A buoy lies stranded on a stretch of exposed sand next to Lake Hartwell, which is almost 8 feet below full pond because of the 2016 drought in the Upstate.

A buoy lies stranded on a stretch of exposed beach next to Hartwell Lake, which is almost eight feet below full pool because of the 2016 drought in the Upstate.
Image Credit: Jim Melvin / Clemson University

CLEMSON — For about 120 years, a long line of Clemson University faculty members has been laboriously recording local rainfall totals on a daily basis.

Agriculture meteorologist Dale Linvill, who assumed this duty in 1984, has announced some astounding news. From January through October 2016, only 25.93 inches of rain fell on LaMaster Dairy Center, where the Clemson gauges that provide rainfall amounts to the National Weather Service are located. Dating back to mid-1896, this represents the lowest January-October stretch of rainfall that has ever been recorded for this area.

“This is really, really low — the lowest on record in all those years,” said Linvill, a Clemson University emeritus professor who retired in 2004. “In this calendar year, we’re down 18 inches from our typical yearly average of about 53 inches, which is lower than we’ve ever been before. Assuming we get no more rain through the end of October, this 10-month stretch will set the benchmark.”

Here’s how 2016 ranks with other years, when comparing January-October only:

  • 2016 – 25.93 inches
  • 1981 – 26.66 inches
  • 1925 – 27.44 inches
  • 2007 – 27.86 inches
  • 1941 – 28.39 inches

The driest full calendar year was 1925, when the area had 34.31 inches of rain, down almost 19 inches from average. With the outlook for wintertime rains resuming in mid-November, 2016 will come close to breaking the 1925. Regardless, it will go down as one of the driest years on record. As a point of reference, the wettest year was 2013 at 80.86 inches, up more than 27 inches from average.

“That shows you how climate can change in a hurry,” Linvill said. “Now we need to ask the questions, ‘Are we going to get out of this? Or are we looking at the potential for a multi-year drought?’ The climate models are predicting higher-than-normal temperatures this winter. And although precipitation is harder to predict, models are indicating slightly lower-than-average rainfall. Let’s hope this outlook is wrong.”

Extremely dry conditions plagued Upstate South Carolina starting in late May of this year and then crept down into the middle of the state in early July. In the Upstate, hundreds of acres of dryland corn that looked fabulous just a month or so before harvest ended up suffering serious damage. The Upstate also received virtually no rain from Hurricane Matthew, which inundated portions of the state on and near the coast with up to 15 inches of rain. To put that in perspective, the most severely hit areas received only 11 inches less rain in about a 24-hour period than Clemson has received in the past 7,000-plus hours.

In the Upstate, hundreds of acres of dryland corn that looked fabulous just a month or so before harvest ended up suffering serious damage.

In the Upstate, hundreds of acres of dryland corn that looked fabulous just a month or so before harvest ended up suffering serious damage this past summer.
Image Credit: Garland Veasey / Clemson University

“From an agriculture standpoint, the biggest problem we had here in the Upstate is that we grow crops on the top two and a half feet of soil. And when water fills the soil, about three inches of water are available for plants to use,” Linvill said. “So when half or more of that water disappears because of drought, unirrigated plants start to show signs of stress. We had a spell from June through August where there were 71 straight days when the soil moisture was less than 50 percent. Then we had a big rain that temporarily took it back up. But this was followed by another 56-day stretch of less than 50 percent. We even had 27 days this summer when the soil moisture was less than 30 percent, which can devastate crops.”

Area farmers are hoping that normal rainfall will return soon. If so, the damage caused by 2016’s ultra-dry conditions in the Upstate could be remedied in time for this spring’s crops to get off to a good start. Also, rain is needed to restore area lake levels. Hartwell Lake, for instance, is almost eight feet below its full pool of 660 feet.

“Groundwater levels are still good, so if rain does come, the outlook for the Upstate will be a lot brighter than it is now,” Linvill concluded. “Winter months are typically rainy, because a series of cold fronts from the north set off showers down here. And man, do we need that rain. We’ve suffered through the driest 10-month stretch on record, and it’s time for Mother Nature to put a stop to it.”

END