The Blue Ridge Mountains in the eastern Appalachians get their name from the bluish haze that often blankets their rolling peaks on humid afternoons. Their colorful hue adds to the beauty of the region, but the intense haze smothering the mountains this week is a reminder that not all is right with this natural wonder. Large wildfires have been burning across interior parts of the southeastern United States for much of November as the region endures a drought that grows worse with each passing day, straining local water resources and stressing nature to its breaking point.
The November 22, 2016, update of the United States Drought Monitor (USDM) paints a dire picture for millions of people from the Mississippi Delta to the mountains of the Carolinas. The USDM is produced by scientists each week using factors such as temperature and precipitation data, soil moisture information, and water measurements from streams, rivers, and reservoirs. Once a drought reaches extreme or exceptional levels for a long period of time, as we’re seeing in states like Alabama and Georgia, it can result in widespread crop losses and extensive water shortages.
In contrast with many areas of the world that experience pronounced rainy seasons, rainfall in the southeastern United States is fairly consistent throughout the year. You can generally expect similar amounts of rain each month, with a little more in the summer and a little less in the fall. This year, however, storms were few and far between during the winter, and the typical summer deluges were less frequent on hot summer afternoons.
After trudging through one dry month after the other, rainfall deficits quickly started to add up. The lack of water has taken a serious toll. An analysis by NOAA on November 28, 2016 (see below) showed year-to-date rainfall deficits of more than a foot across a huge region, with the greatest impacts focused on Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee. Some areas are nearly 2 feet behind normal so far this year.
Georgia Governor Nathan Deal recently declared a “Level 2 drought” for some counties in the northern part of the state, which enforces a slew of water restrictions on residents who live in hardest-hit communities. The restrictions include a ban on luxuries like car washes, and authorizes an odd-even daily schedule for outdoor watering based on your street address and the day of the week. The restrictions could get even more stringent if there’s no liquid relief in the future. The lack of rainfall has caused the water level in Lake Lanier in northern Georgia to fall more than 9 feet since last spring, and Lake Hartwell—which straddles the border between Georgia and South Carolina—has seen a similar drop in water levels. Lakes and reservoirs could eventually reach dangerously low levels if the drought continues and further water restrictions aren’t put in place.
Year-to-date rainfall deficits across the Southeast as of November 28, 2016. Image Credit: NOAA/NWS
It’s not just water systems that have taken a hit due to the abnormally dry conditions. Vegetation across the affected areas is so dry that it won’t take much to start a raging wildfire. Fire crews have responded to hundreds of wildfires across the southeast over the past couple of months, including those caused by fireworks, campfires, arsonists, discarded cigarettes, and even an explosion along a gas pipeline near Birmingham, Alabama earlier this month. Some of the wildfires are so large and intense that the smoke is covering thousands of square miles around the infernos. The smoke was so dense around Atlanta during the day on November 14, 2016, that it reduced visibility to just three miles at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport for a couple of hours.
The fires have gotten worse through the month. An intense wildfire caused major damage in and around the popular resort towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge in eastern Tennessee in the just past few days, killing three people, injuring 14 more, forcing the evacuation of thousands, and burning hundreds of homes and businesses.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like there’s any long-term relief in the forecast for the drought-stricken areas. NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center says that we’re currently experiencing a La Niña in the Pacific Ocean, a phenomenon where waters in the eastern equatorial Pacific are colder than normal for an extended period of time. There’s a decent chance that these conditions will persist through this winter. La Niña winters in the United States are characterized by warmer-than-normal and drier-than-normal conditions across the southern part of the country, which doesn’t bode well for areas currently in a drought. That’s not to say that the parched land won’t see any relief over the next few months—but any rain that does fall probably won’t go a long way to fixing the damage that’s been done.