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Large enrollments may hurt low-income students

by Davin White

STAFF WRITER

CLARKSBURG -- Recently removed from a nationally designated drought status, West Virginia should be looking toward a relatively average summer, weather-wise, experts say. However, last summer's flooding and 1999's severe drought serve as a reminder that weather can be unpredictable.

While West Virginians aren't used to the year-round droughts common in Southwestern states like New Mexico and Arizona, we've have had our share of dry spells in the past few years.

For some, it's hard to forget the drought during the summer of 1999, when the United States Drought Monitor listed the state in either "extreme" or "severe drought" status from June through September.

"For us, it was real bad," said Roger Nestor, a Barbour County cattle farmer whose pastures were in severe water shortage in 1999.

Rather than having to underfeed his cattle from a depleted amount of hay, Nestor sold his head of 104 in August, three months earlier than expected.

While Nestor said he's not worried about a drought affecting the growing season this summer, he was worried in February and March.

"In February, there was less than an inch of rain here," Nestor said.

That month was West Virginia's worst drought period so far this year, according to the Drought Monitor, released by a collaboration of national weather bureaus.

Since rains in late March, April and earlier this month have helped reinforce good moisture levels, Nestor is pretty confident his growing season will be safe.

Richard Tinker, a drought specialist at the Climate Prediction Center, agrees.

"I would say West Virginia doesn't have any immediate drought concerns," Tinker said. "Since March, you've gotten a good bit of rain."

Tom Mazza of the National Weather Service office in Charleston said the state has seen about four inches more precipitation so far than at this point last year

However, Nestor and one expert believe that if the weather turns unexpectedly dry at a rapid pace this summer, drought could strike.

"If the temperature is consistently hotter, there will be increased evaporation," Nestor said.

"Whenever you get heat ... things can deteriorate quite rapidly," said Mark Svoboda, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb.

Even, periodic distribution of rain over the summer is the best way to combat this, Nestor said.

"If you get timely, spaced-out rains ... you're OK," Svoboda added.

Tinker said the state's deep soil moisture levels are currently sitting at a good rate, but time is a major factor if drought were to occur.

"If anything crops up, it's going to take awhile to develop," Tinker said. "You're not going to get a flash drought."

Still, Svoboda and Nestor's worries don't go unwarranted, as the severe drought of 1999 shows.

Tinker said when the state and surrounding areas needed rains (at about this time of year) for the growing season in 1999, they didn't come.

"Timing was as much a problem in '99 as was the actual severity of the situation," Tinker said.

That year's drought was in the middle of a now 5-year nationwide trend of increasing drought activity that has "reared its ugly head," Tinker said.

The trend has farmers and avid gardeners, like Suzie Hart, trying to find ways to deal with the hindrance.

"The best thing to do is invest in plants that don't require a lot of water," said Hart, who lives near Bridgeport. "Sometimes the only thing green you have in a drought are weeds."

Regardless of the extremes this summer's weather may reach, the National Weather Service office in Charleston says we should only have slightly above-normal temperatures and an equal chance of either above-average, normal or below-average precipitation.

Mazza said precipitation can be hard to predict, such as last summer's flooding, which hit "full bore." That type of "extreme event" can't be predicted "a few months out," Mazza said.

If last summer's weather wasn't unpredictable enough, take what happened to Nestor and Hart recently.

Cold temperatures early last week, causing frost, hurt Nestor's grass he uses to make hay, and now he said he'll have to harvest some earlier than expected. Hart said plants refuse to grow in conditions without one of five elements, including light, temperature, fertilizer, heat and soil.

"One man said his potatoes were ruined," Hart said. "When you don't have one of the five elements, you're in trouble."

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