Drought conditions confirmed in Southeast Tennessee; some rain expected this week

Staff file photo by Robin Rudd / As Mackey Branch's flow is reduced by the dry Fall weather, fallen leaves pile up in the shallows. Normally the stream's playful tumblings are a highlight of Jack Benson Heritage Park in East Brainerd. Hamilton County and surrounding communities in Southeast Tennessee are officially in drought, according to the Tennessee Climate Office. The watercourse was photographed on Oct. 6, 2022.

Southeast Tennessee is in a moderate to severe drought. The latest U.S. Drought Monitor shows a large swath of severe drought conditions in northeast Hamilton, northern Bradley, the southern half of Meigs, nearly all of McMinn, half of Monroe and the south end of Loudon counties. The remainder of all those counties lie in an area of moderate drought that also includes the entirety of Polk, Marion and Rhea counties

(READ MORE: Dry weather persists in Chattanooga area)

The greatest change in conditions last week occurred in East Tennessee and West Tennessee, according to the Tennessee Climate Office's Oct. 20 report. Even with some rainfall in areas of West and East Tennessee, drought conditions continued to expand.

That was six days ago, and despite a smattering of rain here and there, conditions have only grown drier, according to assistant state climatologist William Tollefson.

Since the National Weather Service began keeping records in this area 143 years ago, the past 30 days in Chattanooga -- Sept. 24 to Oct. 24 -- ranked as Chattanooga's 15th driest for that period, Tollefson said Tuesday in a phone interview. The Tennessee Climate Office at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City provides information on weather conditions to the U.S. Drought Monitor in its weekly assessments.

"That's about 10% to 25% of normal," he said,"so we're down about 2.5 inches for this time of year."

Extending the look back 60 days, Aug. 24 to Oct. 24 was the 27th driest period for Chattanooga over those same dates over the past 143 years, Tollefson said. The benefits of a wetter-than-usual August still help, but not as much going into the driest months of the year, he said.

"We really haven't had that much rainfall from tropical systems, which is why we're seeing all this dryness," he said, noting the remnants of Hurricane Ian -- which made landfall in Florida as a Category 4 storm as the deadliest hurricane to hit the state since 1935 -- only brushed Tennessee's northeastern corner.

"Most of the state has missed out on that, which is why we're seeing this dryness really take off," he said.

A frontal system expected to pass through Chattanooga on Wednesday morning is predicted to generate rain but not much accumulation, according to the climate office. Accumulations in most areas were expected to be a half-inch or less, but a more significant system over the weekend is expected to bring a little more rain, even if it's not enough, according to the National Weather Service in Morristown, Tennessee.

"This is traditionally kind of our drier time of year but usually not this dry," weather service meteorologist Andrew Moulton said in a phone interview. "It is abnormal for it to be going on this long."

A narrow band of showers and storms wasn't expected to bring much rain Wednesday night, Moulton said.

"Definitely not a drought-buster or anything like that," he said.

Northwest Georgia, where abnormally dry or moderate drought conditions exist, could also benefit a little from some rain.

"Looking forward, the next best chance of getting more widespread rainfall will probably -- unfortunately for the trick-or-treaters -- it's looking like it might come over the weekend, but the timing's a little bit up in the air right now," Moulton said. "All the models show we'll get some rain late in the weekend into Monday. It depends on the exact track of it."

Rainfall will only be in the area for 24-36 hours, so it still won't bust the drought, but it could delay some drought effects, he said. Multiple days of rain probably won't come to Southeast Tennessee until later in the season.

Tollefson said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center recently issued its long-range forecast through January, and it shows dryness continuing.

"It looks like the drought areas in Tennessee will persist in that time period, so we're not expected a big shift in the pattern for more rain," he said.

Is it time to worry about a repeat of the drought of 2016?

"Not quite yet," he said. "Just for the past 30 days, we are kind of on track with 2016 and 2007, which were two of our bigger drought years for East Tennessee. So just this one month, it's pretty bad, but zooming out, kind of looking at late summer, we had decent rainfall so we're not in as bad shape overall now as we were in those dry years."

Tollefson noted two wildfires on the Tennessee Division of Forestry's wildfire map are in Campbell and Warren counties.

"Drought, of course, adds more fuel, but the bigger concern is the lower humidity and gusty winds," he said. "Those are the main contributor for fire spread."

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.