2011 Rainfall and Weather re-cap
Well 2011 started off fairly well, meaning 2010 had some moisture and moderate weather overall, but to re-cap the rainfall and weather of 2011 itself is to remember some record setting dryness. The words for “lack of rainfall” don’t roll easily off the tongue, nor do they have the dramatic impact of the words we use for excess rainfall and moisture. Words like “Flood” , “Downpour”, “Torrential”, and “Driving rain” get your attention. Even “Mud”, “Standing water” and “Soggy” are more interesting than the words we have for lack of rain: “Dryness”, “Aridity”, “Drought”, and “Parched”. Water is really what we and the surface of this planet are mostly made of, the stuff of life; so our language is rich in its description. It is equally poor in its description of its absence; water is still referred to as “elemental”, but there is no element of “dryness”. I suppose “Fire” and “Sun” are the elementals we’re talking about when we say “lack of water”. The first 6 months of 2011 had even more dryness than “Fire” and “Sun”, but lets start with January.
January of 2011 was the harbinger of things to come all right, the air was dry (relative humidity was low) and the winds did blow. The moisture in the ground from the months before was drawn up and pulled out, even though were still in the cold of winter. I’m part of CoCoRAHS (Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, Snow) , the network of over 10,000 people nation-wide who all bought the same rain gauge (at $20/ea., that’s 20K worth of plastic!), and report their “catch” every day, or their “zero” as the case may be, to the CoCoRAHS website (and you can too!). So even with all the variation we have from place to place, the month of January was dry for 90% of the state. When I say “dry”, I mean that I measured less than 1/100th of an inch for the whole month.
February always brings the promise of spring here in the desert South West, but this year that promise was put off— way off. The first couple of days of the month did break the month-long dry spell with just under a ¼” of moisture from a windy snowfall, but then the cold came sliding down from the east face of the Rockies from Colorado, backing into the state of NM, and sitting down on our mountains and valleys like a guest who has come to stay. We all remember that sub-zero freeze, but do we remember that paltry moisture total of about a ¼” for the whole month?
Well February finally warmed up and here comes March with another promise of heavy spring snows – but March came and went, leaving behind several severe dust storms and the scant 5/100ths of moisture which were surely blown away too, along with what little soil moisture remained of our dry, arid, windy, cold at times but warm overall, winter.
The stage was set for April, and she continued the windy song of March, more dust storms, and again the scant ¼” of rain was easily blown away. Las Huertas Creek usually begins flowing by now, and last year it flowed for months, making it all the way to the Rio Grande. This year it never made it to the Tecolote Rd. culverts. Our moisture was not adding up, on the contrary, it was being subtracted heavily, with “rainfall totals” becoming meaningless. How do you measure negative rainfall? The various factors of dryness can be measured, and taken together they add up to a word much more powerful than the ones in our lexicon, like the over-used “Drought”, or “Its so dry!”, or “We really need rain!”, or, especially, the scientific “Aridity Factor”. Do we have words for the totals of pan evaporation, plus low RH, plus high winds, plus low to no soil moisture, plus low to no rainfall, plus high UV index, plus a minimal snowpack that evaporates rather than melts into water? Floods are so much more dramatic, houses being swept away by waves of water, instant wreckage and destruction. A drought is a silent, long, and slow killer. The desert plants and animals are adaptive, they can go dormant, even die off, but people can’t go dormant, and don’t like the dying off part one bit.
May, and the change of seasons brings more hope, but that was dashed too this year as May was a continuation of the months before. A paltry splash of rain, quickly dried up and blown to dust.
But June, June was the capper—what was needed was not delivered, and was not needed was delivered in spades. The rain gauge here was dry the entire month, and the fires began their reign. The first day we smelled smoke, it was so thick we were sure the fire was next door, or at least in our neighborhood, but no, it was in Arizona! The Wallow fire pumped smoke into the Albuquerque area for days, then weeks, and when it wasn’t smoke from down south, the Pichaco fire near Santa Fe would swing its column of smoke and fire. Fire restrictions started closing every avenue traditionally used to beat the heat: the high ground in the forests were closed, access to the waters of the Rio Grande and bosque were closed, and heat climbed higher—many days over 100 degrees at 6,000’ elevation! Then, on a particularly windy day in late June, the big one started, the Las Conchas fire. It grew so big so fast that people 50 miles away from the flames felt threatened. It seemed like the whole state would go down in flames.
July did not follow June this year, no, July broke the pattern of the previous 6 months, and although it was not a big change, we had close to ¾” of rain in July, that being more than the previous 6 months combined. It really was better than nothing. What was also an improvement was not so much the rain, but the harsh negative moisture factors eased up a bit. The wind stopped, can you believe it? There were clouds and cloudy days throughout the month, the RH went up, the UV factor went down, and even though it was hotter than the 4th of July, we had a break from total agony. The moderation was slight, and the plants and native grasses were still dormant. The monsoon did not yet come in full force, and we still had a lot of summer ahead.
August, and the promise of monsoon rain, the promise of life, and this year we did receive some of that life blessing along with the death. August brought over 2” of rain to our valleys and hills, and again, the other factors were moderated: the intense sun by the clouds, the low humidity by the moisture in the ground, and the winds, well they were quiet. In fact, the grasses started to turn green and grow, the shock and trauma of the past months was being soothed.
Even though September rain totals were just over ½”, the month was cloudy, calm, cooler and not windy. The damage had been done though, and the fears of flash floods on the fire scars were real. The grasses too did not have quite enough of what they needed to grow a flower stalk and set seed this year, and by the end of September many of them were going dormant again.
In October we had several good rain storms, totaling up just over 2” for the month, but rain this late in the season, after such a harsh year, did little for the growth of this year’s crops. It did however, set the stage for the soil moisture to start building up again for next year.
After some cold snaps in October, November turned out to be unseasonably mild and calm. Not much moisture, with around a 1/3”, but at least the harsh, negative moisture conditions were not predominant, and the soil moisture could hold steady.
December has turned out to be unusual as well, just as a way of finishing up this all together exceptionally difficult weather year for us humans. This final month of 2011 has been consistently cold to frigid AND “wet”! With over an inch and a half of snow melt, and another inch of water still on the ground in the form of snow, the usually cold and dry month of December has broken that pattern and laid down a nice bed of moisture, not to mention snowpack, for the year to come — 2012.