August 15, 2011

North Texas suffers through year of weather extremes

With ice, fires, drought and heat, 2011 has had a surplus of wild weather.

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A winter ice storm buried Beverly Thomas' crops beneath sheets of sleet. Gusty spring winds burned leafy greens and coated vegetables in sand and mud. Wildfires in April and May burned just miles from her 33-acre farm in Parker County.

But nothing compares to the heat and drought that have left the fields cracked and parched and a dwindling supply of well water at Cold Springs Farm northwest of Weatherford.

"We never had a chance this year," said Thomas, who has been farming since 1979. "I have never seen anything like it."

The streak of consecutive 100-degree days may have ended last week at 40, falling two days short of the Dallas-Fort Worth record set in 1980, but that does little to change a simple fact: Weather is volatile, and this year has been especially so.

Ice storms. Devastating wildfires. A long, steamy summer that included the hottest July on record. And the worst one-year drought ever for Texas.

"We get a little of everything in Texas," said Daniel Huckaby, meteorologist from the National Weather Service. "This year just saw some extremes."

This summer has been particularly bad.

With Monday's high of 103 degrees, North Texas has now recorded 49 days of 100-degree temperatures this year, the fourth most on record. And with forecasts calling for 100-plus readings the rest of the week, we're virtually guaranteed of taking over the No. 3 spot (52 days) and have a good chance of surpassing No. 2 (56 days). No. 1, from that awful summer of 1980, is holding strong at 69 days.

Little rain

The heat, mixed with the record-breaking drought, has crippled agriculture across Texas, said John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist and professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University. Never before has so little rain been recorded before and during the primary growing season for crops and plants, he said. Weekend showers barely made a dent in the drought, Huckaby said, with most of Fort Worth reporting less than an inch of rain.

Thomas desperately needs more rain to help her organic farm, where the monthly electric bill has more than quadrupled from $250 to $1,100 as she has been forced to constantly run well water to irrigate crops. Now, she said, well water is now running low. Little will grow in this heat, and Thomas has been unable to provide as much food to area restaurants, which usually accounts for most of her income.

To battle the heat, she has donned a hat with a light and picked fruits and vegetables in the middle of the night, usually beginning at 10 and finishing by 3 or 4 in the morning.

"This has been a year to remember, for sure," she said.

Fires and ice

Dry conditions and harsh winds not only hurt farmers like Thomas, but they also contributed to record wildfires that have burned more than 3.4 million acres statewide, said Tom Spencer, head of predictive services for Texas Forest Services.

Since fire season began in November, firefighters have responded to 18,300 fires. In April alone, 1.6 million acres burned, far more than the average 100,000 for that month.

"This year has been as severe as it gets with wildfires," Spencer said. "Fires are still burning with intensity."

An April wildfire at Possum Kingdom Lake, northwest of Fort Worth, was particularly devastating, burning more than 125,000 acres and destroying 167 homes.

Heat, drought and high winds are related, but the snow and ice?

In nine days in February, three separate snow and ice storms swept through North Texas, essentially shutting down the Metroplex as the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers prepared to play Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington.

Blame the North Atlantic Oscillation -- a weather pattern that brought heavy snow and frigid temperatures to the eastern U.S. and Europe -- which came farther south than usual, Nielson-Gammon said.

Forecasters are now preparing for September and October, which is the state's second rainy season next to the spring, to determine just how long the drought will last.

"Our best hope is we get rain from the tropics this fall," Nielsen-Gammon said. "And we do have an active hurricane season forecast, so we will see."

Sarah Bahari, 817-390-7056

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