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All of Massachusetts now in drought amid alarming expansion of dry conditions in Northeast

<i>Charles Krupa/AP</i><br/>Weeds grow through the cracked soil on what would usually be on the bottom of the Hoppin Hill Reservoir in North Attleboro
Charles Krupa/AP
Weeds grow through the cracked soil on what would usually be on the bottom of the Hoppin Hill Reservoir in North Attleboro

By Brandon Miller, Judson Jones and Rachel Ramirez, CNN

The flash drought conditions expanded and intensified in New England over the past week, according to the latest report from the US Drought Monitor. Extreme drought — level 3 out of 4 — now covers parts of eastern Massachusetts, Connecticut and the entire state of Rhode Island.

All of Massachusetts is in some level of drought for the first time in more than seven years, with 40% in the extreme drought category. None of the state was in extreme drought as of two weeks ago, illustrating the “flash” nature of the drought in the Northeast.

Over the past 60 days, parts of New England, New York and New Jersey have fallen 2 to 6 inches below their normal rainfall. And no rain is forecast in the region through the weekend as warm dry air overtakes New England through Sunday. Temperatures will be well above the average high of 80 degrees through the weekend, with Friday’s high temperature reaching 90 degrees.

The drought’s expansion has hit farming communities in the Northeast particularly hard, and experts tell CNN that the region is unprepared to manage new challenges amid dry conditions.

What’s happening there is a prime example of the climate crisis intensifying the water cycle, making wet periods wetter and dry periods drier, according to Aaron Bernstein, the interim director at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment.

“We know already that New England has seen the greatest increase in heavy downpours, so we expect that climate change is driving an intensification of water cycles — both more intense floods and intense droughts,” Bernstein told CNN. “We’ve certainly seen the heavier downpour piece of the equation, and we tend to think that places that are already dry are going to be the places where the droughts get worse, but we don’t have a perfect crystal ball on climate science.”

Low rainfall, shrinking rivers and depleting reservoirs have left farmers struggling to grow food crops, which is greatly affecting their income.

“If you’re growing anything, you know that plants are needing a lot more water now, and because we don’t often deal with severe drought in the Northeast, it becomes unpredictable and harder to manage,” Jennifer Marlon, climate scientist at the Yale School of the Environment, told CNN. “Now we are reminded again that the weather is becoming harder to manage and throwing new wrenches into our daily lives.”

Bernstein said the situation is also putting a strain on farmers’ mental health.

“There is an ample amount of scientific research showing that droughts can affect the mental health of everybody, but particularly people who are farmers,” Bernstein told CNN. “That’s not surprising when their lives and livelihoods are literally drying up before their eyes.”

Marlon and Bernstein say that because the Northeast has faced the impacts of the climate crisis in the form of heavy precipitation, storm surges, flooding and rising sea levels, severe drought is an extreme event the region is not prepared for.

“The West arguably has spent a lot more time thinking about how to deal with drought … and people drastically reduced their water use because everyone knew that droughts were a major problem,” Bernstein said. “When it comes to New England, one of the big differences to me is that we don’t know drought and our water systems are not designed to be as water efficient. I’m not sure we would do that well in New England.”

The dry conditions are also fueling the Briarwood Fire around 40 miles north of Boston in Rockport, Massachusetts. Gov. Charlie Baker has activated the National Guard to help support firefighters on that blaze, his office said in a statement. The fire has been burning for one month across 19 acres and “continues to smolder above and below ground,” the statement says.

From flash drought to flash flood

In the South, drought is worsening in Texas, where rainfall has been well below average. But another concern is building in the Lone Star State starting this weekend, as extreme rain is forecast to fall on top of extreme drought — a combination that could lead to dangerous flash flooding.

A flash drought has been building across the Southern Plains since mid-July, and Texas has the most exceptional drought area in the country, primarily concentrated in the middle of the state, including the Dallas-Fort Worth area, the US Drought Monitor reported Thursday.

Broad areas of exceptional drought — level 4 out of 4 — covers 25% of the state from the southern Texas Panhandle southeast toward the Gulf Coast.

“Over the last half-year, rainfall deficits of 8 inches to locally over a foot have affected areas of central Texas near and south of Dallas/Ft. Worth to the Gulf Coast,” the Drought Monitor wrote. “The next five days could see heavy rainfall and improvement across a large part of northern Texas and southern Oklahoma eastward along the Arkansas/Louisiana border.”

Nearly three quarters of US farmers, and many in Texas, say this year’s drought is hurting their harvest and forcing them to fallow fields and sell off cattle early, CNN has reported.

But extreme rain is in the forecast, which could lead to new problems. From Sunday into the middle of next week, tropical moisture will feed into the region, leading to several rounds of organized showers and thunderstorms repeating over the same portions of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana.

“This will be beneficial rains, much-needed rainfall given the ongoing drought, but the concern is as we get into early next week, is that sometimes you know it can be too much too soon,” Zach Taylor, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in College Park, Maryland, told CNN. “And that could lead to some incidents of flash flooding.”

When heavy rain falls over drought-stricken soil — which is often hard and cracked — it cannot soak into the ground. Instead, it quickly runs off into creeks and rivers which rise rapidly, increasing the risk for flash flooding.

“Anytime you get some intense rainfall rates in a short period of time, that could lead to flash flooding,” Taylor said. He said the rain rates could be overwhelming given the dry soil conditions.

The Weather Prediction Center has issued a slight risk — level 2 of 4 — for excessive rainfall on Sunday and Monday of next week.

“The axis of heaviest rainfall right now is centered mainly across northern Texas, impacting areas around Dallas,” Taylor said.

The forecast calls for widespread 3 to 5 inches of rainfall across the region. However, some forecast computer models are showing even higher amounts.

“The European (computer forecast model) the last couple of days, has shown on some of the higher end amounts, but we’re not, at least at this point, not expecting anything just like that,” Taylor said.

Monsoon eases Southwest drought

In the Southwest, recent “ample rains from the North American monsoon,” have helped to ease some of the worst drought conditions. Arizona has seen the most dramatic improvement in drought conditions of late — only 3% of the state was in extreme drought this week, down from 25% one month ago and the lowest it has been in exactly two years.

The Tier 2 water shortage announced this week on the Colorado River means Arizona is facing more drastic cuts in water usage beginning in January. But while the current rainfall is easing some of the short-term drought impacts, 90% of the Colorado River basin is still in drought, and years of deficient rain and snow have set up the current water shortage.

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