March delivered plenty of dramatic weather in the form of damaging tornadoes tearing through the Austin metro area. But, despite everything the storms took from residents whose homes were damaged or destroyed, the clouds failed to produce enough rain to ease the intensifying drought in Texas.
That doesn’t bode well for Austin, which could see warmer and drier conditions persist in the coming weeks. Here are five things to know about March weather and what to expect in April:
1. Five tornadoes whipped Central Texas
As many as five tornadoes, including one with winds as strong as 135 mph, tore through the Austin area on March 21, leveling homes and damaging property in seven counties, according to the National Weather Service:
• Elgin tornado: Rated as an EF-2 with winds as strong as 130 mph, 12.1-mile path of damage through Travis and Bastrop counties.
• Kingsbury tornado: Rated as an EF-2 with winds as strong as 115 mph, 7.5-mile path of damage through Guadalupe and Caldwell counties.
• Round Rock-Granger tornado: Rated as an EF-2 with winds as strong as 135 mph, 29.3-mile path of damage through Travis and Williamson counties.
• Jarrell tornado: Rated as an EF-1 with winds as strong as 100 mph, 9.3-mile path of damage through Williamson and Bell counties.
• Giddings tornado: Rated as an EF-1 with winds as strong as 95 mph, 2.5-mile path of damage through Lee County.
2. Austin storms fell short of drought-busting rain
The only thing more elusive in March than an open parking space in downtown Austin was rainfall. In March, a month that normally produces 2.88 inches of rain and generated 4 inches in 2020, Austin recorded only 0.99 inch last month at Camp Mabry, the site of Austin’s main weather station.
Rain was recorded on only six of the month’s 31 days, with about 60% of the total falling on one day, March 21.
According to U.S. Drought Monitor data released Thursday, about 95.1% of the state is experiencing some level of drought. A year ago, that figure was 89.3%. In Central Texas, only a sliver of rural land from the Travis-Bastrop county line northeast to Milam County remains drought-free.
A swath of the Hill Country west of Austin continues to be in extreme drought, the second-highest level on the U.S. Drought Monitor’s scale. The affected area includes most of Burnet and Blanco counties and the eastern portions of Llano and Gillespie counties. Extreme drought can be typified by cracked soil, an increased risk of wildfires and low reservoir levels.
3. La Niña in effect in Central Texas, and she’s not leaving anytime soon
Spring’s arrival in Central Texas can be recognized by the stronger presence of warmer tropical air moving in from the south. But that change is even more noticeable during a La Niña event.
La Niña, the cooling of the tropical waters in the eastern Pacific Ocean, has had a strong influence on Central Texas weather conditions in the past several months. It typically produces warmer and drier conditions in Central Texas.
The March 10 outlook from the weather service’s Climate Prediction Center said that “La Niña is favored to continue into the Northern Hemisphere summer (53% chance during June-August 2022),” with a 40% to 50% chance that neutral conditions, when neither a La Niña or its El Niño counterpart occur, will happen after that.
La Niña may have kept March more arid than normal, but the average temperature at Camp Mabry ended up at 62.3 degrees, which is only about a half-degree less than normal, National Weather Service data show.
This year, March temperatures in Austin sank below freezing only once, on the 12th. On the flip side, temperatures peaked at 91 degrees on March 26.
Austin temperatures, on average, don’t hit 90 degrees or more until April 14, according to weather service records going back to the late 1890s. But since 2000, as the effects of climate change have become more apparent, that date has shifted to March 30.
4. Austin’s April weather outlook includes drier, warmer days
A drought outlook released March 17 by the National Weather Service and its partner agencies calls for an elevated fire risk from high winds and dry soil to persist through the season.
“Spring is usually the wettest season for the Southern Plains (including Texas), and spring rainfall is essential for agriculture in the region,” the outlook report said. “Lower-than-normal precipitation is more likely than not for the entire region for the critical April through June time period.”
For Texas in particular, “over half of the winter wheat crop is presently rated as in very poor condition by the USDA,” and “ranchers in many areas are challenged by poor forage and low water supplies in stock tanks,” the report said.
“Spring planting season is threatened by continued dry weather,” it concluded, adding that “dry conditions are contributing to the likelihood of above-normal temperatures in the seasonal outlook for Texas, reflecting a feedback cycle that worsens drought impacts.”
5. Rain possible next week in Austin
Austin’s weather in April looks a lot like what we saw in March, according to the weather service’s extended forecast.
“Elevated to near critical fire weather conditions expected on Saturday and Sunday,” forecasters warned Friday. “Low humidities and breezy winds are expected on most days. In addition, fuels remain dry to extremely dry.”
Saturday in Austin should be sunny with a high near 87. North-northwest winds of 5 to 10 mph in the afternoon could have gusts as strong as 20 mph.
Expect Sunday to live up to its name as temperatures climb to 87 degrees under sunny skies. Moisture-rich air will be brought in by south-southeast winds of 5 to 10 mph in the afternoon.
Austin on Monday has an 80% chance of rain with temperatures staying below 80 degrees. Rain chances persist into Monday evening, when the increased humidity will help keep overnight temperatures above a balmy 64 degrees.
“There may be a brief shot of rain relief Monday into early Tuesday, but near-critical to critical fire weather conditions are forecast to return by Wednesday,” forecasters said.