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Dry Enough for You?

Statewide conditions as of August 21: tan is "moderate drought"; yellow is "abnormally dry." Map courtesy of NOAA

It’s tempting to call the hot dry summer the Adirondacks is enduring a drought, but technically meteorologists term conditions here “abnormally dry.” What the center of the country is suffering—that’s a certifiable drought: a “severe,” “extreme” and “exceptional” drought.

Given crop failures and wildfires elsewhere, we probably shouldn’t complain, but the scarcity of rain has an impact on Adirondack gardens, trees, mushrooms and stream levels nonetheless. And if the forecast continues to be sunny and warm, conditions locally could become more marginal.

At the U.S. Drought Monitor Web site you can click on the map to drill down to the Northeast, then click on New York to see local conditions.

Hydrologist Greg Hanson, based in the National Weather Service’s Burlington, Vermont, office, also pointed me to the National Weather Service’s nifty Precipitation Analysis page. “You can display precipitation totals for different time frames, as well as normals and comparisons to normal,” he said in an e-mail.

If you enter, say, a timeframe of the last 60 days and “departure from normal,” you will see below-average rainfall throughout northern New York, especially around Old Forge and the Tug Hill Plateau, which is on the edge of “moderate drought.” However, the Champlain Valley has had nearly average rainfall. (For a really stark contrast, enter August 29, 2011, to see the record rainfalls brought by Tropical Cyclone Irene just a year ago.)

“If you look at the longer term, going back to last winter, you can see the impacts of our below-normal snowfall,” Hanson writes. The maps on this Web page also tell a story. Hanson cautions, “It is important to note that some of the drought indicator tools … show some dry tendencies near our area, but we aren’t as bad off as much of the rest of the country.”

River flows are another indicator. The U.S. Geological Survey displays color-coded dots to show how flow compares to historical water levels. “Right now the USGS is showing near-normal for Adirondack gages, but rivers flowing north out of the Adirondacks are below normal,” Hanson says.

“We seem to be getting just enough rain to keep pace with needs, but not enough to get ahead. I have not heard of water supply issues and if you have any reports I’d appreciate hearing about them,” he adds.

Warm temperatures and low water were stressing river trout in July, reports Chris Williamson, a member of Trout Unlimited who owns Jones Outfitters, in Lake Placid. But he says cooler evenings lately have provided respite. In midsummer he discouraged anglers from fishing streams late in the day or in the evening, when a fish may already have been weakened by high temperatures and low oxygen.

The fall run of Atlantic salmon from Lake Champlain up the Boquet, Ausable and Saranac Rivers typically begins in September. River flows seem to trigger the timing and intensity of spawning runs. Continued low water could mean a later run, or it could mean parts of the river become inaccessible, Williamson says.

I don’t keep good records of when leaves start to turn color, but I could swear the mountainsides began blushing ahead of schedule this year. Don Leopold, chairman of the department of Environmental and Forest Biology at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, says he hears this almost every year. He suspects I may be getting ahead of myself.

“Typically, this time of year the red maples especially that are drought-stressed start showing fall colors, which isn’t unusual. A mild to moderate drought generally promotes stronger fall colors, although temperatures, rains, and wind the next two months will determine how long the colors last,” he says.

But what about scattered individual sugar maples that are already in full orange-yellow? Leopold says those trees could be showing the stress of growing on a poor site, or other factors. “A lot of places are getting missed by the rainfall,” he says. “There are probably pockets that are much dryer than other pockets, based on what we are seeing in Central New York area.” This rings true; on many days when rain was forecast for Saranac Lake this summer the heavy clouds seemed to skirt either side of the village.

When leaves start to shrivel and drop, that’s when you know a drought is severe, Leopold explains. “I was down in Kentucky and Ohio in July when drought conditions were on the national news, and in those places leaves are shriveling up, and there will be no fall colors.

“Usually when something odd happens it stands out. That’s not the case yet [in this region]. It might be on individual trees but there aren’t wholesale changes happening yet. That could change. There’s no rain forecasted at least for [Central New York] for the next week. They’re predicting 80s and 90s, which is really, really bad. So no rain and hot temperatures are pretty much depleting any soil moisture that’s there.”

My chanterelle patches failed to produce this summer. Mushrooms are just not as abundant as they were last year. “It’s definitely been very much affected. What’s interesting is that it’s not entirely bad,” says mushroom expert Susan Hopkins, who lives in Saranac Lake.

“A lot of stuff is now waking up and coming to life,” she says. “It’s been quite good over the past week and a half. It’s not the quantity we’ve seen in the past two years but the variety is quite good.”

Species such as Amanita flavoconia, which she saw by the thousands last July, she saw this year in bunches of twos and threes. Hopkins is eager to see whether any of the summer mushrooms emerge in autumn. “That’ll be when it gets quite interesting, to see how this affects the fall season. From my experience a lot of mushrooms just kind of wait.”

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