From Drought to Deluge: In 2021, Dry Conditions Give Way to Historic Rains
This year's summer rains have transformed our region, to stunning effect. Many ephemeral lakes – including the life-giving playas of the West Texas plains – have filled for the first time in more than a decade. The Salt Lake at Salt Flat – beneath the Guadalupe Mountains – looks like the Caribbean. It's a social media sensation, and law enforcement has had to intervene, to inform swimmers that they're splashing and wading on private property. The grasslands, hills and mountains around Alpine are an electric, almost lurid green. The Chisos Basin, in Big Bend National Park, received more than 10 inches of rain in August alone. And most of September – typically our region's wettest month – lies ahead.
You'd be pardoned for feeling a sense of whiplash. Last summer was the driest ever recorded in West Texas. The monsoon failed for a second consecutive year, and the impacts of the drought were intense. Even creosote bushes – those rugged desert plants – showed the strain, dying en masse in parts of the Trans-Pecos.
What's caused this year's abundant rainfall? And what are its implications?
What a difference a year makes. Rick Hluchan is a National Weather Service meteorologist in Midland.
“Tell me about it,” Hluchan said. “There's no way I thought we'd be where we are now. We were thinking the drought would continue. But we definitely changed things in a big way. And I'm very thankful for that.”
In fall 2020, large parts of West Texas were in “exceptional drought,” and Hluchan wasn't betting on that to change.
Winter was indeed dry. But in June, the pattern shifted. In late June and early July, the Permian Basin repeatedly set single-day records for rainfall. Midland-Odessa hadn't witnessed such repeated rounds of heavy rain in two decades.
“At my house I recorded almost 10 inches of rain, about 9.8 inches, in seven days,” Hluchan said. “And we saw 7 inches of rain all last year. That gives you a perspective of what we're seeing – it was unbelievable. And water was coming from places we didn't expect it to.”
Midland-Odessa has grown substantially since the last comparable rainfall. More concrete means less ground to absorb water, and dozens of homes flooded.
There were episodes of severe weather. On June 16, in Lamesa, north of Midland, 5 inches of rain fell in a few hours. The rain was accompanied by a “microburst,” bringing powerful, highly localized winds. Those winds reached speeds of more than 110 mph. FEMA estimated $10 million in damages.
The Texas mountains typically receive significant rainfall beginning in July, or even August. But summer rains also began in June in the high country. It's been one of the 10 wettest summers on record in the Davis and Guadalupe ranges.
With climate and weather, everything is connected, and summer rains here are influenced by factors as distant as the South Pacific Ocean. But a primary force shaping our summer weather is known as the subtropical ridge.
Early each summer, air uplifted at the equator descends on the U.S., creating an area of high atmospheric pressure. Conditions beneath this “ridge” are dry and hot. It often forms in the Four Corners area. In 2011, it became locked over Central Texas – driving historic drought throughout the state.
This year was different. The ridge shifted to the north – settling over the Northern Rockies and plains – and creating record-breaking heat from Seattle to the Dakotas.
With the high-pressure system lodged to the north, moisture from both the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific has been able to move into West Texas. Our wet summer, it turns out, is intertwined with the brutal heat wave that killed hundreds in the Pacific Northwest in July.
In an arid region, rain is almost always received as a blessing. It's a boon for livestock producers, and for wildlife. But it has its shadow side. Flooding has claimed lives this year. And the lush grasses flourishing now from Andrews to Alpine are fuel-in-the-making. Spring means dry, windy weather – and Hluchan said there is the potential for catastrophic wildfires next year.
“All of that fuel is just going to be sitting there dead next year in the late winter and spring, ready to go,” he said. “We definitely want to prepare our partners for the upcoming fire season and let them know it could be very active.”
Scientists are increasingly confident identifying the role of global warming in specific weather events. In July, an international team of experts said the Northwest's fatal heat wave would have been “virtually impossible” without human-driven climate change. Scientists project hotter and drier conditions for most of the Southwest, as well as more intense but isolated rainfall and greater extremes.
Our region's swing from historic drought to historic rainfall might seem to fit those projections. But Hluchan and other meteorologists say that, for now, this rainy summer is best understood as part of a perennial ebb and flow.
It's certainly something to be savored. Meteorologists can't say whether this summer marks the beginning of a trend. But it's a reminder that West Texas plains and deserts are a place of special dynamism and drama.
“We get some big and crazy weather out here,” Hluchan said. “A lot of people don't know that, that come and live out here. They think it's just a hot and dry place – that's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of West Texas. But it's really a place of a lot more than that.”
An earlier version of this story mistakenly identified the Salt Lake at Salt Flat as Linda Lake. Linda Lake is another ephemeral salt playa, in the same area.