AVERY COUNTY — A year after the High Country was amidst its wettest year on record, a lack of rain has led to drought conditions in the High Country that could get worse in the coming weeks.
“It’s not going to take long to be more severe,” said Eric Luebenhusen, meteorologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of the Chief Economist. “I would expect that we’ll continue to see the coverage and intensity of the drought expand across the state.”
Temperatures higher than normal, an average of one to five degrees higher, according to Luebenhusen, have contributed to the dry conditions, and that, along with high pressure keeping out rainfall, is leading to a drop in local stream levels and more stress on vegetation levels.
“The overall trend is not good,” Luebenhusen said.
Luebenhusen said the best glimmer of hope for the region is localized heavy showers.
Luebehusen is the author of the U.S. Drought Monitor map, which is available through the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and is done in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Avery County was experiencing roughly average rainfall until early August, when rainfall began to flatline. At this point, the Banner Elk meter monitored by the National Weather Service has recorded 37.03 inches of rain this year, 11.5 inches higher than the 1981 low record and significantly lower than the 2013 high of 73.5.
At press time most of Avery County is in a moderate drought, according to the N.C. Drought Management Advisory Council.
The “D1 – Moderate Drought” level includes stress on crops, higher wildfire danger, increased signs of wildlife, reduced streamflow and start of voluntary water conservation.
A small southeastern corner of the county is only at the “D0 – Abnormally Dry” level.
The Fall Color effect
As the clear skies continue, people have been noticing a smattering of trees changing their color. The fall foliage makes the High Country a premier tourist destination during October, with restaurants and hoteliers expecting their best month of the year.
Howard Neufeld, a professor at Appalachian State University who is known as the “Fall Color Guy,” says that the fall foliage likely won’t suffer many adverse effects.
“The main effect right here... in the area is that the drought-sensitive trees are yellowing and dropping their leaves early,” Neufeld said. “Instead of having a nice yellow tinge, a lot of them are going to be partially and mostly leafless.”
However, trees that Neufeld said are drought-resistant, such as oaks, hickories and maples, will be OK for the foliage season due to a recent string of cold mornings.
“What makes this year different are the low temperatures that have been lower than last year,” Neufeld said. “Last year, we had the second-warmest low temperatures in the 40 years of record-keeping.”
The warmer days are being offset by the cool mornings and nights, which will help the fall color show in the region.
“I’m still hopeful that we’re going to have a decent fall color season,” Neufeld said.
Neufeld said that a short drought won’t have too much of a long-term effect on the trees, noting that many have extensive root systems that tap into water sources deep below the surface.
The peak leaf season in the High Country is currently expected to be Oct. 12 to 20, Neufeld said, but if cloud cover persists, which keeps humidity levels high, then peak leaf season could be delayed by three to five days.
“I encourage people to come out and see the colors,” Neufeld said.