The United States Drought Monitor for December 29, 2020. Nearly half of the United States will end the year in some level of drought, according to the New Year’s Eve update of the United States Drought Monitor (USDM). The country slipped into the most widespread drought since the summer of 2013, and the effects of the extended dryness were apparent throughout the year. While there could be some relief in hard-hit areas over the next few weeks, forecasters expect the drought to stick around well into 2021.
Drought conditions are much more widespread now than they were this summer. The latest update of the USDM showed that 48.99 percent of the United States had slipped into a moderate drought or worse in the agency’s analysis on December 29, 2020. This is the largest expanse of land across the contiguous United States affected by drought since September 2013, and the greatest extent of a scale-topping exceptional drought since October 2011.
The USDM analyzes abnormal dryness across the United States using a five-category scale that runs from “abnormally dry,” more often than not a dry spell, to “exceptional drought,” reserved for areas suffering from a dire and long-term lack of precipitation.
It was a dry year west of the Plains states. Many areas in and around the desert southwest saw a “five-class degradation” between the end of December 2019 and the end of December 2020. Such an extreme degradation means that these areas went from experiencing normal precipitation at the end of last year to an exceptional drought by the end of this year. Overall, most of the areas currently experiencing a drought saw those conditions worsen in the last 12 months.
News of extended drought conditions is hardly a surprise to folks who live in the affected areas. California experienced five of its ten largest wildfires on record this year, including the largest, third-largest, fourth-largest, fifth-largest, and sixth-largest wildfires ever recorded in the state. Those five historic fires collectively consumed nearly 2.5 million acres of land in August and September, claiming 22 lives and destroying thousands of structures.
This past summer was brutally hot in the desert southwest. The region, which is no stranger to relentless heat during the summer months, experienced little rain during its monsoon season. Phoenix, Arizona, measured one inch of rain during the 2020 monsoon season, which is less than half of what the city typically measures during a normal rainy season.
The same pattern that brought little rain also allowed Phoenix to experience 53 days with high temperatures at or above 110°F, which set the record for days with supercentenarian high temperatures. The 53-day record blew away 2011’s previous record of 33 days at or above 110°F.
While any precipitation is helpful, experts expect drought conditions to persist well into 2021. The Climate Prediction Center’s three-month outlook calls for drought conditions to persist across affected areas into next spring, with drought potentially developing across the southern states as La Niña’s classic warm and dry pattern takes a toll through the winter.