Austin swung from deadly deluge to drought, then back to deadly deluge


2015 was the second-wettest year on record in Austin — but it also set heat records.

The weather brought flooding, rains and rapid temperature swings influenced by El Niño.

For a physical embodiment of Central Texas’ weather in 2015, look to Lake Travis.

The lake, which, along with Lake Buchanan, stores water for Central Texas communities, rises and falls in often-striking fashion, depending in large part on the whims of Mother Nature. When last year started, prolonged drought had shriveled the lake, dropping water levels 50 feet, exposing limestone banks and making the lake look like a mostly empty bathtub. Heavy rains, only a few months later, fell in the right places, causing the water to rise significantly over the span of a few days.

Lake Travis’ two weather-related growth spurts last year took it from a drought-starved, near-record low of 38 percent full to about 93 percent full as of Thursday, making it the healthiest it has been in years. In a particularly weird year in which Central Texas swung from deluge to drought and then back to deluge, the rains that restored the lakes also caused floods in late May and late October that devastated parts of Central Texas.

“I say the weather was bipolar,” Troy Kimmel, a senior lecturer on climate and weather at the University of Texas, told the American-Statesman. “It was one way or the other. And not just a little.”

Much of the severe weather last year was attributed to El Niño, a cyclical warming of the eastern Pacific near the equator that historically brings heavier rainfall and cooler weather to Central Texas. This El Niño — which formed in April and earned the Internet nickname Godzilla — is tied for the strongest on record, according to data the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration released this week.

El Niño helped make 2015 the second-wettest year on record in Central Texas. With 59.96 inches measured at Camp Mabry, according to the National Weather Service, 2015 fell just short of the 64.68 inches that fell in 1919.

But even the wetter-than-usual weather was strange in another way: The stronger El Niños, like the current one and the one that occurred in 1997-98, typically have brought only average rainfall to Texas, according to state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon and Bob Rose, a meteorologist with the Lower Colorado River Authority.

In their assessments, both also offered a note of caution that goes to the heart of weather forecasting and climatology: It is still a relatively young science that is trying to assess an incredibly complex system. With only a handful of El Niños approaching the intensity of this one, relatively little data exist that can help predict what exactly would happen.

“I’m fully convinced that Mother Nature likes to remind us that we don’t know everything,” Kimmel said. El Niños not only come in different intensities, but they are also influenced by weather patterns in other parts of the world. Although this El Niño began in April with the warming of the waters in the Pacific, some of its effects were delayed.

“It really didn’t begin affecting the atmosphere until much later in the year,” Kimmel said.

Texas as a whole had a strange year, as well. Final numbers aren’t out, but 2015 is likely to be the wettest year on record for the state. Tornadoes ripped through North Texas as late as December. Hurricane Patricia, which was at one point bearing down on the southwestern United States from the Pacific as the strongest hurricane ever, dissipated over Mexico, bringing only rain to the Lone Star State.

In late December, an estimated 20,000 head of cattle died in and near West Texas during a winter storm that enveloped much of the western U.S. Because of that storm, the annual Sun Bowl college football game in El Paso was played in a blizzard.

For Central Texas, 2015 began with record high temperatures in January. Then came a wet period that included the Memorial Day weekend floods. That gave way to a summer “micro-drought” that brought a high of 105 degrees and record highs for October, only to give way again to severe rain.

Some of the collection of fast-growing communities south of Austin in Hays County were twice hit by floods over holiday weekends. On Memorial Day weekend, 14 Central Texans died or were missing. Hays County suffered no fatalities from the Halloween weekend floods, but those floods also struck Austin’s Onion Creek area for the second time in three years, leaving three dead and intensifying Austin’s discussion about whether the city needs to take a fundamentally different approach to flood control.

Twice this year, Gov. Greg Abbott declared much of Texas a flood-related disaster area. And the Texas Water Development Board in December held a hearing on how to spend $6.8 million in emergency funding for flood-mitigation projects, such as river flood gauges and warning sirens.

The October weather was particularly tumultuous in Bastrop County, to the east of Austin.

A few months into the aforementioned micro-drought, a high pressure system sat over Central Texas and squeezed the humidity out of the air, leaving the region’s vegetation dry and vulnerable to flames. On Oct. 13, the Hidden Pines fire, which started on a ranch north of Smithville, burned nearly 4,600 acres and destroyed 64 homes before it was completely put out Oct. 24. A week later, floods hit, causing 250 people to evacuate.

The severe weather eventually relented toward the end of the year. But the old Austin saying, “if you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute,” still rang true. As KTBC-TV meteorologist Scott Fisher noted, in less than a week in late December, temperatures dropped from around 80 in the Austin area to below freezing.

El Niño is expected to last through spring. “Most forecasts indicate that our region will see a cooler-than-normal and wetter-than-normal pattern from January right on through May,” the LCRA’s Rose said in a recent video blog. Many forecasts also call for a stormier-than-normal spring.

But the pendulum of Central Texas weather could swing back to drought as early as summer. Forecasters are generally giving roughly even odds that this El Niño will be supplanted by its weather counterpart, La Niña, which brings cooler-than-typical sea surface temperatures in the Pacific.

“We’re seeing some indications that a La Niña may develop in the Pacific next fall,” Rose said, “and that may bring our region a drier-than-normal period.”

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