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Summer forecast: Hot and dry

Drought conditions to continue, experts say

POSTED: June 18, 2008 5:01 a.m.
SCOTT ROGERS/The Times

Old Christmas trees used as fish attracters line the dry Lake Lanier bed near Lanier Point Park on Friday afternoon as waters still are far from the shoreline. Experts say the drought will continue for a third summer, which means Lanier could drop even lower.

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Get ready for "Drought: The Sequel."

David Stooksbury, state climatologist at the University of Georgia, is predicting another sizzling hot, bone-dry summer.

"I’m expecting temperatures in the 100s this year if the drought continues," he said.

Last August, records were broken all over the Southeast as the mercury topped the century mark day after day. Stooksbury said that was a direct result of lack of rainfall.

"It has to do with surfaces absorbing energy from sunlight," he said.

If there’s lots of moisture in the soil, he said, the sun’s energy will be used for evaporation. But if the soil is dry, that energy goes toward heating surfaces, which in turn reflects heat into the air.

Stooksbury said this can create a feedback loop where drought begats more drought. "If there’s no moisture to evaporate into the air, that means no afternoon thunderstorms," he said.

The lack of rain and continuing drought also could mean another low summer for Lake Lanier.

Lanier is more than 13 feet below full pool, the lowest it’s ever been at this time of year. But as summer temperatures arrive, Lanier will lose more water to evaporation, and more may be released from Buford Dam to generate power on hot, high-demand days.

The good news is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ extended forecast predicts the lake will only drop to a level of 1,057.4 feet above sea level by June 20. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the lake was at 1,057.55 as of 8 p.m. Friday.

James Hathorn Jr., hydraulic engineer with the corps’ Mobile, Ala., district, which controls Lake Lanier, has predicted that by September, the lake could be anywhere from 2« to 6 feet lower, depending on the severity of the drought.

At the moment, things aren’t nearly so dire in Northeast Georgia as last year. Last summer, the area was declared to be in an "exceptional" drought, the worst category. Adequate winter and spring rain moved Hall County into "extreme" drought, and now it is rated as merely "severe."

But the situation could easily take a turn for the worse.

"It looks like at least for the next couple of weeks, we’re going to be in a dry, hot pattern," said Jeff Dobur, a hydrologist with the Southeast River Forecast Center in Atlanta. "There wasn’t much rain in May, and historically, a dry May has preceded a dry June."

However, all hope is not lost. "There are several reasons to be optimistic over the long term," Dobur said.

"Our droughts typically last two to three years. This would be our third summer, and droughts usually peak in the second summer."

Also, Dobur said, the climate pattern that has caused tropical storms to skirt around Georgia for the past two years appears to be weakening. So if there are any hurricanes this season, Georgia may finally get some beneficial rain.

Stooksbury concurs, but he said that probably won’t happen before August, when tropical storms become especially active.

That type of massive, drenching storm system is the only thing that could give Lanier a normal summer season, and Hathorn said there’s no way to predict the odds of that.

"Even if we have an active hurricane season, the storms might not make landfall in Georgia," he said. "We (at the corps) are doing everything we can to raise the lake level, but Mother Nature is in control at this point."

But don’t count on a hurricane to end the drought.

"People should make plans assuming that the drought is going to continue," Stooksbury said.

Billy Skaggs, agricultural agent for the Hall County Extension Service, said farmers have been preparing as much as they can.

"Farmers in general are optimistic. Most are not expecting it to be as bad as last year," he said.

Still, they’re hedging their bets. "They’re cutting and baling any grass they can, in case there’s a hay shortage later this year," Skaggs said. "Fruit and vegetable farmers are re-evaluating their planting habits, and maybe choosing crops that aren’t as water-demanding."

Even if this year’s drought isn’t quite as bad as last year’s, the situation could still get pretty grim, considering that the 2007 drought was among the worst ever recorded.

"Now that the temperature is hitting the 90s, soil conditions are drying out quickly," Skaggs said. "It’s stacking up to be a tough summer for farmers, especially since the prices of fuel and fertilizer are so much higher than last year."



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