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Regional Drought Update Date
December 13, 2021
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Drought Status Update

Drought Status Update for the Southeast U.S.


DEWS Regions:
Update Status:

NIDIS and its partners will issue future drought status updates as conditions evolve.

Drought Conditions Continue To Expand and Worsen Across Southeast Region, Especially in the Carolinas.

Key Points

  • Despite significant rainfall over the summer, precipitation this fall was much below normal for much of the region. This continued lack of precipitation is leading to soil moisture deficits and low streamflows, even as we enter the climatological winter.
  • Based on the U.S. Drought Monitor released on December 9, drought remains and currently covers 26% of the region, with 13% in severe drought (D2). These drought areas are currently in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, with the Carolinas most impacted. Abnormally dry conditions (D0) cover 41% of the region, and are found in the above states as well as Alabama and the Florida Panhandle.
  • Current impacts include observed low streamflow and reduced soil moisture. Fortunately, drought impacts are less pronounced this time of year because water demand is lower this time of year for vegetation use, irrigation of agriculture and lawns, and other uses.  Also, climatologically, the October/November time period is one of the drier times of the year across most of the region.
  • One concern is the potential for moisture deficits across portions of the region heading into the next growing season and the cold season recharge for reservoirs.
  • Except for northern portions of Alabama, no appreciable rainfall is expected over the next week. Week 2 will more likely than not see above-average rainfall over most of the region, except for Florida and southeast Georgia, where rainfall should remain sparse.  
  • The winter outlook (December 2021–February 2022) shows a higher chance for below-normal precipitation and above-normal temperatures across much of the Southeast region, which is typical of the existing La Niña pattern
  • Wildfire threats have increased due to low humidity and dry fuel loads. There are reports that winter wheat is being irrigated in the Pee Dee region of South Carolina, which is highly unusual. Some water systems are considering or implementing conservation practices. South Carolina has declared ‘incipient’ drought conditions in 34 counties, and North Carolina issued a Drought Advisory. 
Current Conditions
U.S. Drought Monitor Conditions: Southeast | December 7, 2021

Current U.S. Drought Monitor map for the Southeast, as of December 7, 2021. The U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) is updated each Thursday to show the location and intensity of drought across the country. Drought categories show experts’ assessments of conditions related to dryness and drought including observations of how much water is available in streams, lakes, and soils compared to usual for the same time of year. 

U.S. Drought Monitor Categories
Value Map Hex Color
D0 - Abnormally Dry #ffff00
D1 - Moderate Drought #ffcc99
D2 - Severe Drought #f5ad3d
D3 - Extreme Drought #ff0000
D4 - Exceptional Drought #660000
Main Stats
26%
of the Southeast is in drought (D1–D2)
41%
of the Southeast is abnormally dry (D0)
5th driest
November on record for Alabama and North Carolina
Severe Drought
increased from 5% of the region to 13% in one week

Current Conditions

  • After a very wet first half of the year and summer, precipitation this fall declined dramatically, in line with the rapid decrease in tropical cyclone activity in the Atlantic Basin. At the end of September, only 2% of the region was considered to be abnormally dry (D0). Precipitation totals less than 50% of normal across nearly the entire region (except for Florida) in October and November have ramped up drought conditions across the Southeast. Based on the U.S. Drought Monitor, 26% of the region now has moderate or severe drought (D1, D2), with 41% of the region classified as abnormally dry (Figure 1).
  • Oddly, Florida has escaped the drought conditions thus far, with above-normal rainfall in October and November.  However, the ongoing La Niña conditions have a strong correlation with dryness across Florida during the winter and spring months. As a result, the winter outlook shows a strong tilt for below-normal rainfall across Florida. In time, drought conditions are expected to spread into Florida by the first of the year. 
  • Over the past 90 days, the driest parts of the region have been eastern North Carolina, and the area around Charlotte, NC and the adjacent South Carolina border counties. Figure 2 shows the 90-day observed rainfall across the Carolinas. The lightest shade of green represents the driest totals, with only 2–4 inches. Some of the driest totals for the 90-day period from September 13  to December 12 include only 3.40 inches at Gastonia, NC, 3.40 inches at York, SC, and 3.55 inches at Lincolnton, NC. For example, the 4.01 inches at Charlotte, NC in the past 90 days is only 40% of normal and the 4th driest such period in over 130 years of data. All of these values are between 30% and 40% of normal, and are the driest such period at all locations since at least 2012.

Figure 1. 12-Week Change Map for the U.S. Drought Monitor

U.S. Drought Monitor Change Map for the Southeast U.S., showing how drought has improved or worsened over the past 12 weeks, from September 14 to December 7, 2021.
12-week change map for the U.S. Drought Monitor (from September 14–December 7, 2021). The green areas show where drought status improved, the yellow shows where drought worsened, and the grey areas are where the drought remained the same during this 12-week period. Source: National Drought Mitigation Center

Figure 2. 90-day Observed Rainfall Across the Carolinas (December 12)

90-day observed rainfall (inches) across North and South Carolina, through December 12, 2021.
This figure shows the 90-day observed rainfall across the Carolinas from September 13 to December 12. The lightest shade of green represents the driest totals, with only 2–4 inches. Source: North Carolina Climate Office.

Figure 3. 60-Day Percent of Normal Precipitation (%) (October 14–December 12, 2021)

Percent of normal precipitation across the Southeast from October 14–December 12, 2021. Other than parts of Florida, most of the Southeast saw below- to much-below-normal precipitation.
This map shows the 60-day percent of normal precipitation for October 14–December 12, 2021. The deep red color indicates areas that saw less than 50% of normal rainfall for the time period, whereas green to purple areas were above normal. Source: High Plains Regional Climate Center.

Impacts

  • Surface streamflow is below to much-below normal across most of North Carolina and South Carolina, with most streamflows below the historical 25th percentile for this time of year across the area and some locations in the bottom 10% (Figure 4). 
  • The concern with the current impacts of low streamflow and reduced soil moisture (Figure 5) in some areas is the potential for issues next growing season. If winter does not bring enough precipitation to recharge the streams and soils, portions of the region could begin the next growing season with moisture deficits. Similarly, the recharge of reservoirs during the cold season must be monitored. 
  • Ongoing dry conditions in South Carolina have led to higher-than-normal wildfires across the entire state, with the number of wildfires in November almost twice the 10-year average. On December 9, the South Carolina Drought Response Committee upgraded the drought status to Incipient Drought for 34 South Carolina counties. As designated by the South Carolina Drought Response Act, Incipient is the first level of drought, followed by Moderate, Severe, and Extreme. The concern over wildfires was the primary driving factor leading to the drought declaration.

Figure 4. U.S. Geological Survey Streamflow Percentiles - December 8, 2021

Real-time streamflow conditions for the Southeast from the U.S. Geological Survey, as of December 8, 2021.
Real-time streamflow conditions from USGS compared to historical streamflow conditions for December 8, 2021. Bright red dots indicate streamflow percentiles that are very low, dark red dots indicate much below normal (less than 10% of normal), orange dots indicate below normal (10%–24%), green dots indicate normal ranges (25%–75%), teal dots indicate above-normal (75%–90%), blue dots represent much above normal (over 90%), and black dots represent high percentiles. Source: U.S. Geological Survey, via Drought.gov.

Figure 5. CROP-CASMA (Crop Condition and Soil Moisture Analytics) (December 5, 2021)

Crop Condition and Soil Moisture Analytics (CROP-CASMA) map of the Southeast showing soil moisture anomalies. Valid December 5, 2021.
This web-based geospatial application utilizes the remotely sensed geospatial soil moisture and vegetation index data derived from NASA SMAP and MODIS missions to assess conterminous U.S. crop vegetation conditions and soil moisture conditions. The blues represent wet conditions, and the browns represent dry conditions, based on anomalies of soil moisture. Source: CROP-CASMA.

Outlook and Potential Impacts

  • Looking at the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center’s Monthly and Seasonal Drought Outlook (Figures 6 and 7), existing drought conditions are expected to continue and persist across the Carolinas. Normal winter precipitation (Figure 8) across Georgia and Alabama will keep longer-term drought conditions at bay there. Florida remains a cause of concern starting in January.
  • Although short-term precipitation may begin to replenish near-surface water supply, it can take much longer to percolate into deeper soils and groundwater. Winter rainfall is important for recharging surface and groundwater resources when evaporation and demand are low. It will be important to monitor winter precipitation to fully understand soil moisture conditions heading into next year’s growing season.

Figure 6. U.S. Monthly Drought Outlook (Valid December 2021)

Climate Prediction Center 1-month drought outlook for the Southeast, showing where drought is expected to develop, persist, improve, or be removed in December 2021.
U.S. Monthly Drought Outlook for December 2021. The brown shows areas where the drought is likely to persist, tan shows where drought is likely to remain but improve, green shows where drought removal is likely, and yellow shows where drought development is likely. Source: NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, via Drought.gov.

Figure 7. U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook (Valid December/January/February)

Climate Prediction Center seasonal drought outlook, showing the probability drought conditions persisting, improving, developing, or being removed across the Southeast from November 18, 2021 to February 2022.
U.S. Seasonal (3-month) Drought Outlook for December/January/February. The brown shows areas where the drought is likely to persist, tan shows where drought is likely to remain but improve, green shows where drought removal is likely, and yellow shows where drought development is likely. Source: NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, via Drought.gov.

Figure 8. U.S. Precipitation Outlook for December 2021–February 2022

Climate Prediction Center 3-month precipitation outlook for December 2021 to February 2022. Odds favor below-normal precipitation across much of the Southeast, with equal chances across Virginia, western Carolinas, and northern Alabama and Georgia.
The seasonal precipitation outlook for December 2021–February 2022 from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. The green shades represent areas with a greater chance for above-normal precipitation, white areas represent equal chances for either above-, near-, or below-normal precipitation, and brown shades represent areas with a greater chance for below-normal precipitation. Source: NOAA's Climate Prediction Center.

For More Information

 

Prepared By

Meredith Muth
NOAA/National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS)

Victor Murphy
NOAA/National Weather Service

Christopher Stachelski
NOAA/National Weather Service

Corey Davis
North Carolina State Climate Office

Elliot Wickham
South Carolina State Climatology Office  

Special Thanks

This drought status update is issued to communicate a potential area of concern for drought expansion and/or development within the Southeast U.S. based on recent conditions and the upcoming forecast. NIDIS and its partners will issue future drought status updates as conditions evolve.