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New Mexico's drought worsens with lack of monsoon moisture

We're now on the downhill side of the 2020 North American Monsoon season, which up until this point would be better called a "non-soon," given the overall lack of rainfall this year's monsoon has provided. New Mexico experienced a relatively short burst of monsoon rains during the latter half of July, but as the calendar turned over into August, the monsoon moisture tap was shut off thanks to a sprawling area of high pressure that has set up shop over New Mexico and Arizona. New Mexico is now under the influence of a blocking pattern that is preventing any appreciable moisture from reaching the state, aside from some isolated high-terrain showers and storms. The exception would be the northeastern corner of the state thanks to a series of disturbances and backdoor fronts that have been the focal point for showers and storms for places like Raton and Clayton.

The abysmal performance by this year's monsoon season comes on the heels of a winter with meager snowpack. While there was significant precipitation during the past winter, temperatures were unseasonably warm, resulting in relatively high snow levels. This year we also went straight from winter right into summer without much of a spring. In less than two weeks this past April in Albuquerque, we went from having snow to 90-degree heat. Once the heat arrived, it was here to stay.

Drought map for New Mexico for August 17, 2020 (left), compared to June 15, 2020 (right).

All of this has intensified the drought over New Mexico. Over the past two months, we've see drought conditions expand to encompass all of New Mexico, with severe drought covering nearly half of the state. Large swaths of the eastern plains and northern New Mexico along the Colorado border are experiencing extreme drought conditions.

The bad news is that things are probably going to get worse before they get better. NOAA's Climate Prediction Center is forecasting La Nina to develop in the Pacific this autumn or winter, which typically spells persistent warm and dry conditions for New Mexico. Looking at the pattern we're experiencing right now, it is eerily similar to what we saw in 2017 and 2018. Recall that 2017 started off with a relatively warm and wet winter and spring as we came out of an El Nino, but a blocking pattern began to establish itself over the western United States during the summer of 2017, resulting in a dismal monsoon that year. The exceptionally warm and dry conditions peaked during the winter of 2017-2018 when Albuquerque went 96 consecutive days without measurable precipitation from October 2017 to January 2018. More significantly, Albuquerque almost saw its first-ever snow-free winter, which was thwarted when the only measurable snow for that season (0.2 inches) was recorded at the Sunport on February 20, 2018. That same winter was abnormally cold and wet for the eastern United States. In fact, places that typically don't experience snow, like Tallahassee, Florida and Shreveport, Louisiana, received more snow than Albuquerque that winter. The extreme warm and dry conditions encompassed the Intermountain West, with well below normal snowfall stretching from New Mexico northward into Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.

Exceptionally dry conditions continued into the spring of 2018, resulting in widespread closure of state and national forests throughout New Mexico as officials feared for an epic fire season. Effective forest management strategies combined with restricting public access to New Mexico's forests staved off widespread wildfires, although a few major fires did erupt, notably the Ute Park Fire that scorched the area between Eagle's Nest and Cimarron including the parts of the Philmont Boy Scout Ranch, and the 416 Fire just over the border in Colorado that charred over 50,000 acres of national forest and threatened homes in the surrounding area. The saving grace for the region's cities and farmers was abundant snowfall over the Colorado Rockies the previous winter. Plenty of stored water helped farmers and cities weather the 2017-18 drought.

As we look toward this upcoming autumn and winter, all of the ingredients are in place for a repeat of the 2017-18 winter season. To make matters worse, is unlike 2017-18, there is much less water in storage this go-around, meaning if we see the extreme dry conditions we saw three years ago, the impacts to farmers and population centers will be much greater. Farmers will likely see their water allotments cut, while officials may turn voluntary conservation efforts into mandated water rationing in major cities and towns statewide if the drought gets too severe. We're not to that point yet, but it's something to start thinking about.

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