Water Resources of North Dakota

Climatic and Hydrologic Aspects of the 1988-92 Drought in North Dakota

By Tara Williams-Sether

Abstract: 39th Annual Midwest Ground-Water Conference, Bismarck, North Dakota, October 16-18 1994



The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the North Dakota State Water Commission, is conducting a study to describe the severity of the 1988-92 drought in North Dakota and to compare this drought to previous droughts. The purpose of this presentation is to describe the results of that study. The 1988-92 drought was one of the worst droughts to have occurred in North Dakota during the last 100 years. Annual precipitation and annual average summer (June-August) temperature values for the nine climatic divisions in North Dakota were ranked for the 98-year period from 1895 through 1992. A rank of one indicates the driest year or the warmest summer of the 98-year period, and a rank of 98 indicates the wettest year or the coolest summer. The rank of annual precipitation for all nine climatic divisions during 1988-92 ranged from 2 in 1988 in the central climatic division to 96 in 1991 in the northeast climatic division. The rank of annual average summer temperature ranged from 1 in 1988 in the northwest, north-central, northeast, west-central, and central climatic divisions to 97 in 1992 in the east-central, southwest, south-central, and southeast climatic divisions. Many North Dakota streams had record low flows, and ground-water levels also were affected. The Palmer Drought Severity Index, drought recurrence intervals, and Devils Lake water levels were used to compare the 1988-92 drought to previous droughts. The number of months during the 1930's to early 1940's drought that were classified as extreme (Palmer Drought Severity Index values less than or equal to -4.0) for all nine climatic divisions ranged from 33 to 59, the number of months during the 1950's to early 1960's drought ranged from 1 to 32, the number of months during the mid- to late 1970's and early 1980's drought ranged from 7 to 18, and the number of months during the 1988-92 drought ranged from 14 to 48. Recurrence intervals for the 1930's to early 1940's drought ranged from 25 to 74 years, recurrence intervals for the 1950's to early 1960's drought ranged from 26 to 50 years, recurrence intervals for the mid- to late 1970's and early 1980's drought ranged from 5 to 58 years, and recurrence intervals for the 1988-92 drought ranged from 19 to 54 years for selected streamflow-gaging stations. Precipitation records, streamflow records, the Palmer Drought Severity Index, and Devils Lake water levels indicate that the most severe droughts to have occurred in North Dakota for which records are available occurred during the 1930's to early 1940's, the 1950's to early 1960's, and 1988-92. The duration of the 1988-92 drought in North Dakota may not be as long as that of the 1930's to early 1940's drought or that of the 1950's to early 1960's drought, but the intensity of the 1988-92 drought matched or surpassed the intensity of those two droughts. Greater-than-normal precipitation in North Dakota during 1993 produced severe flooding across the State except in the extreme northwest, north-central, and southwest parts of the State. Although the greater-than-normal precipitation did alleviate drought conditions, less-than-normal precipitation for an extended period of time could cause another drought cycle in much of North Dakota.

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