Severe drought continues across eastern N.C., Outer Banks despite recent rainfall

N.C. Drought Monitor map published Dec. 9, 2021.

North Carolina’s Drought Management Advisory Council has expanded its severe drought category for portions of the Blue Ridge Mountains through the Sandhills, most of the southern coastal plains, and along the entire eastern coastal area.

DMAC publishes its drought map every Thursday morning. It is updated and submitted on the Tuesday prior for inclusion in U.S. Drought Monitor. Any rainfall that occurs after 8 a.m. Tuesdays is considered in analyzing the following week’s map.

Wednesday’s rains allowed the state to rescind an opening burning ban in 67 counties, including the Outer Banks and northeastern North Carolina. A ban on fires within 100 feet of a structure in Dare County, and on beach fires in Cape Hatteras National Seashore and the Town of Nags Head has also been dropped.

Virtually all of the state, except a few localized areas near the western Virginia border, are experiencing dry conditions based on factors including streamflow, groundwater levels, reservoir levels, soil moisture, and fire danger.

The DMAC says current conditions and forecast models which reflect the warm, dry conditions that a La Nina weather pattern often brings, could lead to drought conditions continuing through the winter months.

“Much of the state has been in a dry pattern over the past three to six months, with generally above-normal temperatures and few to no tropical systems bringing widespread rainfall relief,” said Corey Davis, Assistant State Climatologist with the NC State Climate Office.

“The dryness has been especially pronounced since early October,” Davis said. “Less than one inch of rain fell in most areas last month. It’s the driest November in 90 years in North Carolina.”

The gradual deficit in October and more extreme shortfall in November has resulted in many areas being four to seven inches below normal over the last three months.

The chance of rain in the current forecast through the weekend is not expected to make much impact on the drought status since it may only provide 0.5 inches to 1.0 inches which is the normal amount expected for this time of year.

Severe drought (D2 classification) now covers more than half of the state after another dry week added to precipitation deficits over the past three to six months.

Severe drought is the second category of the four drought classifications based on the U.S. Drought Monitor. Last May, portions of six counties were briefly classified as severe. Prior to that time, severe drought occurred during the month of October 2019.

In past droughts, areas on the mainland that include several wildlife refuges have been prone to wildfires that have burned the nutrient-rich peat soils for months.

In the spring of 2016, the Whipping Creek Fire burned over 15,000 acres in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in mainland Dare and Hyde counties and the Dare Bombing Range.

While the summer of 2016 was wetter than normal, helping ease drought conditions somewhat, it took Hurricane Matthew in October to finally bust that drought with its record-setting rainfall and flooding.

Another serious drought year was in 2011, when the Pains Bay Fire burned over 45,000 acres of the refuge and bombing range while threatening to spread into the village of Stumpy Point.

That fire smoldered in the peat soils for months until rains from Hurricane Irene at the end of August finally put it out.

Both of those fires created smoke plumes visible from more than 100 miles away, and would blanket the Outer Banks with a thick, acrid haze for days when the winds blew the right direction.

While the Pains Bay fire started from a lightning strike, the Whipping Creek fire was blamed on a manmade source when sparks from a mower working along U.S. 264 started a grass fire on the road shoulder that quickly spread.

In Thursday’s drought report, the Triangle, Triad and Piedmont have been elevated to a moderate drought category (D1 classification), from last week’s Abnormally Dry designation (D0).

The area east of the mountains that had been in the normal category previously has been downgraded to Abnormally Dry status.

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Sam Walker was news director for, Beach 104, 99.1 The Sound, Big 94.5 WCMS and Z 92.3 from August 2011 to March 2022.