Bone-dry state needs a big swig of rainfall


Florida is experiencing extremely dry conditions which could change with the new hurricane season.

The Associated Press
Published: Friday, June 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, June 1, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

The good news is the drought might soon be over.

Facts

Storm forecast

The Tropical Meteorology Project at Colorado State University makes the following predictions for the 2007 hurricane season:

  • 9 hurricanes (average is 5.9)
  • 17 named storms (average is 9.6)
  • 85 named storm days (average is 49.1)
  • 40 hurricane days (average is 24.5)
  • 5 intense (Category 3, 4 or 5) hurricanes (average is 2.3)
  • 11 intense hurricane days (average is 5.0)

The bad news is one or more of the nine hurricanes predicted for this season might need to make landfall to end it.

Two weather reports released Thursday illustrate the yo-yo effect of Florida's climate, where conditions can quickly go from bone dry to flooded.

The U.S. Drought Monitor shows North Florida is enduring extreme to severe drought conditions. But the Tropical Meteorology Project predicts 17 named storms during the hurricane season that starts today, with a 50 percent chance a major hurricane will hit Florida.

Coincidentally, forecasters were eyeing a low pressure system Thursday sitting in the northwest Caribbean that could acquire tropical characteristics in the coming days and drop significant rainfall.

"There's some uncertainty where that feature is going to make landfall," said Eric Zappe, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Jacksonville, who indicated the system could hit land anywhere between Tampa and Mobile, Ala. "If it does make landfall, it'll be sometime Sunday, possibly as early as Saturday."

Zappe said the system isn't expected to form into a tropical storm.

In the meantime, the Gainesville area will have an increased chance of rain starting today thanks to the increased moisture in the area from the system. Today's forecast includes a 30 to 40 percent chance of rain, which will increase to 50 percent Saturday. Zappe said the low pressure system's path will determine rain chances after that.

Mark Svoboda, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center, said a big storm might be needed to end drought conditions in the state.

"It is kind of a double-edged sword," he said.

He said about 90 percent of Florida - pretty much everything but the southern tip - is experiencing drought conditions. While the record-low level of Lake Okeechobee has been the state's big drought news, North Florida has also seen drying bodies of water at near record lows.

The Santa Fe River at Fort White was measured this week at 21.09 feet above sea level. A record low of 21.02 feet was reported in November 2002, according to the Suwannee River Water Management District.

Svoboda said Florida and much of the Southeast has been in drought for most of the past decade. The dry conditions were interrupted in the state in 2004, when four hurricanes crisscrossed the peninsula.

A similar scenario could happen this hurricane season, which lasts from today through Nov. 30. In its update of a forecast issued in April, the Colorado State University-based Tropical Meteorology Project forecasts an extremely active season with seven more storms than average.

Of course, forecasters also predicted an active season last year - then were surprised when no hurricanes hit the state.

But last year's lull was influenced by El Nino phenomenon, said Phil Klotzbach, researcher with meteorology project. This year has meant the end of the phenomenon, he said, which warms the Pacific Ocean and can disrupt hurricane formation in the Atlantic.

"Since El Nino has dissipated we're expecting to have a pretty active season this year," he said.

He said the three El Nino years in the past decade - 1997, 2002 and 2006 - have coincided with the hurricane seasons with the least activity.

This year, conditions are either neutral or trending toward the Pacific cooling called La Nina. Either scenario should have no effect on tropical storms, Klotzbach said.

Florida will either need tropical storms or a return to regular afternoon thunderstorms to break the drought, said Douglas LeComte, drought specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"It's a tough situation," he said. "You certainly don't want to wish a tropical storm on anybody."

But he said much of the Southeast needs at least 10 inches of rain before drought conditions end. Soil moisture in the region is as dry as it has been over the past six years, he said.

"I think we're pretty close to the peak of the drought right now," he said. But he said a wet summer could soon change those conditions in Florida.

In Alachua County, Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park shows how conditions can change from one extreme to the other.

An active storm season in 1998 filled the prairie and flooded U.S. 441. The hurricanes of 2004 had a similar impact, leading officials to take measures the following year to prevent water from again inundating the roadway.

But now the prairie has dried to the point where water has receded to the area around Alachua Sink. Alligators are also concentrated in that area, leading officials to close the nearby La Chua Trail last month due to safety concerns.

It remains to be seen whether the 2006 season fills the prairie and waterways once again. The meteorology project's Klotzbach said the residents can only hope the state experiences less than a full-fledged hurricane.

"Hopefully, a tropical storm - that would be perfect," he said.

Nathan Crabbe can be reached at 352-338-3176 or crabben@gville sun.com.

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