounts of rain and snow. Much of central and northern parts of California have seen rainfall amounts of 1 to 2 feet above normal over the past six months. The Sierra Nevada mountain range in particular has seen more than 100 inches of snow this season, erasing previous years’ snowfall deficits and building up a significant reserve of meltwater to replenish downstream reservoirs when the warmth of summer takes hold.

Ironically, areas that were too dry not too long ago are now trying to cope with too much rainfall. North Carolina was hit especially hard toward the end of April, when a slow-moving storm system dropped more than 6 inches of rain across some of the most populated parts of the state. The heavy, steady rain mostly erased the state’s rainfall deficit in one weekend, but it also caused some major flooding problems. Raleigh, North Carolina, for example, found itself in a “flash flood emergency” on April 25, 2017, after excessive rains swelled local waterways beyond their banks and threatened homes, businesses, and major thoroughfares. When it comes to rain, as with everything in life, moderation is the goal.

What is a Polar Vortex?

Edward Stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Edward Stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

If you’ve turned on the news or stepped outside lately, you're familiar with the record-breaking cold that is blanketing a lot of North America. According to The Washington Post, a mass of bone-chilling air over Canada—a polar vortex—split into three parts at the beginning of 2019, and one is making its way to the eastern U.S. Polar vortexes can push frigid air straight from the arctic tundra into more temperate regions. But just what is this weather phenomenon?

How does a polar vortex form?

Polar vortexes are basically arctic hurricanes or cyclones. NASA defines them as “a whirling and persistent large area of low pressure, found typically over both North and South poles.” A winter phenomenon, vortexes develop as the sun sets over the pole and temperatures cool, and occur in the middle and upper troposphere and the stratosphere (roughly, between six and 31 miles above the Earth’s surface).

Where will a polar vortex hit?

In the Northern Hemisphere, the vortexes move in a counterclockwise direction. Typically, they dip down over Canada, but according to NBC News, polar vortexes can move into the contiguous U.S. due to warm weather over Greenland or Alaska—which forces denser cold air south—or other weather patterns.

Polar vortexes aren't rare—in fact, arctic winds do sometimes dip down into the eastern U.S.—but sometimes the sheer size of the area affected is much greater than normal.

How cold is a polar vortex?

So cold that frozen sharks have been known to wash up on Cape Cod beaches. So cold that animal keepers at the Calgary Zoo in Alberta, Canada once decided to bring its group of king penguins indoors for warmth (the species lives on islands north of Antarctica and the birds aren't used to extreme cold.) Even parts of Alabama and other regions in the Deep South have seen single-digit temperatures and wind chills below zero.

But thankfully, this type of arctic freeze doesn't stick around forever: Temperatures will gradually warm up.

A Simple Trick for Defrosting Your Windshield in Less Than 60 Seconds

iStock
iStock

As beautiful as a winter snowfall can be, the white stuff is certainly not without its irritations—especially if you have to get into your car and go somewhere. As if shoveling a path to the driver’s door wasn’t enough, then you’ve got a frozen windshield with which to contend. Everyone has his or her own tricks for warming up a car in record time—including appropriately-named meteorologist Ken Weathers, who works at WATE in Knoxville, Tennessee.

A while back, Weathers shared a homemade trick for defrosting your windshield in less than 60 seconds: spray the glass with a simple solution of one part water and two parts rubbing alcohol. “The reason why this works,” according to Weathers, “is [that] rubbing alcohol has a freezing point of 128 degrees below freezing.”

Watch the spray in action below.

[h/t: Travel + Leisure]

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