It seems like it just stopped raining. Months on end of record rainfall continued well into this year. But so little has fallen in what has been a hot September that a “flash drought” developed quickly across Maryland.
Virtually all of the state is considered “abnormally dry,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. And a third of the state, including Anne Arundel, Harford and Howard counties, is in “moderate” drought.
Though groundwater and streamflow levels remain mostly healthy, the about-face from record-setting 2018 precipitation is stressing crops just as harvest time arrives and could dull the colors of this fall’s foliage.
It had been nearly two weeks without rain at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport when a hundredth of an inch of precipitation fell there Thursday. If the dry spell continues — and it remains in the forecast into next week, along with unseasonably hot conditions — the effects could grow more significant and lasting.
This month is expected to end as one of Baltimore’s hottest and driest Septembers on record.
“This is really developing into a bigger problem than we had anticipated,” said Chuck Schuster, an educator with the University of Maryland Extension.
The drought has been developing gradually, with dry conditions for about the past six weeks. But it worsened rapidly over the week that ended Tuesday morning, the cutoff for the Drought Monitor’s latest weekly update. As of a week earlier, no part of Maryland was yet in drought, and just 64% of the state was considered abnormally dry.
Four months ago, the region was wrapping up its wettest 365-day period on record, with 76.2 inches recorded at BWI as of May 13. That was four inches more than the record precipitation that fell across the region in 2018, which saw the most dramatic surges coming from May through December. But the rain eased later in May and June, and normal levels of precipitation were observed across the state for the first half of 2019.
But a lack of recent rain and unseasonably hot conditions have combined now to produce what meteorologists called a “flash” drought — like a flash flood, when waters rise rapidly, only the opposite.
“This essentially means that the short-term dryness and heat have quickly overcome the long-term record wetness we experienced between April 2018 and the early summer of 2019, and impacts from this short-term dryness are rapidly increasing,” National Weather Service hydrologist Jason Elliott wrote Thursday.
It has created quick problems for farmers like Betsy Scible of Y Worry Farm in Davidsonville.
“We’ve only had two inches of rain since July,” she said. “The corn crop was not horrible but the soybeans, they were looking good, but now the plants have have shriveled, and the pods are not filling out.”
Though the drought is coming toward the end of the growing season, Schuster said it is harming soybean crops and could slow the germination of next year’s wheat, which is planted in the fall. Food crops like garlic, broccoli and even strawberries are planted in the fall, too, and will need to be watered if dry conditions persist, he said.
Of the popular fall crops that end up in farmers markets, apples are faring well, but Scible said her pumpkin crop is poorer than usual. She is bringing in pumpkins grown in an area of northern Maryland that got more rain to supplement the supply of future jack-o’-lanterns at the Y Worry pumpkin patch.
Across the state, other areas under moderate drought conditions include Cecil and Prince George’s counties, parts of Southern Maryland, and across the heart of Maryland’s agriculture industry in the middle Eastern Shore.
Aside from crops, the hot and dry weather could impact fall foliage across the state. AccuWeather.com predicted this week that peak leaf colors may arrive late, appearing in much of Central Maryland in late October, and around mid-October in areas at slightly higher elevations north and west of Baltimore.
According to the Foliage Network, autumn leaves are at their most brilliant when days are mild and evenings are cool, but not below freezing. The best foliage comes after “a warm and wet spring, typical summer conditions, and mild, sunny autumn days with cool evenings,” the network says.
September is likely to end as Baltimore’s second-driest on record, and through Thursday ranked as the region’s fifth-hottest September since record-keeping began in 1872.
Just 0.16 inches of rain has fallen so far this month at BWI, behind only September 1884, when only 0.09 inches of rain fell. It’s a dramatic change from last September, when more than 9 inches of rain fell, and from a wet trend spanning the past 18 months.
Still, stream flow levels are close to normal around Central Maryland despite the lack of rain. At times of low precipitation, more groundwater tends to seep out and keep streams going, and groundwater levels are healthy, said Jonathan Dillow, a supervisory hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
“We’re nowhere near a flow level that is of concern,” he said. “We’ll see where we go.”
Keith Krichinsky, the executive director of Foot’s Forecast based in Hampstead, said he doesn’t see much rain in the next week or so to change things.
“The warm sunny weather is basically going to continue for another week before any of the more traditional fall-like temperatures come in,” he said.
But they will come. Next weekend, around Oct. 5, could see some cooler weather finally sweep into the region, potentially with precipitation in tow, Krichinsky said.
“We could see overnight temps in the low 40s,” he said. “We might see temperatures stay in the mid-60s for highs and with a drop off that significant — from mid-80s down into the low 60s — that usually is accompanied by a strong cold front, and those fronts typically do bring showers with them.”