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Recent drought pales in comparison to 1930s, 1950s

12/17/2013

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

There's plenty of phrases used to describe just how dry it's been.

Consider:

* It's so dry the birds are building their nests out of barbed wire.

* It's so dry the catfish are carrying canteens.

* It's been dry so long we only got a quarter-inch of rain during Noah's flood.

* Dry as the heart of a haystack.

But this time around, what really counts is how periods of dry weather stacks up, this notion of which drought was the worst?

And it's a question frequently asked in the wake of the 2012 drought.

Surprisingly, there's a couple answers to the question: "How does the drought of 2012 compare to earlier droughts in Kansas."

That's the title of a paper compiled by S.A. Anandhi, a research assistant professor at Kansas State University, and Mary Knapp, the state's climatologist.

Simply stated, it didn't compare to the likes of the droughts of either 1935 or 1956, as far as the full year is concerned.

But it excelled in terms of a three-month period, considered a short-term drought. And July 2012 "experienced the most severe drought since 1896 in Kansas."

That's based on state averages only using the standardized precipitation index -- a measure of drought using only precipitation amounts.

Knapp took the data further, looking at how the year compares based on the more robust and telling Palmer Drought Severity Index, a measure of the duration and intensity of the long-term drought-inducing patterns.

Based on the Palmer index, there's no comparison: 2012 was tough, but it didn't even fit into the top 10. In fact, 2012 was in 14th place.

Top honors fell to 1956, which in Hays was the driest year on record. That's when 9.21 inches of precipitation fell during the course of the entire year.

The year 1934 came in second, in Hays a 16.06-inches-of-precipitation year.

Last year's precipitation total amounted to 14.39 inches, but it was the temperature -- with highs in the region rivaling those seen in Death Valley -- that made 2013 so difficult.

Knapp's calculations made it clear the droughts of the 1950s were the deepest and most severe, capturing four of the top 10 spots as far as the depth of the drought. The drought of the Dirty Thirties was a close second, also capturing four of the top 10 spots, just higher on the list.

In ninth place was 1940, a relatively normal year for Hays.

The rankings prepared by Knapp also cover the entire state.

While this year's weather isn't complete yet, it's still going to be a year of ill repute as far as the Palmer Drought Index is concerned, now standing in 19th place -- a ranking based mainly on conditions early in the year.