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At onset of winter, much of Oklahoma remains in drought

It wasn't so very long ago that Oklahoma was drought-free and lakes and farm ponds were full to the brim.

But across much of the state, that hasn't been the case in months.

“We're dry," said Harold Stephens, the agriculture educator at the Atoka County Extension Service in Atoka. "Our biggest issue right now is water in ponds for livestock."

Wednesday marks the first day of winter, and much of Oklahoma will greet the season in drought. Forecasters say they don't expect the winter months to provide much relief.

Stephens said Atoka County saw enough rain in the early summer that ranchers there were able to cut hay. But since then, the rain has stopped and farm ponds have begun to dry up. Most ranchers have enough hay stored to get them through the winter, Stephens said, but if rain doesn't come soon, it could spell trouble.

Atoka County is one of six counties in southeast Oklahoma that are in extreme drought, according to a U.S. Drought Monitor report released last week. Portions of Pittsburg, Bryan, Coal, Pushmataha and Choctaw counties also fell under that designation.

Although those counties make up the most severe section of the state's drought, nearly 70 percent of the state is in moderate to severe drought, according to the report.

Driven in large part by a lack of rain, another key factor in the drought has been a warmer-than-average autumn, said state climatologist Gary McManus.

Up until last weekend's bone-chilling weather, Oklahoma had seen one of its warmest autumns on record, he said. High temperatures in the mid-90s persisted through the middle of November across much of the state, several weeks later than usual.

When relatively warm temperatures and high winds persist late into autumn, they generally increase evaporation, McManus said. Those warmer conditions also mean vegetation stays alive and continues sapping soil moisture longer than it typically would.

The winter months aren't likely to bring much relief. In a seasonal forecast report released last week by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center, forecasters predict increased chances for a warmer, drier winter in Oklahoma and across much of the southern United States.

In the same report, forecasters predicted drought would persist across most of Oklahoma at least through the end of March.

Those predictions are based in part on the development of a La Nina weather pattern. La Nina is a cooling of ocean surface temperatures in the central and east-central Pacific Ocean near the equator.

That cooling trend drives a number of weather patterns around the world, and typically means drier-than-usual conditions in Oklahoma. But McManus said this year's La Nina pattern isn't likely to have the same long-lasting effects as the powerful pattern in the winter of 2010 and 2011 that plunged the state into a drought that would stretch on for five years.

"This La Nina is very weak," McManus said. "It's in critical condition, if you want to put it in medical terms."

Silas Allen

Silas Allen is a news reporter for The Oklahoman. He is a Missouri native and a 2008 graduate of the University of Missouri. Read more ›