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Published: Wednesday, April 4, 2001 4:10 a.m. EDT

Seven dry years seen for state
Pacific currents to blame for long-term drought

 
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By CATHERINE CLABBY, Staff Writer

It has been raining for days in the Triangle, but state climatologist Sethu Raman has drought on his mind. Evidence is mounting, he says, that a recently identified cooling pattern in the Pacific Ocean could prolong drought conditions in this region for another seven years, especially in the western part of North Carolina.

"The public often feels that things are going to be OK if we get a couple of days of rain in a row," he said. "They don't understand."

This pattern, called the cool phase of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, occurs when central and eastern Pacific waters near the equator become cooler than their average temperature. That shifts the jet stream that travels over North America to the north, pushing many rain-carrying storms away from the Southeast.

"If it persists for more than a few years, which it typically does, then we could be in for a prolonged period of much-lower-than-normal precipitation statewide, particularly in western North Carolina in the summer," said Raman, professor of meteorology at N.C. State University and director of the State Climate Office.

"Municipalities would be well advised to plan for long-term water use and conservation measures now," he said.

Meteorologists did not know about the PDO, which can last a decade, until the 1990s. A fisheries scientist gave a name to the pattern in 1996 when studying the connection between Alaska salmon populations and the Pacific climate.

Now scientists are tracking its effects in the past by studying Pacific water temperature trends and rainfall records. Raman's office, for one, is analyzing 100 years of data from weather stations across the state to better assess the effects of PDO. North Carolina has suffered drought conditions since 1998.

Research by the State Climate Office so far shows that cool-phase PDOs occurred in the 1920s, 1950s and 1980s, when this state had some of its driest periods, he said.

In the meantime, a cooling of Pacific waters has been observed since 1998, indicating that below-normal rainfall, averaging four to six inches during 1998, 1999 and 2000, could be linked to the Pacific water shifts, Raman said. North Carolina's rainfall remained lower than average despite the heavy rain from hurricanes Bonnie, Dennis, Floyd and Irene in 1998 and 1999.

It is such hurricanes, or tropical storms, that could protect the eastern part of North Carolina from the worst of the drying phase to come, Raman said. In fact, forecasters expect that the Southeast could see a higher number of tropical storms in coming years as a result, in part, of higher-than-average water temperatures in portions of the Atlantic.

So far, the central and western part of North Carolina has felt the drought's effects more than the East, said Tony Young, chairman of the state's Drought Monitoring Council. Several communities have had to ask, sometimes even require, residents to use less water. Forty water systems statewide called for water use restrictions during 1999. Greensboro and Asheville are among the communities that have been hit hardest.

Drought, which Raman describes as a deficit of 4 to 12 inches of rain a year in a state that usually soaks up 50 inches, affects more than people's abilities to keep their grass pretty during a scorching Tar Heel summer. Drought can slow production on farms and in factories, which use water to cool equipment or process waste. It drops stream levels. And it can leave undeveloped areas vulnerable to fire, Young said.

"March was a nice, wet month," Young said. "It brought some good short-term relief. Whether that's enough to provide relief for the long term, we don't know."

Raman, who comes from a dry region in India where people sometimes must spend more for water than for food, wants to get word out on the PDO so people understand that larger trends are shaping the weather they encounter each day. That way people can better plan for the long term, he said.

Staff writer Catherine Clabby can be reached at 956-2414 or at cclabby@nando.com


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