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No drought yet, but dry spell has its drawbacks
Many residents of Bradford County rejoiced this year with the early exchange of parkas for shorts and tank tops. Warm, dry weather has pervaded the county for much of 2012. Precipitation has been the exception, not the rule – a stark contrast from last year, one of the wettest in recent history.
However, the lack of rain has caused its share of problems as well. The area’s dryness has made brush fires easier to start and spread, and some soils have dried up as planting season nears for area farmers.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, Bradford County is just inside the section of northeastern Pennsylvania considered to be “abnormally dry.” While the designation stops short of putting the county into drought territory, an abnormally dry area is more prone to brush fires and dry soils.
Bradford County has seen short-term drought indicators in the past few months because of the lack of precipitation in late winter and spring, said meteorologist Jim Brewster of the National Weather Service. Because there was no leftover snow pack from winter, soils lost much-needed moisture that normally would have been provided by the spring thaw, he said.
Towanda weather watcher Wayne Vanderpool said he has measured about eight inches of precipitation between January and mid-April, about two and a half inches less than the average of 10.5 inches.
By contrast, last April was one of the wetter ones in recent memory, with 20 days of measurable precipitation, according to Vanderpool’s records. Last April, Vanderpool measured 10.4 inches of precipitation – more in one month than the county has seen so far in all of 2012.
While this year has been dry, Vanderpool stopped short of labeling this an abnormal spring just yet. Just the top few inches of soil have dried, and water tables appear to be minimally affected so far.
“We can make it up in one big storm,” he said.
The dry conditions have helped contribute to the spread of brush fires. The NWS has issued several “red flag warnings” for the area in the past month, indicating a higher risk of brush fire than normal.
Brewster said the red flag warnings are issued based on conditions including minimum relative humidity, amount of rain, wind speed and moisture content of grasses, sticks and smaller trees. Under fire weather conditions, any fires that develop will be capable of rapid spread and growth, according to the NWS.
The lack of rain keeps dead underbrush dry, and high winds help fires to spread, making outdoor burning dangerous at times. “The fire concern is the main worry right now,” Vanderpool said.
The weather has allowed area farmers to get a head start on the growing season, said Tony Liguori of the Bradford County Conservation District. The effect even extended to maple syrup producers, who were able to start early with decent results.
“It wasn’t the best of years,” Liguori said of the recent maple syrup yield, “but it wasn’t the worst, either.”
However, Liguori said that with freezing low temperatures forecast for the coming nights, certain plants – fruits, particularly – are at risk of damage.
Because there was no hard freeze this winter, there will also be more insects in the area this summer, he said.
One area farmer said she may have to use creative ways to keep her crops watered if the weather continues to be hot and dry. Sheila Russell, manager of Russell Sprouts Farm in Rome, said the dry weather is “a little disheartening, after all the rain we had last year.”
Russell said a planned irrigation system to water crops from a pond on the farm’s property has been expedited in anticipation of a possible dry spell. The few crops that have been planted so far this growing season are being watered by hand, something that won’t be feasible once the entire crop is planted.
Since the farm adheres to organic principles, Russell said the crew will be relying on mulch, leaves and newspaper in the fields to hold in moisture and keep the soil cool. The technique “will make our watering efforts go further,” she said.
According to the NWS, this week’s forecast shows a slight chance of showers Thursday night, with the probability of rain ramping up to 50 percent by Saturday.
As for the rest of spring, Brewster said the area may still receive a long, soaking rain before the drier summer months hit, which would ease drought and fire threats. A solid rainfall could bring rain totals back to average levels for the year, he said.
The NWS’s seasonal outlook shows that the county will likely stay out of drought status through at least June, but “it’s definitely something that we have to watch,” Brewster said.