Source: Gary McManus, Oklahoma Climatological Survey
Following is a brief look at some of Oklahoma’s droughts through the years:
The event consisted of two severe multi-year episodes, interrupted by 1915, one of the wettest years of the 20th Century. This event comprises the lowest ten-year statewide rainfall on record. 1910 was the smallest annual rainfall statewide and for four of Oklahoma’s nine climate divisions.
The drought of 1930-40 in Oklahoma, the climate’s contribution to the Dust Bowl, was not as statistically severe as those of the 1910s or 1950s, but it left the deepest scar on the state’s economy and psyche. The Dust Bowl was at its worst in Oklahoma during the mid-1930s, when severe drought, intense heat, immature and/or inappropriate agricultural practices and overall economic conditions combined to cause the greatest exodus of citizens in state history. Reaction to the event revolutionized farm and conservation practices in much of the United States.
The drought at this time was accompanied by intense summer heat, insect invasions and crop failures. The state’s “Wheat Belt,” in central and north-central Oklahoma, was particularly injured by the event. The mid-50s years of 1952-1956 were easily the driest five consecutive years in state history. Ironically, 1957 was the wettest year on record, one year after 1956 became the second-driest year on record.
This drought began in October 1995 and ended in May of 1996 and helped produce the smallest wheat yield in state history. This eight-month period coincided with the growing months of the state’s winter wheat crop. As a result, this major component of the state’s economy was decimated. The statewide-averaged winter wheat yield of 19.0 bu/acre was the smallest in years. Massive sell-offs depressed prices in the cattle industry, another large component of the state’s economy. Fire danger rose throughout the winter, as soils and dormant vegetation became increasingly dry. Wildfire ravaged prairie and forest landscape in February 1996.
This drought from April to September 1998 affected the southern two-thirds of the state, particularly southwestern Oklahoma. The associated heat wave with this drought decimated the summer crops with damage estimated by the Department of Agriculture of nearly $2 billion. Ironically, a bumper wheat crop was harvested during this drought.
An extended period of unusually dry weather began in early August and lasted for 2 months. Many parts of the state did not receive rain in August, with portions of southwest and south central Oklahoma remaining dry for almost 90 days, starting in June. Due largely to Oklahoma’s major crops of wheat, cotton, and peanuts, which greatly suffered, total agricultural losses were estimated between $600 million and $1 billion statewide.
Most of the northwestern two-thirds of Oklahoma suffered from protracted drought from late spring 2001 through early summer 2002. Damage was worst in the state’s western half, especially in the panhandle, where the 14-month June-through-July precipitation of 15.5 inches was exceeded (in a negative sense) only during the Dust Bowl years of 1936-37. The wheat harvest of spring 2002 was severely damaged. Agricultural damages among all crops and livestock easily surpassed $500 million, with a final number nearer to $1 billion. Agricultural disaster was declared in 30 Oklahoma counties.
The drought episode began in late winter of 2005 in southeastern Oklahoma, which then expanded north to affect most of the eastern third of the state by summer’s end. Some improvement was followed by very dry autumn and early winter periods, allowing for a marked westward expansion of drought across the state and encompassing much of the winter wheat crop cycle. Drought intensity ebbed and waned throughout 2006 both spatially and temporally, with the most severe conditions located in the northwestern half of the state in the early winter of 2006.