State Climatologist David Stooksbury said in a press conference today at the University of Georgia that this time next year, drought conditions are likely to remain similar to North Georgia’s current "exceptional drought" status, causing negative agricultural and hydrological impacts.
"The probability of having an exceptional drought is one in every 100 years," he said. And this year the odds are against North Georgia farmers and residents.
"There was this gradual southeast expansion of the drought in the last month," Stooksbury said.
As of Thursday, 32 percent of the state is in an exceptional drought, and 43 percent is in exceptional or extreme drought.
Although October is typically the driest month of the year, top soil moisture levels are low even for an average October.
Recent rains where able to "green up some plants" and save millions of dollars in foundation planting for farmers and landscaped yards, but critical moisture levels for deep soil are still very low, Stooksbury said.
"Even with a normal summer, we expect soils to dry out and stream and reservoir levels to drop," he said. "Even with near-normal rainfall, the drought will persist."
A strong or weak La Nina is particularly important to North Georgia. If northern Georgia experiences a weak La Nina, historically it would initiate more rain in North Georgia than during an average winter. But if La Nina turns out to be moderate or strong, there will likely be below average rainfall in Atlanta and North Georgia.
Until the La Nina pattern begins, climatologists cannot accurately predict whether La Nina will be weak, moderate or strong.
But dynamic base models support evidence that North Georgia can expect to see a strong La Nina in the upcoming months, which typically means a drier than average, and warmer than average season.
"La Nina looks like she is here to stay for the winter and spring, and there is a good indication that there will be a moderate to strong La Nina," Stooksbury said.
But he added that a strong La Nina only increases the probability of drier, warmer conditions this winter, but does not necessarily forecast such conditions.
Warm temperatures equate to higher evaporation rates, so rainfall that does fall will evaporate faster than normal for the winter.
However, the probability of a damaging freeze during winter is greatly decreased with a strong La Nina.
The state climatologist said that this current drought essentially began in March 2006, where rainfall was five inches below normal, and since then, the drought has continued to worsen. He added that the current drought in the Southeast is not a direct result of larger global warming patterns. Furthermore, he said that the Southeast has actually cooled slightly over the last 100 years.
Moreover, he said that drought is a normal pattern, and that many ecosystems in the Southeast depend on occasional droughts to prosper, such as cypress trees that need drier conditions at times to prosper in swamps.
Stooksbury said that he could not comment on predictions for Lake Lanier water levels. He said that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ control of lake levels plays too large of a part for him to be able to predict the status of the reservoir in months to come.
He added that the degree of conservation efforts made by all residents will also play a primary role in how much the drought affects the state.
"It’s important for us all to realize that we are all part of the solution," he said. "Conservation is key."
There’s little hope for a major recovery through the spring of 2008, he said. And there’s actually a good probability that Southeast Georgia, one of the wettest parts of the state, will go back into a drought this spring.
But he also said that there will be wet time periods over the next few months in North Georgia. The northern third of the state may even see a month or two of above normal rainfall, he said.
"Conditions will probably improve slightly through the winter, and we’ll be able to muddle through," Stooksbury said. "But we’ll have virtually no reserve going into next summer, so if we don’t have a reserve going into next summer, things can get very difficult around here very quick. We could be in a dire situation a year from now."