Dry conditions persist amid predictions of increased future drought driven by climate change

By: - June 2, 2022 5:12 am
Dry cracked ground near long grass

Short-term droughts are expected to increase in the summer. (Getty Images)

For a brief stretch in early May, the state was drought-free for the first time in a few years. Those ephemeral conditions evaporated just one week later. They may be increasingly rare with future summertime drought driven by a warming climate. And while more precipitation is predicted in future years, that won’t be enough to stop it. 

By May 17, drought conditions had returned, shifting from the north of the state, which had been persistently dry, to the southeast. With droughts come consequences, as wells run dry and forest fires are ignited, like the Bemis fire in May that burned over 100 acres in the White Mountains, a significant swath in a state that sees around 250 acres burned in a typical year.  

Climate scientists predict drought conditions are likely to become more common in the state, driven by low snowpack, warming temperatures, and intermittent if extreme rain events. They say that will necessitate resilience and adaptation, and urge residents and policymakers to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change.

“The big concern is that the snowpack this year was pretty awful,” said Ted Diers, assistant director of the water division for the Department of Environmental Services. “So yeah, we’ve been watching closely. There’s good signs and bad signs.”

One bad sign is the southeastern part of the state that’s currently classified as abnormally dry by the U.S. Drought Monitor. It makes up around 11.5 percent of the state, and is likely to remain abnormally dry this week, according to Diers. 

The U.S. Drought Monitor showed abnormally dry conditions in the southeastern part of the state in late May. (Screenshot)

But it can be tricky to pinpoint how bad drought will be later in the summer or whether parts of the state will experience it at all. Right now, there’s still no clear trend from the three-month precipitation outlook, meaning the state could get either more or less rain than normal, Diers said. 

The temperature outlook, on the other hand, shows a 60 percent chance of above-average temperatures, one factor that could drive drought.  

Looking further ahead, climate scientists have found that New Hampshire will become both warmer and wetter, changes that are already underway when conditions today are compared to those at the turn of the 20th century. But the increase in wetness, they have found, doesn’t solve the drought problem.

“More of that rain is going to come in fewer events, so we’re likely also going to have more drought because our summers are going to be a lot hotter,” said UNH climate scientist Cameron Wake during a March presentation on the forthcoming 2022 New Hampshire State Climate Assessment Report. Wake was one of the report’s authors, along with Mary Stampone, the state climatologist.

New Hampshire currently gets an average of 43 inches of precipitation per year. Wake said that is projected to increase by about 15 percent in the next century, with most of it likely occurring in the spring, not summer when temperatures are expected to increase by 5.4 to 9.5 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century.

That is the perfect equation for drought. 

“We don’t have any more inputs of moisture, but with warmer temperatures, we have many more exports of moisture through evaporation and evapotranspiration,” he said.  Evapotranspiration is when water evaporates into the atmosphere or is sucked up by plants.

That means short-term droughts are expected to increase in the summer, not because there’s less rainfall but because precipitation evaporates more quickly due to warmer temperatures, Wake said.

“In some ways, what we’ve seen over the course of the last five to six years with those sorts of summertime droughts that we’ve had are a window into what we expect to happen in the future,” he said.

“The past two summers have been some of the driest on record,” Stampone said during the same presentation on the New Hampshire climate report.

Rising temperatures and increased precipitation often go hand in hand, Stampone said, since warmer air can pull more moisture from soil and vegetation. Located near warm offshore ocean currents, New England can expect the total amount and intensity of precipitation to increase as temperatures rise, Stampone said. The West, in contrast, is getting drier as temperatures rise.

This year, the cool and relatively wet spring helped keep some dryness at bay. And that’s a good thing for residents. The Department of Environmental Services has not yet received reports of water restriction or well issues. Only a few people have applied for state help to replace their well, according to John Pasquale, a project manager at the department.

In comparison, last year, with the lingering effects of a drought that began in 2020, 110 people applied for and received funding to replace wells that had run dry due to drought. During a deep drought in 2016, hundreds of wells ran dry. The aid program was open only for people who qualified based on their income and doesn’t reflect those who had to pay out of pocket to replace their wells.

Diers said, with time, people are adapting to increased drought conditions. Water suppliers around the state have made efforts to conserve water and detect leaks and people have diversified their water supplies and made efforts at efficiency.

“People are starting to learn to live with droughts. As we go through them, it’s hopefully going to be less impactful on people’s daily lives,” he said.

Whether these changes will be enough to weather the droughts of the future is an open question. 

“Climate change is already here,” Wake said. “It’s already affecting you. It’s already affecting our economy. It’s already affecting our ecosystems. And in some ways, we now have a taste of what climate change is going to be in the future.”

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s energy and environment reporter. She previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.

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